65th Cherry Blossom Festival Queen Heather Omori Reflects on the Past Year
Gwen Battad Ishikawa
As any Cherry Blossom Festival queen will tell you, their year as queen was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a whirlwind one at that.
It’s been nearly a year since Heather Kiyomi Omori was crowned the 65th Cherry Blossom Festival queen. On March 17, she will pass on her sash and scepter to next year’s queen.
“It’s been amazing,” she says of her experience. “When they say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey, it really is, and it goes by so fast.”
Joining Omori on her journey were five other women — First Princess and Miss Popularity Kirstie Maeshiro-Takiguchi; Princesses Jennifer Ezaki, Ruth Taketa and Kelly Ann Takiguchi; and Miss Congeniality Roxanne Takaesu.
Together with their advisors and their families, the Hawai‘i contingent traveled to Japan on a goodwill tour to meet with their sister Jaycee chapters and festival sponsor-organizations. They also participated in the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco and in Nisei Week in Los Angeles.
In Japan, the Hawai‘i delegation visited with sister-cities chapters in Köbe, Kurashiki, Kojima, Tamashima and Odawara. They also met with sponsors Watabe Wedding, Fujiyasu Kimono Company, Japan Airlines and JTB.
The climax of their Japan trip was meeting Princess Mako, who invited them for tea and fellowship. Princess Mako is the eldest grandchild of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and the only child of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako.
“She was willing to answer any questions we had about herself or Japan. Meeting her was the cherry on top of my trip,” Omori said.
In Kurashiki, Omori and First Princess Kirstie Maeshiro-Takiguchi homestayed with the Matsumoto family, who had two young children.
“Homestay was so much fun. I’ve never been in a home in Japan. I was expecting an old, traditional Japanese home, but the family just bought the home, so it was modern.” Omori said that although Kirstie spoke Japanese, not knowing the language was not a barrier. “There’s lot of technology, like Google translate, and we still found a lot of things that we could relate to. I’m a teacher, so with the kids . . . I love Japanese kids. They’re so cute. And even though they’re kolohe (Hawaiian language for “rascal”), you just want to hug them,” she said with an infectious laugh.
While in Japan, the Hawai‘i group made a point of experiencing and participating in activities for which the location was known. For example, in Odawara, they visited Odawara Castle and dressed up in samurai, princess and ninja costumes for one of the side exhibits, and in Owakudani, they made sure to try the black egg.
A relatively new craze in Tökyö is MariCAR, where people dress up as characters from Mario Kart and drive through the streets in custom-made go-karts.
Their Japan hosts tried to accommodate all their requests to make their stay as memorable as possible. One such request was to experience nagashi somen, in which cooked somen noodles are run down a bamboo trough with cold water. Participants have to pick up the somen using chopsticks as it slides down the pipe. The restaurant they visited didn’t offer nagashi somen, so a makeshift slide was created for the group.
Prior to becoming a contestant in the queen contest, Omori’s exposure to Japanese culture consisted of practicing aikidö and judö, and attending bon dances and the Okinawan Festival.
After becoming queen, she was exposed to a multitude of cultural groups and celebrations for the first time.
“I didn’t realize how big the Japanese community was in Hawai‘i and how many people there were in Hawai‘i that really strive to perpetuate and preserve the culture. Seeing a lot (of groups) in action throughout the year was really eye opening for me and even when I talk to people about my experiences, I encourage them to really look for things in Hawaii that [they’re] interested in. If you want to learn more about the Japanese arts or traditions or the culture, there’s so much, and I was exposed to it a lot this year.”
As a third grade teacher at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School on Schofield Barracks, Omori makes a point of teaching her students about Japanese culture, mainly arts and craft traditions like origami or ikebana (flower arrangement), or exposing them to martial arts like aikidö. Her father, Terence Omori, is an aikidö sensei (teacher) so he does a demonstration each year for the students.
“My students are military, so they are always moving around. The parents tell me that their children have never been exposed to Japanese culture until they had me as a teacher, so it’s important for me to teach them and hope they continue the practices elsewhere,” she said.
The Honolulu Japanese Junior Chamber of Commerce, sponsors of the Cherry Blossom Festival, tries to encourage the Cherry Blossom Festival contestants to join the organization and remain active.
George Takase, 68th HJJCC president, noted that Kristin Alm Kamakahi, a former contestant, will be next year’s president, and Crystine Ito, the 61st queen, is chairing this year’s festival.
