SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year in San Francisco's Japantown with the two week festival wrapping up April 14-16th.
San Francisco has one of only four surviving Japantowns in the nation and the festival is put on every year by the sheer will of hundreds of community volunteers.
George Yamasaki, Jr. has been a festival emcee since 1970 and remembers the first festival in1968.
"The very first parade basically circled Japantown. It was only 12 blocks," Yamasaki said. Now the parade route extends more than a mile from city hall through Japantown.
Yamasaki says the fesitval has changed through the decades, but the goal has remained the same.
"To share the culture of Japan and nowadays, the culture of modern Japan things like kendama and anime, cosplay," said Yamasaki, "What little I know about Japanese culture, I've learned because of the festival."
The festival has also helped Japantown economy and businesses blossom. Many are small and family owned.
"The festival was first created by a group of Japanese, dedicated Japanese American businessmen in the community and trying to promote commerce here in Japantown," said Richard Hashimoto, the 2017 Festival Co-chair and President of the Japantown Merchants Association.
The last remaining is 111 years old and that's Benkyodo that serves Japanese manju the confectionaries.
Cultural icons such as taiko teacher Seiichi Tanaka and Japanese dance teacher Michiya Hanayagi and many performing groups from Japan have helped connect younger Japanese Americans with their heritage.
Matthew Nagatomi started volunteering ten years ago when he was 16 years old and is now the festival logistics co-chair.
"Now as we're getting to the 50th I think it's more important now than ever to try and get a lot more of the younger generation, the new generation in to now help preserve the festival and push it to 100 if not more than that," said Nagatomi
The festival attracts more than a quarter million visitors every year, with the grand parade and the cherry blossom queen and court capping off the two week festival.
"A lot of the folks from Japan are surprised by how authentic the Cherry Blossom Festival is," said Kiyomi Takeda, a first time festival co-chair and part of the new generation facing the challenge of keeping the festival and San Francisco's Japantown alive.
"Whether it's with the other community leaders, with the volunteers, the Japan groups, the performers. it's so interesting to be able to learn every part of the festival and understand how each component is special and important," said Takeda..
The 2017 grand marshal is legendary sumo champion Konishiki who will be at the gala banquet Friday night and be featured in the grand parade at 1 p.m. Sunday.