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Marines and Okinawans enjoy cherry blossom festival

Date Posted: 2004-02-26

NAGO CITY, Okinawa, Japan For many servicemembers, the anticipation of Spring brings thoughts of the last winter snowfall melting, the song of a robin in the early morning or opening day of Major League Baseball.

For Okinawans, Spring begins earlier, as cherry blossom trees awaken from winter sleep, blossoming in vibrant pink with Japan's national flower.

Recently, the streets of Nago were packed with thousands of spectators eager to experience parades, music, food, entertainment, and floral displays in the 42nd Annual Nago Cherry Blossom Festival Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

"The festival is significant because it represents the difference in the two varieties of cherry blossoms found throughout Japan. The earliest bloomer is found only in Okinawa," said Toshio Inamine, managing director, Nago City Visitors Bureau. "It is also brighter and more colorful than the cherry blossom native to mainland Japan."

The festival has taken place in Nago every year since 1928 when local school children planted cherry trees near the Nago Castle site. For many years, the children planted the trees until cherry groves matured and covered the hills near the center of the city.

Each year, thousands of servicemembers join in the festivities with their Okinawan neighbors.

"We came down here to have fun and experience the Okinawan music, food and people," said Lance Cpl. Alberto Gonzalez, mobile multichannel equipment operator, Headquarters Company, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.

In the heart of the festival area was a performance stage to showcase Eisa dancers, Taiko drummers, folk musicians, and the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band.

The III MEF Band's set featured patriotic music, jazz, Dixieland, and an Okinawan tune called "Bashoufiu."

"The III MEF Band performance was very good," Inamine said. "The band has influenced and encouraged our junior high and high school students to become active in music, and they are always welcome to participate in our festival."

Vendors lined the main street to serve traditional Japanese cuisine, while local shops filled the sidewalks with carnival games and souvenirs to serve as mementos of the annual festival.

"I had a great time today playing the games, winning prizes and seeing the different traditions the Okinawans have for festivals," Gonzalez said. "There were a lot of interesting things to see out here today."

To escape the crowded main streets, many spectators hiked the winding stone path of several hundred steps to visit the historic Nago Castle site.

"You could see everything from the top of the steps, but it took a while to get there," said Gonzalez.

Though the festival only occurs one weekend each year, the pink blossoms stay in bloom for two to four weeks. Spectators can enjoy the serene beauty of the blossoms, capturing vivid images to last until the next year.

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