Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

by | Apr 5, 2022 | Day Trips From Los Angeles, Family Adventures, USA, Weekend Trips, West Coast

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Spring is undoubtedly our family’s favorite season. It marks the return of warmer days (at least in the Bay Area); of picnics and beach trips; of bees bumbling and birds singing; and — most importantly — it heralds the arrival of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival

Since 1968, San Francisco’s Japantown has celebrated the cherry blossom season with an annual festival. Every year, over 200,000 people gather in the Japantown Peace Plaza. They come not only for the cherry blossom trees but also to celebrate their deep appreciation of Japanese culture. From dawn to dusk there are cultural performances, live bands, traditional arts and crafts, and mouth-watering food booths.

Our family has been attending the SF Cherry Blossom Festival since 2019. Every year the sheer number of fun and creative activities fairly blows us away. Our girls absolutely love the colorful costumes and masks worn by attendees, the loud music, the abundance of huggable dogs, the bonsai displays (which they’ve dubbed “the gnome trees”), and the flavorful mochi donuts — more on those later! 

 

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SF Cherry Blossom Pin #1

 

The 2022 San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival

The 55th Annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival (yeesh, that’s a mouthful) will be held on April 9-10 & 16-17 this year. You can find details about the various events on the Festival’s Facebook page and website. Information can also be obtained at the Japan Center during the festival.

The SF Cherry Blossom Festival is the second largest of its kind outside of Japan. Only the one in Washington, D.C. is bigger. What’s more, the San Francisco Festival is the largest held in a designated Japantown: one of only three left in the United States; the other two are in San Jose and Los Angeles. 

Free and open to the public, the SF Cherry Blossom Festival is the perfect event for a family looking for an excuse to visit the Bay Area. Plus, the Festival is an excellent opportunity to enrich your kids’ knowledge of Japanese American culture through numerous performances and informative workshops. 

 

Cherry Blossoms at the SF Peace Plaza - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

My wife took this photo early in the spring at the Japantown Peace Plaza. Some of the trees were already blooming! Photo by Jazmin Perez.

 

So What’s Up with Cherry Blossoms? 

Cherry blossoms, or sakura in Japanese, are known universally as an icon of Japan. They bloom for but a brief time in spring, and have become associated in Japanese culture with beauty, fragility, and impermanence.

Cherry blossoms are such an integral part of Japanese culture and identity that they are regularly depicted in both modern and traditional art, as well as sung about in melodies, written about in books and poems, and even regularly depicted in Japanese anime. 

 

Cherry Blossoms in JapaneseFun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival Art -

No joke, it took me two seconds to find an example of cherry blossoms in traditional Japanese art. This image was the first thing that popped up. Photo by the Library of Congress on Unsplash.

 

Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Japan to marvel at these beautiful blossoms before they wither and eventually fade away. There’s even a special word in Japanese for coming to picnic beneath the cherry blossoms: hanami, literally meaning “flower viewing.” 

Naturally, not all of us can visit Japan whenever we want; so for those of us who want to celebrate the blooming of the cherry blossoms, but don’t want to travel across the Pacific Ocean to do it, I’m happy to say that the SF Cherry Blossom Festival is a cost-effective alternative. 

 

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What to Do at the Cherry Blossom Festival?

There’s literally so much to do and see at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival, that it would be impossible to cover everything in one short article. Therefore, we’ve decided to highlight some of the funnest things our family has seen at the festival — and that we think your family will also enjoy! 

To find other activities that might interest you more, the SF Cherry Blossom Festival has a Google Maps page that you can browse. In addition, a complete list of the SF Cherry Blossom Festival’s activities can be found on its website

To help you navigate the festival more easily, the organizers have provided this helpful map:

 

2022 Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival Map - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

This map’s handy for finding food stalls and restrooms!

 

Enjoy Traditional Japanese Dancing

Just like in Japan, the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival is a time to celebrate the return of the cherry blossoms, as well as an opportunity to showcase traditional Japanese culture and art. And what better way to celebrate that than with traditional Japanese dancing

A beautiful part of this year’s celebration will be the odori (Japanese folk dance) that you can find in the Japantown Peace Plaza stage. Each type of odori is unique to a region of Japan; so you’ll get to experience a wide variety of different styles. 

 

Traditional Japanese Dancers - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

Where else (besides Japan) will you have the opportunity to see the grace and richness of Japanese culture firsthand? Photo by Mitchell Luo from Unsplash.

 

The precise, rhythmic movements of the dancers, along with the bright colors, exquisite fans, and fancy dresses, really impressed our girls. We’re looking forward to seeing them again this year!

