Japantown Cherry Blossom Festival (San Francisco)

On Sunday, April 23rd 2006, I was heading to the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco for yet another of many movies I've seen at the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival. While attempting to park (which was harder than usual), I noticed some nearby streets were closed. I wondered what was going on. And after the movie, I had lots of free time and decided to find out.

Finding out what was going on wasn't hard: when I left the theater I found the streets packed with people. I walked up the street and discovered japantown and a parade! I'd only driven by before (in the distant past) and had forgotten japantown was here. And it turned out to be the last day -the culmination if you will- of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

I stood watching the parade for a while. It had some neat novelties such as a group that played taiko, moved their drums 100 feet, played more, and so on. (I like taiko.) Perhaps the more striking sight was that of dozens of men carrying a shrine -yes, a small building- down the street. It was a large shrine, probably over ten feet tall, and a few men in monk garb hung off the top of the tower. Apparently this type of portable shrine is called a mikoshi and it is intended to be carried down the street by on the order of a hundred people. Superstition, according to the brochure about the festival that I procured, dictates that the more the shrine weaves from side to side, the more blessings will be bestowed on the people.

It was nearly three pm and, having not yet eaten lunch, I was hungry. Hence, during slow times in the parade, I wandered through the packed japantown mall, hunting for tempting looking and sounding food in a place that would serve me promptly and with a menu in English. Sadly, every place I found in the japantown mall failed on one of these criteria. Very many people were still eating. I would've been happy to eat at some food booth from the festival, but I didn't see any through the crowds, nor did my brochure tell where me they were.

After watching a bit more of the parade, I wandered up the street, passed the end of the parade, and found some less crowded establishments that opened to the street (not part of the mall).

I choose according to what I was in the mood for: New Korea Restaurant. There were a lot of Korean restaurants in japantown, so choosing Korean didn't seen too risky or odd. I had my standard test of a Korean restaurant: bim bim bap, which in this case had good quality meat. Sadly the dish was only okay because there was too much meat and other juices at the bottom of the bowl -- everything ended up soggy! As for the sides, I'm impressed they gave me (a solo diner) the full assortment of kim chi and was happy they did; the kim chi was quite good. I really like the kim chi that I think is made from fish cakes (at virtually every Korean place that serves it) and would love to make it for myself, but it's virtually impossible to find good pictures and descriptions -let alone recipes- for the hundreds of different kinds of kim chi that exist.

Re-energized, I emerged to explore more of the festival and japantown as a whole.

The best exhibit at the festival was the bonsai display. This exhibit truly made me regret not having my camera. (This was serious regret! It wasn't simply, oh, I wish I had my camera.) The bonsai were like tiny manifestations of nature. Each was amazingly evocative of some pure aspect of the beauty of nature, whether a single tree that captured the feeling of a whole forest, or growths that suggested glades, millennium old trees, windswept shores, barren mountaintops, autumn, etc. I found one that clearly said to me "sunny lazy spring day spent fishing by a pond." Another reminded me perfectly of the violence and need for urgent movement that occurred in the orc chase scene in the lord of the rings movie. A third, of two intertwined junipers of two different colors, spoke about race and the need for others that are different than oneself.

It's stunning these bonsai growths take generations of care and tuning to achieve the majesty they do. Most were labeled as being transferred to their containers between twenty and seventy years ago! Such patience the care-givers must have.

Incidentally, suiseki is an analogous term for bonsai that applies to stones that suggest aspect of nature, like mountains and lakes.

I discovered there is a bonsai garden nearby in Oakland that I would like to visit.

The festival also had a number of other exhibits, only some of which were on display this day. I saw:
* Japanese swords and helmets.
* Origami. Lots of dragons. And even a few starships.
* Paper dolls. Paper can look amazingly like fabric. Some, like one of a jumping samurai, do an impressive job of capturing the feeling of motion. Another was a cute old man. All demonstrated that paper, in contrast to origami, can be used to make constructions that flow, that omit all the regularity of edges and folds one expects of paper.

After all the exhibits, I wandered down the japantown mall, briefly contemplated the japantown tower, watched some of the anime costume competition, and then tried to see the art booths, but gave up because they were so crowded walking in that area was frustratingly slow and difficult.

I then spotted some other booth; these turned out to be the food booths. They were closing up -it was almost five pm- and I was full so I didn't have anything, but it looked like they had a nice selection of Japanese street food I've never seen before, including yakisoba (a Japanese-inspired version of chow mein), imagawa yaki (pancake with sweet bean filling paste inside), and takoyaki (octopus doughnut holes). They also had less exotic Japanese-type food, like teriyaki burgers, lumpia (Filipino fried egg rolls), soba noodles, Japanese beer, and sake. It's too bad I missed eating there, but even if I knew where those booths were I wouldn't have been able to cross the parade to get to them when I was hungry.

To end the day and kill some time before seeing yet another festival movie in the Kabuki, I explored more of the japantown mall. I spent a lot of time watching the performance food preparation occurring in Benihana. Each three-sided table surrounded a large flat grilling/frying area. A chef prepares the food for the table in front of the diners. With amazing dexterity and speed, he de-shells shrimp, chops fish while it's cooking, chops, tosses, and distributes steak and mushrooms, and cooks onions and makes onion volcanoes. (Directions: chop them, remove some of the insides, and make a little tower of each half. When one pours a little oil in the top, it starts steaming and sputtering.) Some chefs even toss their knife in the air and catch it. It's all part of the show, and brought me and a large crowd staring in from outside the window.

After seeing a few performances, I wandered away and found another performance cooking place: Sophie's Crepes. There one can watch crepes being cooked, filled, folded, wrapped, and served. Also quite neat.

These cooking demonstrations were a nice way to end a food-heavy weekend. After all, the previous day I'd taken a French cooking class, and the day before I'd seen an excellent movie called Eden (also at the film festival) about a love triangle that involves a chef, and showing how food can open up the heart.


Anonymous said...

I notice that this is no longer "This is an experiment." When did that happen. And what were the results, assuming that the experiment is over?

mark said...

This change happened recently (i.e., the week of this post). In short, I decided I wasn't really experimenting anymore (i.e., trying new things) and was using the blog rather for a particular purposes: posting articles I consider interesting that I'd like to remember, and documenting activities I do (generally alone) that I'd like to share. Thus the new and more appropriate name.

I suppose by my continued use of this technology, the experiment ought to be considered a success. Few people read this blog, but I realized I don't really mind.