Japantown’s annual festival brings thoughts to area’s future

Japantown celebrated 100 years of history this weekend at the 39th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival, but looked forward to an uncertain future.

Japantown, or Nihonmachi, was founded in S.F.’s Western Addition 100 years ago this year, as Japanese residents who once lived South of Market around Sixth Street moved there following the Great Quake of 1906. That makes this year’s festival a noteworthy one — as does the presence of actual cherry blossoms on local trees, festival co-chair Tak Matsuba of the Japantown Merchants Association said. The festival’s timing coincides with the traditional holiday in Japan, but here in California, the flowers tend to bloom in February.

Though an estimated 50,000 people watched taiko-drumming demonstrations and pressed into shops over the course of the opening weekend, many merchants and visitors said they are saddened by the uncertainty ahead for Japantown.

A nine-block area containing two malls and two hotels that constitute much of the district’s core real estate is in the process of being sold by Japan-based Kintetsu Enterprises of America to 3D Investments of Beverly Hills, according to local business leaders. Reaction has ranged from fear that the area’s unique heritage will be lost through redevelopment to hope that a new owner will respect cultural tradition while upgrading the 40-year-old malls. 3D is reportedly in talks with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office regarding the sale.

“Everyone has their take on it, positive and negative,” Nobuoka said, adding that the sale generated high buzz among customers. “That’s the most popular question I get, 10 times a day.”

Matsuba thinks the “Japanese theme” of the area will be preserved, while noting that there is already a Pasta Pomodoro and several non-Japanese Asian restaurants in Japantown.

This week’s celebration is a big money-maker for businesses, Japan Video employee Hideki Nobuoka said, as well as for the non-profit organizations that sell food in street stalls.

“Fortunately, it stopped raining in the morning, so many people came,” said Mayumi Salah, busily trying to sell the last California roll at the Womens Federation for World Peace booth. “It’s a lot of work.”

The festival continues on April 22 and 23, with the Grand Parade held at 1 p.m. April 23.

kwilliamson@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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