San Francisco just hosted their annual Cherry Blossom Festival, which occurs over two weekends in April. Cherry blossom festivals are the Japanese tradition of celebrating the blooming flowers (particularly cherry trees (sakura)) that spring brings. There’s a parade that travels a little over a mile from San Francisco City Hall to Japantown . We saw beauty queens gracefully waving to the spectators from a float and Boy Scouts carrying a large Daruma, which is a round bearded doll modeled after the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism (also a symbol of good luck and perseverence) . One of our favorite floats came from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce with what I can only hope were its employees dressed in Japanese cosplay . The parade route ended in Japantown’s center with an array of local artists, vendors, and food booths.
To satiate our appetites, we enjoyed a variation of takoyaki  – typically a savory battered snack filled with minced octopus (tako), pickled ginger, and green onions, and covered in dried fish shavings with mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce. This more economical version was made of ground beef, but no less tasty. Our mouths also watered for the stacks of sukiyaki rice bowls . For our sukiyaki recipe, click here.
Because the festival is in the middle of Japantown, we also ate at a nearby restaurant that specializes in udon, a mildly flavored hot soup with thick wheat flour noodles. However, as it was a warm day, we tried their special cold soba , thin buckwheat flour noodles that are served chilled to be dipped in a sauce or hot broth.
A day at any festival needs to be rounded out with something sweet. Many Japanese-American festivals or carnivals will have dense fried dough rolled in sugar (dango), but another sweet treat is a pancake-like batter filled with sweet azuki bean paste called imagawayaki, popularized in Tokyo during the late 1700s .
We clearly didn’t get enough of a sugar fix, and had to round out our trip to Japantown with green tea frozen yogurt and mochi balls . Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made of pounded glutinous rice. The ones you find at frozen yogurt shops are sweetened and are extra pillowy so it remains soft even over the creamy, icy confections. Our waistlines were lucky we only made it out for one weekend of the festival.
If you’re fortunate enough to attend your own town’s Japanese spring and summer festivals, take advantage of all the food stalls lined up waiting to serve you the most comforting and tastiest of Japanese and Japanese American fare. If you missed the cherry blossom season, keep an ear for the summer Obon festivals in July and August that we will be sure to cover and eat our way through next!