Campbell Hamai | Reporter
Celebrating the history, culture and people of Japan, the Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden is one of the largest and oldest festivals of its kind in the United States.
Since 1977, the Garden has proudly hosted this unique event at one of the largest Japanese gardens in North America: a fruitful collaboration with several local Japanese-American organizations provides authentic Japanese music, art, dance, food and entertainment for thousands of visitors each year.
Every year the festival operates according to a theme. In 2018, the Japanese Festival Logo chosen represents 四季 (shiki), or the four seasons. The natural phenomenons of rainy springs, torpid summers, crisp autumns and withering winters connect St. Louis and Japan. The 2018 festival was themed to celebrate the way seasons influence much of Japan’s art; in its literature, legend and culture. It is nearly impossible to remove or imagine Japan without these foundational elements.
The Botanical Garden boasts some of the most beautiful and healthy collections of flora, including Reticulated Iris, Virginia Bluebells, Chinese Sweet Shrubs and so many more. Amongst the hundreds of species of plant life you can walk along stone paths and truly feel as if you had been transported to a beautiful tropical forest. With the various gardens within the grounds you have plenty of opportunities to find a personal favorite; whether it be inside the massive greenhouses, outside between intricate sculptures or next to relaxing bodies of water.
One of the most attractive installations at the Missouri Botanical Garden is the Teahouse Island; located to the west, across a narrow cove and “dobashi” or earthen bridge. At the end of the bridge stands a snow viewing lantern, “yukimi-doro” a gift from St. Louis’s sister city of Suwa, Japan.
The teahouse found on the island was a gift from Missouri’s sister state of Nagano, Japan, and is sacred in Japanese culture. This soan, or “farm hut” style tea house, was built in Japan, reassembled here by Japanese craftsmen, and dedicated with a Shinto ceremony in 1977. In attempt to keep the integrity and sacred peace of the teahouse, visitors are prohibited from entering. It is only through private tours scheduled during the Japanese Festival that anyone can see into the building.
This year the tour was held inside the Shoenberg Theater along with “The Way of the Tea Demonstration.” With the aid of a projected video, the audience was able to see staff members progress through every specific and sacred step of brewing ceremonial tea.
Along with such demonstrations, various performers are invited to showcase authentic traditions throughout the festival. The Candyman is such a performer. Street performer Masaji Terasawa creates fantasy creatures out of melting caramel and other sculptures from spun sugar to entertain and entrance audiences. The only warning I would give is, unless you like to wave around sticks of candy, be careful not to draw his eye. He likes to select volunteers to present his tasty pets to others via a slightly embarrassing dance. The Candyman is not the only exciting person to watch, at the Cohen Amphitheater there was a heart-thumping taiko (Japanese drum) performance. Introducing a modern piece called The Lion’s Roar, the St. Louis Osuwa Taiko group thundered with musicality and excitement at the festival.
One could spend hours at the Gardens on even an average day. With the Japanese Festival I never wanted to leave. The amazing plant life accented by ancient traditions of another country truly captured my attention and I have yet to get it back. I encourage everyone to participate at the annual Japanese Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden if they can. It is honestly an experience that no one will regret.