Ferguson and Hamada discuss ohanami , the traditional Japanese festival of spring, while awaiting lunch at Zento.
From its Colonial roots, Philadelphia evolved rapidly into a cosmopolitan city embracing cultures near and far. The annual Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival—running April 2–13 this year—is just one example of our vibrant community coming together to celebrate the traditions and customs of its immigrants and visitors from around the world. Inspired by the 1,600 cherry trees that Japan gave to Philadelphia in 1926, the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia launched the festival in 1998, vowing to plant 1,000 new trees in Fairmount Park. By 2007 the elegant trees dotted the park’s periphery, providing a welcome beacon of spring’s arrival. Festival co-founder Adelaide Ferguson and Villanova University professor Masako Hamada are major supporters of Japanese culture in Philly and are instrumental in coordinating the event. Philadelphia Style joined the women for lunch at Old City’s Zento Contemporary Japanese Cuisine + Sake Bar to discuss how Japanese culture and cuisine are in full bloom in Philadelphia.
You’re both very involved in promoting Japanese culture in Philly. Masako Hamada: We are both members of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, and I also founded the Japanese studies program at Villanova University.
Adelaide Ferguson: As board members for the JASGP, our mission is to promote business and cultural connections between Philadelphia and Japan. We do several events, most notably the Cherry Blossom Festival, for which I am the cochair. We’re also writing a book, Phila-Nipponica: An Historic Guide to Philadelphia & Japan, that details the fascinating stories of a young Japanese man named Manchuro who was shipwrecked and brought to Philadelphia in 1850. He started it all.
Is traditional Japanese cuisine well-represented in Philadelphia? MH: There was only one Japanese restaurant when I came to Philadelphia 24 years ago. Now there are so many, and in general I believe they keep the Japanese traditions, but the food has adjusted and adapted to American culture—everything here is in large portions. In Japan, we have adapted to American culture, too. We even have steamed teriyaki hamburgers.
What’s on the menu for today? AF: We always start off with tea, usually green tea. Tea culture is very important in Japan. I also love udon—it’s the first thing I have when I land in Japan and the last thing I eat before I leave. MH: We’ll begin with a traditional small dish like tempura before enjoying some sashimi, sushi, a hot meal, and soup.
The sashimi platter.
What do you like most about Zento? MH: Presentation is very important, and the aesthetics of what you eat is very significant in Japanese food culture. Zento focuses on traditional values and also has a large, modern menu. AF: Zento is wonderful because they pay attention to the details.
Any other favorite Japanese restaurants? MH: Since I live in the suburbs, I frequent Japanese restaurants in my area. My favorites are Azie on Main in Villanova and Margaret Kuo’s Akari Room in Wayne. AF: We are so lucky to have so many excellent Japanese restaurants in Philadelphia, so it’s hard to mention just a few. The tempura udon soup at Fuji Mountain is my ultimate comfort food—I crave it on a chilly day.
How did Philadelphia’s Cherry Blossom Festival come about? AF: The festival in its very early days was just a few people on the board of directors pouring sake on the roots of newly planted cherry trees. From there we decided that it should be bigger, so we researched what other cities were doing. It started out very small, maybe 1,500 people the first year. Now we have 12,000 or so.
What’s the significance of the cherry tree in Japanese culture? MH: The cherry blossom is a symbol of beauty in our culture. It looks so gorgeous, but also its life is very short—a week to 10 days—so the blossom represents enjoying the beauty of the moment. AF: Carpe diem. Seize the moment, enjoy the day, and take your time.
What can festivalgoers look forward to this year? MH: It’s great for everyone to get together and learn about Japanese culture. And the Cherry Blossom Queen herself—the most beautiful and intelligent girl in Japan—will be there. AF: Sakura Sunday, which is the most important part of the festival, will take place this year on April 13. That is the day that the performers, who are flying in from Japan, come up to Philadelphia from the Washington, DC, Cherry Blossom Festival. We have so many performers—dancers, archers, martial artists, and drummers—and then we have people who dress up in costume. The whole festival just kind of steals your heart.Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia, April 2–13, 215-790- 3810