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Hundreds gather under rain to celebrate Japanese arts, culture at Santa Rosa’s Matsuri Festival

Pouring rain could not stop the Matsuri Japanese Arts Festival from celebrating its 10th anniversary Sunday.

Attendees huddled under umbrellas and vendor tents, sipping sencha tea and steaming miso soup as they watched a Shinto cleansing ceremony and Ensohza traditional dance performance during the festival at Santa Rosa’s Juilliard Park.

“Everybody was happy that we did not cancel. I got lots of calls and emails. I said ‘Rain or shine, we’re going to do it,’?” said Henry Kaku, president of the festival’s board. “In Japan, it rains frequently all year long and they don’t cancel festivals.”

The showers did not deter Orion Field from coming to the festival with his family so that he could demonstrate Japanese martial arts with his peers at Santa Rosa’s New School Aikido. Dressed in his white aikido uniform, the energetic 7-year-old Occidental boy spent part of Sunday afternoon taking part in a traditional mochitsuki ceremony, using a wooden hammer to pound sticky rice into gooey mochi.

“It’s squishy and chewy,” Field said of the rice cake. “I like it.”

The mochi was molded and cut by a group under a nearby tent that included volunteer Kimiko Bissiri, a Santa Rosa woman originally from Japan. She dipped mochi balls into a mix of sugar and soy powder for attendees to sample.

“It’s so good to have people come celebrate Japanese culture,” Bissiri said.

Chris Smith, a columnist at The Press Democrat, served as the festival’s emcee. He read a proclamation from the City of Santa Rosa, declaring May 19 as Japanese Cultural Appreciation Day. Smith also welcomed Tomochika Uyama, the consul general of Japan in San Francisco, and Rev. Koichi Barrish, a Shinto priest from the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America who performed a special purification ritual in honor of the festival’s anniversary.

“He believes there is something universal in Shinto that can enhance everyone’s spirituality,” Smith said about Barrish.

It was the first time the festival has had a Shinto priest hold a spiritual ritual, and organizers said it was a meaningful way to mark the festival’s 10th anniversary.

“It was so nice. It brings in a different aspect of Japanese culture,” said Meg Mizutani, a member of the festival board.

More than 2,000 people typically attend the free event, Mizutani said, but this year’s crowd was smaller due to the rain. She estimated at least 1,000 people showed up for the festival Sunday.

“I’m so pleased to see this turnout despite the weather,” Mizutani said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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