Thursday, April 27, 2017

2017 Spring Matsuris: Details & Tips for Japan Festival Boston & Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

Update 5/11/17: Due to the weather forecast for Saturday, the Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival organizers decided to move the matsuri indoors to the rain location at the Schluntz Gym.

Boston's two largest Japanese festivals are coming up! In the past five years attendance at both festivals has grown around six-fold. The Japan Festival Boston started off in Copley Square with 10,000 festivalgoers in 2012. Last year 60,000 people attended the festival on the Boston Common. Attendance at the Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival has grown from around 250 people in 2012 to over 1,500 last year.

Japan Festival Boston

Japan Festival Boston is New England's largest matsuri. This year there will be 76 regular booths, 37 food booths, 50 performances on 2 stages, 50 workshops, and a Cosplay Deathmatch. Check their Facebook page for updates.

As usual there will be lots of arts organizations and businesses, many of whom have participated in past years including Tewassa, GrayMist Studio & Shop, SAORI Worcester, Kaji Aso Studio, Chikako Mukai of Chikako Designs, Julie Kohaya of Heavenly Cranes Jewelry, and amezaiku artist Candy Miyuki (listed as Candy5). There will be at least a couple of businesses selling kimono and yukata – Nomura Kimono Shop from Japan and Ohio Kimono will both be back for their second year at the festival. An interesting new vendor is NPO Reborn Kyoto which "works to nurture the independence of the women and young in developing countries through instruction of cloth fabrication and textile technology using donated Kimono from all over the Japan." See video from Kigali Today, although most of it is in Kinyarwanda, the interview with executive officer Yasuko Yamahira is in English. Another interesting new booth is a peace group called PeaceProject869. "We make opportunities to consider “What is Peace for you?” by [f]olding origami cranes for people whom we meet all over the world through our studying abroad."

The food offerings are growing more diverse and branching out from the Japanese community to include poke restaurants, fusion rice burgers, spam musubi, and more chain restaurants. This year's food vendors include a mix of independent local businesses and chains with Boston locations that are based in Japan and other places, as well as a few others.

Independent local: YumeWoKatare with 6 booths that will include dishes not usually served at the restaurant, Snappy Ramen, Oga's (listed as Kushiya), Ganko Ittetsu, Rice Burg, Yoki Express, Hana Japan, Cafe Mami, Ittoku (listed as Izakaya Ittoku), Sakanaya, Itadaki, Neponset Cafe, Big Rock Oyster, and I am guessing that Hiromoto’s Ultra Okonomiyaki & Hiromoto’s ultra candy shop will be run by Kevin Hiromoto, owner of Boston's only Japanese grocery store, Ebisuya

Chains with Boston locations: Santouka, Beard Papa's, Ogawa Coffee, Go Go Curry, Pabu (listed as Pabu Izakaya), Love Art Sushi, and Lady M.

Daiei Trading, one of the largest Japanese food importers in the US, will also have two booths.

Although the organizers have increased the number of food booths – up from 22 last year – I'm not sure that will result in shorter lines since turnout is likely to be much higher than last year. In past years, the lines have been insanely long so you should take snacks, especially if you're going with children or others who can't wait to eat. There are fast food places near the Boston Common but most are on the other side of the Common away from the festival. The festival has reduced the Fast Pass to $30 (it was $50 when they introduced it last year). This allows you to bypass the main line at a booth, although for popular booths there may still be a line for Fast Pass cardholders. It's well worth it if you're going with a family or group, but not very economical for individuals. Make sure to read carefully - there are restrictions.

See photos & video from 2016 Japan Festival Boston.
See photos from 2015 Japan Festival Boston.
See photos from 2014 Japan Festival in Boston. 

Date & Time
Sunday, April 30, 2017
11am - 6pm

Boston Common at the Beacon & Charles Street corner (near Frog Pond).
See festival map.

How you can help
The festival is not cheap to produce and JREX is crowdfunding with Indiegogo (in past years they have used GoFundMe).

There is also a 21+ benefit concert with pop musician Shinji Harada on May 1st. Tickets are $10 for students, $20 for general admission and $60 for VIP. 

Photography Note
I don't remember if this was on their website last year but I noticed this disclaimer at the bottom of the booth list. The festival is highly photographed by media, the festival organizers, and professional and amateur photographers and last year they used a drone to get footage so it's most likely impossible to avoid being photographed.
**Visitors, stage performers, and others at this festival will take videos, photos, and other media which may be posted online, in print, and in other mediums. It is possible that exhibitors’ booths may be captured in the aforementioned photos, videos, etc. Please be advised that by agreeing to participate in this festival, you are also consenting to being photographed and/or videotaped.**

Japan Festival Boston Tips

The Japan Festival Boston can be a challenging event for people with disabilities. The crowds are enormous, it's not always easy to move around, and while the booths are all set up along paved walkways, some things (food booths, stages) are set up in grassy areas. Booths are often mobbed which can make shopping difficult. While people with disabilities do attend (the Boston Higashi School always has a booth) it may be difficult for people with mobility issues and those who deal with crowd anxiety/phobia or have difficulty with loud noise. While the Boston Common is the largest location the festival has been held at the crowds are still intense. Advice I would offer to anyone, although especially those with disabilities:

  • Even if you stay for all seven hours of the festival you will not be able to do everything. Pick the things you're most interested in seeing/doing and prioritize getting to those booths/workshops/performances. Expect that everything will take longer than you think it will. It took me several hours to walk around and see all the booths last year and I wasn't stopping at all of them. I would not have been able to get food had a friend not given me her Fast Pass.
  • In past locations it has been possible to hear the performances while walking around the festival but I didn't find that to be the case last year. If you want to see/listen to a performance you will need to plan to be in the immediate vicinity of that stage.
  • If you plan to watch performances but aren't able to sit on the ground or stand for long periods, you will need to bring your own chair, although many people stand so it can be difficult to see.
  • Parking under the Boston Common tends to fill up quickly and is expensive so if you can take the T, it's a much better option. If you have to drive, consider making a reservation via a site like Parkopedia or parking in a garage in Chinatown. There is some on-street metered parking that is free on Sundays but it's very difficult to park in that area.
  • Check the weather and dress appropriately. Dress in layers if you plan to stay there all day. If you have a yukata or kimono feel free to wear it.  
  • Pack sunscreen. You may also want to pack a hat.
  • Everyone in your party should have a fully charged cell phone.
  • Pick a meeting time/location away from the main festival area if you get separated from your party. I would also recommend that if you are planning to go with small children that you consider having them carry some kind of ID with your contact info on it. Last year I saw a small child separated from his adults. It appeared that he was too young to know their phone number and may also not have been an English-speaker.
  • Unless you don't mind standing in line for over an hour, bring your own food or buy a $30 Fast Pass. 
  • Pack as large a bottle of water as you can carry.
  • There are portable toilets along Beacon and Charles Streets but if the crowds are dense it may take a while to walk there.
  • Bring cash and make sure you have a lot of small bills. I believe that all the food vendors are cash only. Some of the commercial vendors take credit cards, but not all. 
  • If you plan to do a lot of shopping, bring a bag to carry your purchases. Some vendors will provide bags, but not all do. 

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival

The Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival is a very family-friendly community-oriented matsuri with lots of activities for kids that is produced by The Genki Spark and Brookline High School's Japanese Program and sponsored by the Brookline High School PTO and the Japan Society of Boston. Nearly all of the guest artists are returning artists who have performed in past years: Odaiko New England, Mountain River Taiko, Takahashi Minyo Kai, Stuart Paton & Burlington Taiko, and ShinDaiko. There are two new artists this year – sisters Akino Ann & Yoshino Watanabe who play koto. They perform regularly at other music events in the Boston area including the Afternoon Concerts series and the Boston Charity Concert series. They also performed at TEDxBeaconStreet this year and in 2013. See the schedule here.

Ittoku, the popular izakaya in Brighton who was the Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival's first food vendor beginning in 2014, will be back along with Itadaki, Japonaise Bakery, and Hana Japan (who host their own Natsu Matsuri every August). New vendors this year are the Japanese cream puff chain, Beard Papa's, and local fish market, Sakanaya. The food lines aren't as long as the Japan Festival Boston but if you have young children you should plan ahead. 

See photos from 2016 Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival.
See videos from 2015 Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival.
See photos from 2014 Brookline Sakura Matsuri.

Date & Time
Saturday, May 13, 2017
noon - 4pm

Brookline High School Quad (Rain Location: Schluntz Gym)
115 Greenough Street, Brookline, MA, 02445

Suggested Donation: $5 students, $10-20 families
All proceeds support the BHS Japan Exchange Program ​Scholarship Fund and promotion of the arts

Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival Tips

Brookline High School is fully handicap accessible and the courtyard where the festival is held is a small enough space that you can hear all of the performances regardless of where you are (seeing might be harder if you're on the back end of a line or crowd). The crowd ebbs and flows and most people stay for the full four hours although at peak times it could be challenging for people with crowd anxiety/phobia and definitely for those with issues with noise.
  • Parking is very limited so take the Green Line if you can. The closest stop is Brookline Hills on the D Line. If you have to drive, allow extra time to find parking. There is no parking lot - it's all on street parking (non-metered).
  • If you have sensitive hearing, bring earplugs. Taiko drums are LOUD. Hopefully it won't rain but if it does and the event is held in the gym instead of the courtyard, it will be painful. 
  • Check the weather and dress appropriately. Dress in layers if you plan to stay there all afternoon. If you have a yukata or kimono feel free to wear it. 
  • Pack sunscreen. Many parts of the courtyard are not in shade. You may also want to pack a hat. Sadly, not necessary this year. Forecast calls for rain so the matsuri will be indoors.
  • If you have seasonal allergies, medicate. I volunteered at the Tewassa booth a couple of years ago and even though I was medicated I was covered in pollen and itching when I left. There are a lot of trees and other plant life in the courtyard. 
  • The courtyard is concrete so you may want to bring your own chair or a blanket. 
  • The food lines aren't as bad at the Brookline Cherry Blossom Festival as they are at the Japan Festival Boston but there are fewer options. If you are coming with small children or finicky eaters, you should bring snacks. If you come later, there is a chance that food will be sold out. There are no restaurants within close walking distance of Brookline High School.
  • Pack a bottle of water.
  • There is access to bathrooms and water fountains inside Brookline High School.
  • Bring cash and make sure you have small bills. The food vendors are cash only and I believe the few other booths that sell or accept donations are also cash only. 

Disclosure: I would like to note that I am friends with some of the organizers of both of these festivals, however I publicize them because they are the largest Japanese cultural events in the Boston area, not just because my friends organize them. :)