Friendship blossoms at annual Sakura Festival

Cherry blooms, ties between Vancouver and Japan feted

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter



Did you know?

• In 1995, Vancouver Mayor Bruce Hagensen signed a sister-city agreement with Joyo, Japan Mayor Senji Imamichi. Both of Hagensen’s successors, Royce Pollard and current Mayor Tim Leavitt, have continued the city’s friendship with Joyo.

Beneath a blossoming pink canopy of 100 Shirofugen cherry trees, the friendship between two cultures was celebrated Thursday in the Royce E. Pollard Japanese Friendship Garden at Clark College. Although gray clouds threatened rain, more than 100 people gathered for the eighth annual Sakura Festival.

In Japan as early as the seventh century, cherry blossoms — or sakura — have been celebrated with family enjoying food beneath the blossoms. At Clark College, the Sakura Festival welcomes spring, honors a historic gift and celebrates an international friendship.

Atsushi "John" Kageyama, 88, returned from Osaka, Japan, to attend the festival. He stood near his longtime friend, former Mayor Bruce Hagensen. In 1990, when Kageyama was the first president of Matsushita Kotobuki Electronics Industries in Vancouver, he approached then-mayor Hagensen with an idea.

"He wanted to give a gift of 100 Shirofugen cherry trees to the city of Vancouver to celebrate the centennial of Washington's statehood," Hagensen said. "We decided Clark College would be the perfect place for the trees."

Today, 23 years later, those trees create a colorful canopy near the southern edge of campus.

"Tell your friends to come enjoy these flowers," Kagayama said.

Clark College student Maho Muto, 20, from Gunma Prefecture, Japan, has been studying English at Clark since September. She is the first recipient of the Dr. Kanagawa Japanese Friendship Scholarship offered to Japanese students who qualify to attend Clark College. The scholarship is named after Chihiro Kanagawa, CEO of Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. Limited, who donated $1 million to the city to build the friendship garden at Clark College. The garden was dedicated during last year's festival.

"Everything was new," Muto said about first arriving in Vancouver in September and speaking limited English. "I felt like I was visiting another planet with my passport. Now I feel like I have a big family in Vancouver."

Muto will return to Japan and her studies at Gunma Prefectural Women's University in June.

Guests were entertained by Yukiko Vossen, who played the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument, and by the Clark College Women's Ensemble, which sang "Sakura, Matsuri."

At an abbreviated traditional tea ceremony, green tea was served to Kagayama, Muto, Toshiharu Okuda of the Kyoto Prefecture Assembly in Japan and Bob Knight, Clark College president. Traditionally, the ceremony takes 41/2 hours to complete. This ceremony lasted 20 minutes.

"It can go on for awhile," said Hagensen, who has participated in the longer tea ceremonies during some of his 10 visits to Japan.

Wearing a kimono, the tea server used a bamboo tea scoop called a "chashaku" and a bamboo water ladle, or "hishaku," to serve the tea. These Japanese terms were explained by kimono-clad Michelle Sohm, 22, a former Clark College student of the Japanese language. The Vancouver native now studies marketing at Washington State University Vancouver.

After the calm of the tea ceremony, the room reverberated with the rhythmic pounding of the Portland Taiko Drum Group.

Camas resident Keiko Takahashi, who emigrated from Gifu Prefecture to the U.S. nine years ago, sat at a table with her daughters, Miya Armstrong, 4, and Emi Armstrong, 3. Both girls wore pink tops the same shade as the cherry blossoms being celebrated. With their mother's help, they had made pink origami cranes that were placed on the table between them. Emi fingered the frosting on her cookie. Miya toyed with the paper cutouts of sakura blossoms that the family planned to use in a craft project at home.

"I'm teaching them the Japanese language, and I wanted them to experience the culture," Takahashi said. "And they love cherry blossoms."

View videos from this event on The Columbian's YouTube channel.