The annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Denver is a celebration of Japanese culture. The festival takes place June 22 at Sakura Square, Lawrence Street between 19th and 20th Streets in Denver. Courtesy

Nearly 50 years ago, a number of members of the Denver Buddhist Temple were worried about the area around the church.

They’d been told by city officials that the area was a blight, and they had plans to redevelop it. While the members wanted the area to look better, they didn’t want the city to come in and change the downtown neighborhood they loved so dearly.

So they began to put their heads together to think of a way to improve the situation, as well as get information out about the temple.

Thus, the first-ever Cherry Blossom Festival was held in the early 1970s.

“They learned quickly that if you have food, people will flock to your event,” said Stacey Shigaya, spokeswoman for the festival.

For 47 years, those in the know in Denver have headed to the small strip on Lawrence Street to attend the two-day festival. Every year, it’s continued to grow, bringing in hundreds of locals and tourists interested in learning more about Japanese culture and the Buddhist faith.

This year is no different.

The annual festival will take place June 22 and June 23 on Lawrence Street in the Sakura Square portion of downtown Denver.

Admission to the festival is free, but for those who might need cash, there will be an ATM inside the Buddhist temple.

“We have a small but mighty Japanese population in Denver,” Shigaya said. “It’s definitely not as massive as places like Los Angeles or New York City, but we definitely have people here who are incredibly proud of their culture and their history.”

Shigaya noted that while the event is themed around Japanese food and entertainment, the organizers make sure to explain what certain events and food items are for those who might not be as well-versed in the culture as others.

One of the major draws every year at the festival is the delicious food, most of which is prepared by either temple members or volunteers who work with the festival. A definite favorite is the teriyaki dishes, especially the chicken ones. However, options like Spam musubi (a Hawaiian-inspired snack where Spam is marinated in teriyaki and served on a bed of rice wrapped in seaweed), gyoza (Japanese dumplings made with pork and vegetables) or mochi manju (sweet bean paste with sweet mochi rice) are worth trying, as well. Alcohol like beer and sake will also be for sale inside the temple.

As for entertainment, both days will be packed with performers. A major attraction at all of the festivals has been taiko, a Japanese-style of drumming. There will also be dancers, demonstrations of various styles of martial arts (mainly karate, judo and akido), a tea ceremony, singing and even a cosplay contest for those interested in anime.

Shigaya recommended that for anyone who hasn’t been to the festival before, they need to check out the temple, especially the downstairs area, where a number of vendors will be stationed.

“This festival is so much fun, and has been going strong for nearly 50 years,” she said. “I think people should come out, find a recipe they like made by one of the temple members and try it. Talk with some temple members and learn more about another culture. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a great chance to expand your horizons about the world around you.

“There’s this little pocket down here that not everyone knows about, but they should. It’s really special.”

Ellen Fike is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s features editor. She can be reached at 307-633-3135 or efike@wyomingnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EllenLFike.

Ellen Fike is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s features editor. She can be reached at efike@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3135. Follow her on Twitter @EllenLFike

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