 

Play with Dogs

While cats may be more internationally recognized as a symbol of Japanese culture, dogs have an important place in Japanese traditions and folklore. Many dog lovers flock to the festival because of its high concentration of adorable akita inus and shiba inus, two Japanese dog breeds. Our family is one of dog-lovers, so we took every chance we could get to stop and pet the doggies. 

 

Shiba Inu dog with samurai sword - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

Some doggies, like this adorable one, were dressed up as miniature samurai. Just look at the little sword! Photo by Matthew LaMourie.

 

Craft Dolls

According to the Cherry Blossom Festival site, paper doll making has existed in Japan since the 1500s. Needless to say, from that time to this the Japanese have turned a relatively simple activity into an art form. These delicate and intricate paper dolls are exquisite in their beauty and fragility. 

The washi ningyo or “paper dolls” crafting event was a particular hit with our girls. They really enjoyed designing their dolls’ dresses, hairdos, and accessories. And the best part? You get to take them home with you as a delightful reminder of how much fun you had at the festival. 

 

Watch Martial Arts

Quick movements, precise hits, shattering boards, Japanese martial arts are some of the most exciting things to see at the Cherry Blossom Festival, or for that matter, in general. Our family loves to watch them every year and marvel at how impressive they are. 

During the Festival, you’ll have the opportunity to witness a number of martial arts techniques performed live. Some are carefully choreographed duels, others are an opportunity to show off the performers’ mastery of certain techniques — like ice breaking! No matter which you stumble upon, the artists’ mastery of their craft is guaranteed to leave you in awe.

 

Fold Some Origami

Also known as “folded paper,” origami is a popular past-time for children and adults alike. How many folds do you need to make a beautiful crane or ferocious dragon? There are a number of opportunities during the Festival to practice your origami skills. But what if you missed the workshop you wanted to attend? No worries! Paper Tree at 1743 Buchanan Street sells origami supplies all year round. Our family has lots of fun choosing what kind of paper we’d like to fold; the shop also sells instructional kits and the like to take your kids’ folding to the next level.

 

Visit the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

While I was trying to keep this guide centered in San Francisco’s Japantown proper, it would be remiss not to mention another place where you can go to enjoy the cherry blossoms: the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. This lovely park is the oldest Japanese garden in the United States, having originally been constructed as a “Japanese Village” exhibit in 1894. The park has since been expanded to include classic elements of Japanese architecture and style, such as a pagoda, an arched drum bridge, koi ponds, a zen garden, and — of course! — many cherry trees.

 

Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

A view of the Japanese Tea Garden pagoda from the front gate. Photo by Albert Dera from Unsplash.

 

Within this tea garden, nature ceases to be just a backdrop and becomes an art form, each element flawlessly blending into the next to create a harmonious whole. It’s one of the great places in the City to enjoy some peace and tranquility, as well as native Japanese plants and flowers.

 

Where to Eat at the Cherry Blossom Festival 

Not surprisingly, Japantown has an abundance of mouth-watering restaurants and cafes, selling everything from steaming bowls of ramen to neatly boxed mochi donuts. There’s a whole corridor of the Buchanan Mall, located between Laguna and Fillmore Streets, dedicated to serving Japanese cuisine. Affectionately known as “Restaurant Row,” this section of the mall resembles a traditional Japanese cobblestone road, like the kinds you’d find in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto. Walking among the shingled rooves, paper doors, and wooden walls, you feel as if you’ve been transported back to medieval Japan. Below we’ve highlighted our favorite family-friendly restaurants for you to visit.

 

Menu items in a Japanese restaurant window - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

In Japan, it’s common for plastic replicas of menu items to be displayed in the restaurant’s window. The same goes for “Restaurant Row” in SF’s Japantown. Photo by Falco Negenman from Unsplash.

 

Cafe Hana

Coincidentally named hana — signifying flower in Japanese — Cafe Hana is the best place in Japantown to start your morning right. It serves everything from coffee to bubble tea to matcha ice cream, so, however you like to get your morning fix, Cafe Hana’s got you covered. 

Andersen Bakery

While the name may not sound very Japanese, I can assure you that this unassuming little shop is the best place in Japantown for a Japanese-style pastry or small sandwich. Perfect for grabbing a quick bite when you first arrive at the Festival or for a hasty afternoon snack, this quaint bakery is certain to leave you satisfied. 

Our eldest loves the curry filed pastries that they sell, as seen above; while our youngest prefers the egg salad sandwich with the crust cut off.

