Lessons from the Cherry Blossom Festival

It’s hard to believe — at least for me — but it’s been 10 years since I participated in the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Hawaii.

Ten years.

It seems like only yesterday I was learning ikebana, hitting a taiko drum for the first time, and standing in front of hundreds of onlookers at Ala Moana Center Stage answering an impromptu question I can’t even recall.

Since then, I’ve volunteered to help with the festival — and let me tell you, it’s a lot less stressful — and way more fulfilling — to be on this end.

On Saturday the festival crowned its new queen and court. But as this year’s contestant coordinator, the coronation part of the event wasn’t something I had been looking forward to. I spent about seven months with the 15 queen contestants, coordinating their schedules, setting up cultural classes, giving them pep talks, wiping stains off their appearances dresses, and dishing unsolicited advice about everything from restaurant recommendations to boyfriend deal-breakers.

It was truly a pleasure to watch these 15 young women — all between 21 and 26, career-focused, compassionate, intelligent, passionate, spirited and damn good taiko players — evolve over the course of the festival. The ones who didn’t know much about their Japanese heritage embraced their culture. Those who were terrified of public speaking were telling jokes on stage.

I don’t know if the contestants knew this, but in a lot of ways, the experience impacted me, too. I learned how to be more organized, to be patient, to be empathetic, to listen. And I learned that sometimes we have to be in uncomfortable, awkward situations — like standing on a stage at a nightclub, belting out the national anthem — to free ourselves from what people expect us to be and just be who we really are.

And that’s the greatest lesson of all.

Here are some scenes of the contestant experience leading up to Festival Ball, where a new queen and court are named — and 15 Japanese-American women walked away with something more important than the crown:


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For the first part of the festival, the contestants take more than a dozen cultural classes, including ikebana with Roy Otaguro of MOA Hawaii, shown here adjusting the flower arrangement of contestant Elizabeth Lee-Tamanaha.