When people think of Philadelphia they typically think of something like Rocky, the Liberty Bell, cheesesteak. Or even that Elton John song. But Philadelphia has a surprising charm if you dig a little deeper. Just a few hours from NYC, Philly can be a little overlooked, but it has the more green space per mile than the rest of the largest US cities. It’s also home to a diverse blend of cultures among its people.
Back in November, we made the trek down to Philadelphia for PAX Unplugged (now you know we’re nerds— reputation ruined). While staying in an Airbnb in the University City neighborhood I was idly picking through some of the tourist brochures our hosts provided and found one for the Japanese Culture Center of Philadelphia.
Apparently, back in 1926, Japan gifted the city of Philadelphia a number of cherry trees. A few decades later when the trees had matured, the then newly built culture center began hosting annual cherry blossom festivals. Fast forward to April and we realized that the festival was only a week away. We scrambled to get our trip organized, nearly had to cancel because of the flu, and almost couldn’t find a room for under $100 a night. But in the end, we persevered and succeeded.
The festival lasts for two weeks, all culminating in a final event called Sakura Sunday. Though there are special activities throughout the two weeks, Sakura Sunday is when everything and everyone converges on the park. The festival featured a number of events covering a range of different aspects of Japanese culture. Tea ceremony demonstrations mingled with Kendo demonstrations and cosplay fashion shows. Karaoke and talent competitions played throughout the day as well as traditional drumming and dance performances by local groups. There were even interactive events in the greenhouse area. Students from UPenn demonstrated how to play the game Go, and for a small fee, visitors could enjoy a Shiatsu massage from trained masseuses. The culture center itself wasn’t open (it’s too small to accommodate the crowds), but visitors could tour the water garden surrounding the building. One of the highlights of the day was the Prettiest Pet in Pink contest. Twenty dogs wore their finest costumes— bandannas, Hawaiian shirts, tutus, faux-sushi wraps, and even kimono, as long as it featured a shade of pink. They paraded in front of the audience and showed off their tricks in the hope of getting voted the prettiest.
A number of food vendors were selling Japanese favorites like gyoza and takoyaki. Others sold typical American carnival food like funnel cake. There was even a lounge area peppered with chairs and hammocks by a couple of booths where you could get sake or beer. Crafts, jewelry, and costume pieces were also sold by vendors from all over the east coast. I bought earring made of resin coated traditional Japanese paper from an NYC jewelry maker. (Check out their Etsy!)
The park itself was lovely and much bigger than the area partitioned off for the festival. Even if you can’t make it to see the Cherry Blossoms, explore Fairmount park for a beautiful swath of nature north of the hustle of center city Philadelphia.
Each time I visit, Philadelphia creeps its way higher up my list of favorite cities. And it gave me a great way to enjoy cherry blossom season without booking a ticket back to Korea or Japan! Where are your favorite cherry blossom spots? Anywhere unexpected like this?