Early April is the time of year when we usually look forward to going to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC. Unfortunately, this year we were not able to go. About three weeks ago, when I was bemoaning to a friend that scheduling conflicts were going to prevent us from going to DC, she mentioned that nearby Virginia Beach, VA also has a Cherry Blossom Festival, why not check it out ? There won’t be the fabulous blooms along the Tidal Basin, the National Mall or Parkway Drive said she, but it might still be interesting and fun. I took her advice and after some research found to my surprise that 2013 marked the Virginia Beach 9th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Who knew ? Anyway, that Saturday dawned bright and sunny, most welcome after all the spring rain we’ve had this year, a little breezy but expected to be near 60 degrees, a very pleasant day. So after lunch we decided to go for it, jumped in the car, zipped over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, waves sparkling in the afternoon sun, making a bee line for Redwing Park , about an hour’s drive from our house, planning to get there in time for most of the program, including the Taiko ensemble’s performance. (Another little plug for life on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is how close we are to the Hampton Roads area which is the 32nd largest metro area in the US. It’s like having your cake and eating it too– enjoy a low-key, relaxed rural feel here on the Shore but be able to access virtually every known metropolitan amenity in less than an hour in Virginia Beach, Norfolk, etc. Love it, love it, love it ! )
I was especially looking forward to the Japanese drums, called Taiko, which are really amazing, nothing like what we are used to as drums in a regular band. A Taiko drumming performance is something really special. Construction of these drums dates back to feudal times, many are very large, made from beautifully grained wood, highly polished, often about the size of barrels, most actually sit horizontally and can be played simultaneously by two drummers, one on each end. The rhythms are hypnotic, with point and counterpoint, played in long mesmerizing “songs” Historically, these drums were often used on the battlefield because their loud “voices” could communicate over long distances. Taiko were also frequently used in religious ceremonies in Buddhist and Shinto temples which had really fabulous drums, usually fashioned from trees with huge diameters, resulting in amazing drums with faces 10 to 12 feet across. Drums like this could not be easily moved and were played only by men who received special permission from the monks. The first time I ever saw a Taiko performance was about a hundred years ago, in the Japanese Pavillion at EPCOT. I was just transfixed by the ”song” of the drums and their mesmerizing beat– in fact, I went around for days with the beat from one particular ”song” replaying over and over in my head. Taiko drumming is quite demanding, not only because of the physical strength needed to control the depth of sound and the tempo changes, but also for the sheer physical endurance required. Certainly I wasn’t expecting professional quality taiko from the Virginia Beach group, called Soka Tiako, but they sounded great and looked quite colorful in their costumes, garnering lots of applause when their number was completed.
Lots of other terrific performances of traditional Japanese music and dance in addition to the Taiko were offered all afternoon. Among the most interesting was a group from Old Dominion University who played the koto, a zither type instrument about six feet long, with 13 strings, which creates the high pitched sound I most associate with Japanese music. The koto looks incredibly difficult to master and in speaking to one of the performers just before the show, I was assured that it is indeed difficult to master, even more so outdoors which involves a knack for playing while breezes ruffle one’s music sheets. The performers all wore traditional garb, kimono with obi, gorgeous and colorful. In fact, quite a few folks in the audience, both men and women, wore traditional garb which gave the whole event a very authentic feel. One of my other favorite performances was by the Virginia Beach Okinawa Sanshin-Kai band which played traditional three string lutes and featured a very sweet, almost ballet-like dance by a mother and her young daughter, both wearing beautiful kimono and elaborate “flower” hats symbolizing the first blooms of Spring.
For martial arts fans, various groups from around the city offered martial arts demonstrations throughout the afternoon including karate, judo and some a very proficient kobudo with impressive moves with the traditional swords. I personally am not into any of that but a lot of applause went their way from folks who are. Shopping is more my style and I enjoyed seeing some of the little gift items for sale in the tent area. The most popular item seemed to be a selection of colorful parasols, attracting gals and girls alike. In addition, the origami and calligraphy demonstrations were fun, lots of folks crowding around to get their names written in Japanese by some volunteers who were amused as they tried to write names like Henrietta and Martha in characters. A local rescue group for Akita’s was on hand with two of their charges, a handsome grey and a placid sand colored dog–I had just recently seen the Richard Gere film “ Akita” ( based on a true story) and we all agreed that it was a real tear jerker of a movie. Who can even imagine a depth of loyalty that would compel a dog to wait outside a train station each night for 9 years, waiting for his owner who was long dead ? Wow !
Apparently part of the impetus for the planting of the lovely cherry trees at Redwing Park, as well as for the creation of the Festival itself, was that about 14 years ago Virginia Beach established a “Sister City” relationship with the city of Miyazaki , Japan. This special relationship resulted in many cross-cultural exchanges and eventually in the city’s construction of Miyazaki Garden, a lovely traditional Japanese strolling garden, as well as the planting of hundreds of ornamental Japanese cherry trees in the Park. The trees were only in about 25% bloom that Saturday due to the cooler than normal Spring this year, but that was enough to see how gorgeous they were going to be this year. Miyazaki Garden was beautiful though, an early blooming tree leaning over a reflecting pond was the site of much photo taking, prompting me to take pics of people taking pics. All in all, as my friend forecast, it wasn’t the National Mall and it wasn’t the Tidal Basin, but the Virginia Beach, VA 2013 Cherry Blossom Festival was definitely quite nice and we’re glad we went.
( Posted by Marlene Cree, licensed Virginia agent with Blue Heron Realty Co., 7134 Wilsonia Neck Dr., Machipongo, VA. )