“We’re developing the Cherry Blossom contestants, but then they’re also staying in our chamber, which makes our chamber stronger. Because they end up being leaders of our organization, it works together. We have the Cherry Blossom Festival, but we hope that they come and strengthen our chamber. It only helps our chamber to have the contestants stay,” he said.
Omori agrees wholeheartedly.
“It definitely stems from you wanting to [volunteer.] I want to give back to the organization that has done so much for me and has given me this experience, so I already told people when I first became queen that I want to already jump right in and help with [next year’s] festival.
She adds that informing the public about what the festival is and what the HJJCC is about is key.
“It’s us sharing our experience. I encouraged a lot of young Japanese girls who I knew, to join the festival. It’s not just about learning about your culture, but about meeting other women in the Japanese community and sharing your experiences. It’s about self-development and public speaking and also learning about the HJJCC. We’re a project of them, but it’s so much more than just the Cherry Blossom Festival,” she said.
Paying It Forward
Every year, court members choose a personal project that is meaningful to them. This is in addition to community service projects in which the court is asked to participate.
Omori chose to participate in the Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival on the Big Island. Her dad is from Hilo, but she did not know about the Waimea festival. “We were also able to expose our Cherry Blossom Festival to the other islands,” Omori said.
Other projects the court chose to do included the Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony, Feline Fest with the Hawaiian Humane Society, Freedom Walk/Run for the Epilepsy Foundation of Hawaii, Hui Makaala scholarship fashion show and decorating a Salvation Army float for a Christmas parade.
Omori also received last year’s Violet Niimi Oishi Scholarship, named for the first Cherry Blossom queen and sponsored by her son, Dr. Scott Oishi. The $5,000 scholarship is to be used to further the contestant’s education.
Omori plans to use the money to obtain her national board teaching certification.
“Education is continuously changing because the world is changing, so I want to keep up with my education so I can teach my kids. We always say that the jobs that are available [today] are not going to be available anymore. The jobs that [future generations] are going to have will be way different, so we want to get them prepared for those type of jobs. We do a lot of technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education,” she said.
Each year, Lillian Yajima, a longtime supporter of the Cherry Blossom Festival, presents each contestant with a cultural award, allowing them to participate in cultural classes. Omori chose chigiri-e, a technique that uses torn colored paper to create images.
She admits that art is not her strength and wanted to learn chigiri-e in order to teach Japanese art to her students.
Meeting so many people over the past year has inspired and humbled Omori.
“Had it not been for the festival, I would not have known about Mrs. Yajima, as well as other people and organizations that really strive to continue the Japanese culture.
“It made me think of how really narrow-minded my generation and younger generations are if we’re not exposed to things in the Japanese community. It really broadened my mind and made we want to join all these different organizations,” she said.
Who Am I?
Two years ago, the HJJCC decided to raise the age limit for the contestants from 26 to 28.
Whether there are advantages or disadvantages to entering the festival at a younger or older age is subjective, says Omori.
“I think it’s just based on your experience. As a contestant, you’re put into positions where you really need to know yourself and you really need to know what experiences and what things in the past or present have made you how you are. And that makes a difference,” she said.
“Timing is very important because being on court and being a contestant . . . it’s like a second job, but it’s like the best second job ever.
“For me, because of the position I was on court, I made an effort to go to every single event, because I didn’t want to regret anything that happens this year. And the fact of the position I’m in, I have to take advantage of it and really show that I really want to learn at these events and meet people.”
Omori said she has learned more about herself over the past year and has improved in the area of public speaking and self-development.
“As a contestant we do a lot of public speaking classes. I never took a public speaking class ever, so with Cherry Blossom Festival, that was a challenge — to go onstage and answer an impromptu question in front of 800 people [at the Festival Ball].
She said there was no way to prepare for an impromptu question other than to “just know myself.” When preparing for an impromptu question, Omori was told to think of 10 special things about herself. “It makes you reflect on your life; what makes you different from the person next to you and what experiences have changed you in your life to make you who you are today?”
“I’m still finding myself and I’ve gotten close to it, but in life, so many things change, so I’m still finding myself. Because of Cherry Blossom, I was able to narrow a lot of things down, like about ‘Who am I?’ and what do I want people to know about me,” she said.
So who is Heather Omori?
“For me and that part of my life, I am a teacher that encourages lifelong learning to my students and, myself, I’m continuing to learn from them and self-growing and developing each day.”