The Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival takes place in Washington, DC and is the largest celebration of Japanese Culture in the United States, not to mention one of the main events of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The street festival brings in around 40,000 festival fans over its two-day run and offers Japanese food, vendors, cultural booths, booths from Japanese businesses and institutions, children’s activities and more.
2024 DATE: April 13-14, 2023
Location: 3rd to 7th Street NW on Pennsylvania Ave
This post documents my experience on April 15, 2023.
The Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival was a ticketed event, so the festival area was in a secured space along Pennsylvania Avenue with two points of entry. At each point of entry, visitors could purchase tickets or have their prepaid ticket scanned for entry.
With the help of an app, festival goers could go through a map, a performance schedule and read about all the vendors and festival participants.
There were three main sections to the festival: Ginza Marketplace, Arts and Culture, and Taste of Japan. For the most part, through all of these sections, booths were lined either side of Pennsylvania Ave. But in the Arts and Culture section, you could also find two large tents or pavilion areas. One of the tents showcased Japanese technology and what Japanese were doing in Space, travel, medicine and even toilets (heated seats, baby). The other tent dealt mostly with travel in Japan for those ready for an international adventure.
Vendors at the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival represented many aspects of Japanese culture and popular culture.
More traditional gifts included Kimonos, origami gifts, daruma, calligraphy and jewelry, while, for those into anime or Japanese shows and games, there were all sort of toys and figures, playing cards, accessories, masks and plastic weapons. One booth sold stuffed sushi pillows, which were really cute. The Hello Kitty Cafe was also very popular with a rather long line.
Vending machines could be found at a few vendors and they were a lot of fun. The vendors who had them sold tokens so that you could try your chance on a really good prize – maybe a Pokemon figure or a Doraemon toy.
Along with gift items, vendors also sold imported food, like sakura pasta and packages of ramen. There were also plenty of sweet treats, like Pocky, which could be found at marketplace booths and Information Booths hosted by the festival
I should also mention that there was a line of booths held by Japanese and North American Sake distillers who offered free samples of their product. One after another, I was able to jump in line and try the next sample of delicious sake. I was so giddy by all the free drinks that I didn’t realize what was coming…
When I first arrived at the festival, I was a little overwhelmed by the number of umbrellas at the festival.
Somewhere at the festival, Japanese umbrellas were being sold to the festival goer’s delight, only to be purchased and carried around to block out the sun. But, since the festival was fairly crowded, it became dangerous at times to navigate along the grounds as spinning umbrella edges came at you from all directions.
Eventually, as I busied myself with sake samples in the section above, the clouds began to shift and the self-fulfilling prophecy of all those umbrella carriers came true.
Fortunately, I was in the line for free cocktails that were served under cover and I never got wet.
For now, the festival belonged to those umbrella carriers.
Food vendors were primarily found in the Taste of Japan section of the festival with traditional Japanese street foods like Takoyaki (octopus balls), fried squid, chicken karaage, all sorts of dumpling and sushi, and even some okonomiyaki.
There were other Asian non-Japanese dishes, such as pad thai and egg rolls and drinks like bubble tea and Matcha.
Beer and Sake booths were spread out over the grounds and I definitely got a glass of some sake before I knew about the lines of free samples. But, in the end, the wristband given to me during that sake purchase was helpful in the free samples, as no one had to check my ID once I had it.
The tented cocktail booth, where I hid from the rain, had tables to lounge at while there was also a pretty beer garden at the festival that looked pretty relaxing.
Arts and Culture
In the Arts and Culture section, and even beyond, there were booths that represented special interests and art in the Japanese Culture. For example, there was a booth about Japanese Dollmaking. Other booths hosted clubs interested in Japanese games like Karuta and Go.
This is where the area where one could get information about Japanese universities, practice some Japanese conversation, and shop at the Japanese Americans’ Care Fund booth, an organization that supports the social needs of Japanese Americans.
And, if you wanted something a little more fun and hands-on, festival goers would get up close to some colorful detailed cars, play some video games, hang out in the Akiba Cafe to learn and play some Japanese games like Shiritori and Konpira Fune Fune, or take part in a Sake Tasting (a ticketed event).
Entertainment and Fun
The festival offered plenty of entertainment that included singing, dancing, workshops, martial arts, ballet, and more among three main stages. A fourth stage could be found in the Children’s Corner tent, where children could participate in arts and crafts and practice some calligraphy.
Another rather fun and entertaining aspect of the festival was identifying the various Japanese characters that festival guests came dressed up as. I didn’t even realize that this was an option.
Shortly after my brother was telling me about his love for the anime show Chainsaw Man, I ran into a couple dressed as the show’s characters Denji and Makima. You can see their pics below.
While the rain did slow some things down and stop the entertainment for a bit, the festival was not going to be stopped. As I walked around and gave the festival some time to collect itself, the music eventually came back on and I was able to record this bit of karaoke for you all…