A (Japanese) San Francisco (Off the Main) Street Fair

By T. Rebecca Hansen

The aroma of fried and fired food, the crowded street with its border of white tents advertising everything from Hawaiian vacations to the Sherriff’s office, and San Francisco cover band Get Lucky playing top 40 pop songs might lead you to believe you had stumbled upon just another street fair, if you round the corner of Fillmore and Post Streets and unwittingly walk into the 50th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival.

If you came on purpose and are looking for a cultural experience, you might be initially disappointed by the vibe. Hang in there – keep walking up the hill toward Buchanan and the smells of fried food, and you will be rewarded.

The pop music throbs through the festival, unbroken, but as you climb the hill the more traditional sound of the YamaSho Kai musicians cuts through. On the Peace Plaza Stage performers in beautifully embroidered kimono sing to eerie music while a band of blue-clad men and boys circles the listening crowd performing a sort of clapping line dance.

Here is the heart of the festival: all day you can wander back to take in cultural demonstrations (Oshiro Karate puts on a sort of rehearsal: the littlest fellow, barely five years old by all indications, lags a full second and a half behind his peers in every perfectly executed move) and to see the actual cherry blossoms, a row of trees lining the plaza with white petals floating in the breeze.

Across Post-Street-that-is-temporarily-not-a-street, you can weave your way between vendors selling everything from origami crane earrings (who makes these? Fairies, perhaps) to stuffed animals (giant heads and closed eyes, looking like some odd sleeping Pokémon).

You can purchase stunning lacquered fabric earrings, bright colors and folds, each set handmade by a woman who turns out to be Chinese with a perfectly American accent. Paula Chang has been crafting these pieces for four decades. She wears them asymmetrically because, she says, she always loses one of her favorite sets – only one, of course – and the look is so fetching she sells them that way now, one long straight earring and one curled into a geometric puzzle, on the same card.

Unlike the tents out on the main thoroughfare, these are not placed in a straight line; each faces a different direction, goods strung up from walls and ceilings and makeshift hanging racks. Half a dozen blue-clad men (are they the same ones from the Peace Plaza?) slip from stall to stall, blessing one vendor and then another with a clapping and chanting ceremony.

When the shopping has left you famished, you can make your way back down the hill toward the delicious smells. The expected treats are available – sushi and ramen, udon, mochi waffles. Also twisty-cut fried potatoes on a stick, hot dogs with unfamiliar toppings and, if you show up early enough, teriyaki cooked en masse on a cadre of grills.

Prices are what you would expect at any street fair, really. For eight dollars you can get a bowl of udon, thick doughy noodles in a sweet and salty broth served with triangles of fried bean curd, pink and white fish cake rounds and brilliant green spinach and scallion. And chopsticks to eat it with.

If you are just looking for another street fair, with covers of pop music and free swag and good fried food, the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is the place for you. But if you take a step off the main street you can also get a cultural experience more immersive than any museum – not to mention more delicious, and cheaper.

Unless you buy those earrings.