Alexis Sayuri Okihara
64th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Looks Forward to Sharing Knowledge with Future Generations
Gwen Battad Ishikawa
It is fitting that kansha (gratitude) was the theme of the 64th Cherry Blossom Festival, because kansha is what Queen Alexis Okihara has felt for the past year.
“They [Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, who sponsors the festival] provided all of us with once in a lifetime experiences, not only as a contestant, but also as court members. I’m very thankful for everything we’ve learned and gained this year,” Okihara said.
The 26-year-old yonsei recently shared the highlights of her past year during an interview at Hawai‘i Hochi’s offices. On March 18, she will pass her crown and scepter on to her successor at the Festival Ball at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel.
Over the past 12 months, Okihara and the rest of the 64th Cherry Blossom Festival Court — First Princess Brittney Kawahara, Princess and Miss Popularity Asia Ayabe, Princesses Kristi Murakami and Ritsuko Tomari and Miss Congeniality Dylan Lau — have served as goodwill ambassadors, representing the HJJCC, at various events in Hawai‘i. They participated in Cherry Blossom festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Japan, they met with local dignitaries and members of their sister Jaycee chapters. Their two-week long trip to Japan included Tökyö, Odowara, the “San JC chapters” of Tamashima, Kojima and Kurashiki, Hiroshima, Kyöto, Ösaka and Köbe.
The highlight of their Japan trip was meeting Princess Kiko, wife of Prince Fumihito, the emperor’s and empress’ second son.
“[Meeting her] was the highlight of my trip since not everyone gets to do that. She is so sweet and kind,” says Okihara.
Being it was her first time to Japan, Okihara enjoyed the sights, sounds, and of course foods that Japan had to offer.
A couple of the more memorable activities she participated in while in Kurashiki was reaping rice in a field and enjoying a meal of fresh snapper grilled over burning hay and a homestay with a Jaycee family. “The children in Japan are very intelligent,” said Okihara. “The family we stayed with had a 4-year-old and a 10-year-old. The 4-year-old could write her name in Japanese and English and she taught me how to sing songs and write numbers in Japanese.”
One of the most memorable experiences of the year, however, was a night the court members spent in Hiroshima.
“We visited the Peace Park and then had a free night where we didn’t have any commitments. We were so relaxed and had fun. We walked over three miles using Google maps to get back to our hotel. Just spending time with the girls in a different country . . . it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Last month, the court participated in the Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival on the Big Island. “I liked that trip because it was local. We were able to share with the Big Island what our festival is and were able to see their cherry blossom trees along Church Row (in Kamuela).” The trip was extra special for Okihara since both sets of grandparents live on the Big Island and were able to drive out to see them.
COMPARING OTHER CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVALS
The Cherry Blossom festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles seem to be on a grander scale than Hawai‘i’s, with their weeklong events and activities promoting the festival and the Japanese culture. In San Francisco, the community gathers together to view Okinawan dance and taiko performances. Los Angeles has Nisei Week in Little Tokyo, which includes a parade and events that showcase local businesses that support the festival.
In Hawai’i, the Cherry Blossom Festival queen contestants are introduced during the ‘Ohana Festival in January. The ‘Ohana Festival, presented by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, showcases the Japanese culture through displays, demonstrations and entertainment. The contestants also participate in the Honolulu Festival, taking place March 10 to 12. This festival features the various regions of the Pacific Rim, including Hawai‘i, Japan, Australia and the U.S. mainland.
But aside from the few public appearances taking place at shopping malls, there is not a specific cultural public event geared toward the festival.
Nonetheless, Okihara feels that the experience of the contestants in the Hawai’i Cherry Blossom Festival is unique compared to their Mainland counterparts.
“Our festival is special in that contestants go through eight months of training. The contestants at other festivals might learn cultural things, but it’s really quick. I feel like our contestants learn so much more over more time.”
For example, taiko classes are held once a week for several weeks, since the contestants perform the opening number at Festival Ball, and there are three or four kimono classes, since they need to know how to properly sit, stand and walk in furisode kimono.
The other classes in bon odori, tea ceremony, ikebana, gyotaku, calligraphy, aikidö and manjü-making are one session each for two or three hours.
Each year, community service projects include “causes that the court is really passionate about,” said Okihara. This year’s projects included a blood drive at Kahala Mall, working with Kuakini residents for an arts and crafts project and doing origami at a school community fair.
Okihara’s project included collaborating with the Student Career Experience Program through the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa in which a grant was obtained to have Kenny and Chizuko Endo teach taiko to sixth grade students at Wai‘anae Elementary School, where Okihara teaches.
“In Wai‘anae, not many students are exposed to the Japanese culture,” explained Okihara. A schoolwide assembly was held on Feb. 9 to showcase what the student had learned.
APPRECIATION FOR CULTURE
On a personal level, Okihara has a deeper appreciation for the Japanese culture, especially after going to Japan. “I have a deeper respect for my heritage because there’s meaning and purpose behind the classes we took as contestants. Those classes were great, but I was able to see so much when I went to Japan that put the application into perspective.
“Now I think that that is my drive to volunteer and participate in the next festival. Because it’s so important to make sure that our culture is perpetuated for generations to come, and [to ensure] that this festival is here for future women to participate in as well.
“You don’t learn about your Japanese culture, you develop a deep respect for your culture and understanding of where you come from,” she said.
Along those lines, I asked Okihara what she thinks defines her as being Japanese. She is beginning to understand what being a Japanese American means and is reaching out to her grandparents to learn more. “Especially after going to Japan, I’m asking them about their family history — where did they come from; what was great-grandma or great-grandpa like; about the plantation. It’s important for myself to find out where my roots are, and not only locally.”
When asked, “What makes you Japanese?” Okihara’s response was “My family and their history and where I came from. Going deeper, I wouldn’t have known the art, the language, the culture; wouldn’t have known it without the Cherry Blossom Festival.”
With that in mind, Okihara wants to continue sharing her knowledge of the Japanese culture with her students.
“As a teacher, it’s something I can share with my students; share those experiences and share that history with them because if we don’t, it’s going to get lost.”