 

Mochill Mochidonut

Mochill Mochidonut is one of the most popular places in Japantown, and for good reason: their mochi donuts are absolutely amazing! What’s a mochi donut you ask? Well, mochi is a type of Japanese rice cake that’s soft and doughy, a bit like a marshmallow but without the flavor. That’s then stuffed into the traditional donut and covered with a glaze to create a soft, sweet, delicious treat your kids are sure to love! (Ours certainly do!). The last time we visited Japantown we bought a half-dozen to try a bunch of flavors, and you can bet your britches they were gone before we left at the end of the day.

 

Assortment of mochi donuts - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

An assortment of mochi donuts…that vanished almost immediately. Photo by Fuji Nakama from Unsplash.

 

Marufuku Ramen

Nothing’s better after a breezy SF day than to enjoy a piping hot bowl of ramen at Marufuku’s. Japantown has a lot of good ramen places. A lot. But this unassuming spot is the best. Their broth is rich and creamy; their eggs are perfectly marinated; the meat and tofu are succulent; and it’s all served to you in a beautiful hand-glazed Japanese bowl. We introduced the girls to this place about a year ago, and they’re still begging us to take them back. Oh, darn! 

 

Marufuku Restaurant Ramen Bowl - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

A matcha drink and bowl of ramen from our dinner at Marufuku’s. I just love the glazing on this bowl! Photo by Jazmin Perez.

 

As you can imagine, Japantown gets a bit packed during the Cherry Blossom Festival. If you or your kids are feeling a little stifled, we recommend walking two blocks west to Fillmore Street. This lesser-known shopping district of SF has a bunch of boutique stores and quality restaurants, cafes, and pubs.

 

 

The Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Parade

While still unconfirmed for 2022, the Grand Parade is traditionally the ultimate finale to the entire Festival. In previous years, the parade route winds its way from Civic Center Plaza, near San Francisco’s City Hall in the East, down Post Street, to Japantown in the west. Hundreds of participants line the streets to watch the colorful floats, decorated with contemporary and traditional Japanese figures, pass by. 

In previous years, the parade has also featured lots of Japanese music and culture, like taiko drummers to chase away evil spirits, folk dancers, a portable Shinto shrine (called the taro mikoshi), and even more martial artists.

 

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When You Go

 

 

Getting To San Francisco From LA

San Francisco is relatively easy to travel to as an internationally recognized hub for business, tech, and culture, particularly if you live on the West Coast. Flights from LAX can be as cheap as $50 if you book far enough in advance.

The two closest airports to downtown SF are SFO and the Oakland Airport. SFO is larger and more conveniently located for those traveling from farther afield; Oakland is smaller, but may have better deals for those traveling from nearby. 

Our family in particular has found great deals flying from Burbank to Oakland. From both airports, it’s about 20-30 minutes to downtown SF by rideshare.

We love the great deals we get on Expedia. Check the dates you’d like to travel for the best prices.

 

Where To Stay For The SF Cherry Blossom Festival

Conveniently located close to downtown, San Francisco’s Japantown has a number of excellent accommodations for families, ranging from the luxurious to the reasonable. 

Located less than a block from the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Hotel Kabuki is the perfect place for families looking to be in the heart of the action. With modern amenities, an enormous gymnasium, a mind-body yoga studio, and Asian-inspired architecture, you’re guaranteed to pass your stay in luxurious comfort. 

What could be more quintessentially San Francisco than a Victorian-style mansion, with its bay windows and cake-like molding? And, when you stop at the Queen Anne Hotel, you get to experience first-hand what it was like to stay in these beautiful houses of the past. Complete with bellhop, concierge, inviting atmosphere, and elaborate decore, the Queen Anne recaptures all the glitz and glamor of San Francisco’s Gold Rush past. 

Less than two blocks from the center of Japantown is the Hotel Majestic. This stylish three-star establishment is located in a historical building dating back to the early 1900’s. Decadent is the best word to describe this hotel; from the marble washbasins to the canopy beds, tranquility and luxury await at the Hotel Majestic. 

 

Final Thoughts

Last year, the Festival was entirely remote. And while understandable given the circumstances, our family lamented not being able to see the cherry blossoms in person. There’s just something different about being all together to celebrate something that we love. This year’s Festival, I’m happy to say, will be a combination of in-person and remote activities and workshops. So come on out to San Francisco, bring a picnic, and have a blast beneath the cherry blossoms. 

 

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Cherry Blossom Pin #2 - Fun Family Getaway at the SF Cherry Blossom Festival

 

Matthew LaMourie II is a freelance writer and photographer based in San Francisco, CA. He is a regular contributor to a number of online publications, where he covers such diverse topics as travel, lifestyle, cooking, and classic short stories. When not writing, Matthew likes to explore new and interesting places together with his growing family.

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