Cherry Blossom Festival and 'Big Bugs' in Philadelphia

Artist David Rogers takes out the head, with a slight smirk on its face, as he works on assembling the giant praying mantis in his "Big Bugs" exhibit at Morris Arboretum.
Artist David Rogers takes out the head, with a slight smirk on its face, as he works on assembling the giant praying mantis in his "Big Bugs" exhibit at Morris Arboretum. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 06, 2013

Bugs and blossoms - it must be spring!

Flowers first: More than a decade ago Adelaide Ferguson, cofounder of the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, stood in Fairmount Park pouring sake on the roots of a cherry tree.

In the event's early years, the two-day "festival" featured a black-tie fund-raising dinner followed by this ritual, centered on the 1,600 trees given to the City of Philadelphia by the Japanese government in 1926. As Ferguson and dozens of others splashed alcohol on the budding trees, she looked around and said to herself: "This needs to be a lot more fun."

So she and Kazumi Teune, then newly appointed executive director of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia, got to work, and 11 years later the festival has grown into an extravaganza that attracts upward of 20,000 visitors each year.

The trees are still hydrated with pours of the traditional Japanese libation - but now they're also honored with close to a month of events relating to Japanese culture in Fairmount Park and elsewhere.

Festivities began Monday and will end with the Blossom Bash on April 26, but the centerpiece is Sakura Sunday, an all-day celebration on April 14 that features a 5K race, a Harajuku fashion show, origami, flower arranging, Japanese food, martial-arts demonstrations, the Tamagawa University Taiko Drum and Dance Group, and more.

Since the festival's beginnings, Teune has seen an increase in visitors and a decrease in their median age. She believes Japanese pop music ("J-Pop"), anime, and other imports have helped younger generations embrace Japanese culture.

"It's not that Eastern or Asian," she says of how people view it now. "It's something we've been sharing for a long time." One of Teune's top goals is to "include everyone, from grandparents to grade school."

In Japan, the springtime bloom coincides with the beginning of the school year and the hiring process for most jobs, so the flowers have come to symbolize new beginnings. Flower-viewing parties have gone on for centuries and are a leisurely affair, usually involving a bottle of sake and a picnic under the cherry trees.

Ferguson fell in love with Japanese culture while working at Temple University's Japanese campus. "One of the things that we try to bring to Philadelphia with the Cherry Blossom Festival is just taking time to just sit under the cherry trees, picnic, have some sake, let the kids run around, watch the petals fall off the tree, and relax. That's something they do really well in Japan."

The Morris Arboretum also is hosting some Japanese-themed activities in conjunction with the Cherry Blossom Festival. But until Aug. 31, it's bugs that are taking over the 92-acre gardens.

Last week a gigantic praying mantis foreleg dangled in the air from a rope attached to the tractor driven by chief horticulturist Vince Marrocco, who swung it closer to its destination: the 16-foot-long insect's body, made from the wood of a black locust tree.

Sculptor David Rogers stresses while the team scrambles to attach the leg to the thorax. The slightly smirking praying mantis sticks its tongue out as the team safely screws in the leg.

Rogers has been doing this for more than 20 years, but says it never becomes less nerve-racking. He learned to weld as a teenager. After seeing a tree in Vermont that reminded him of a backbone, he started creating sculptures of dinosaurs. then insects.

The original set of "Big Bugs" consisted of a ladybug, a spider, a daddy longlegs, three ants, a dragonfly, and the same praying mantis being assembled at the Morris last week. Debuting at the Dallas Arboretum in 1992, the creatures have been touring ever since.

It's their second visit to Philadelphia (joined by a damselfly, an assassin bug, and a grasshopper), as part of the arboretum's agenda to educate on the benefits of bugs to our ecosystem. The grand opening is Saturday; other events throughout spring and summer, including art classes and a bug-and-brew session, are aimed at "children of all ages."

Rogers, a former cabdriver, originally saw his work as a lucrative hobby. Now he sees himself as part of a greater mission, directly tied to the places his bugs are exhibited. "It has become a privilege to do what I've done because I've gotten to help these institutions expand their outreach in the communities."

Drawing visitors to places like the Morris Arboretum, where people can go to admire nature and learn, is one of the most rewarding aspects of his jobs.

Another is the look on people's faces when they turn a corner and are confronted by a parade of 20-foot ants. He often walks around his own exhibits to savor visitors' reactions.

"I see how much fun they're having," he says, "and that's the joy."


Look! Things Lovely and Large

Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, through April 27

Japanese Story Hours at various locations and times. Area libraries host readings of stories to children in Japanese and English.

Shofusu Japanese House and Garden hosts tea ceremonies and a memorial to the 2011 tsunami, and offers cherry blossom viewing in an authentic setting. 100 Horticulture Dr., Fairmount Park, weekends in April.

Sakura Sunday The festival's centerpiece event features the Tamagawa University Taiko Drum and Dance Group, the "Prettiest Pet in Pink Parade," a Harajuku fashion show, food, demonstrations, performances, crafts. 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 14.

Details at http://subarucherryblossom.org.

David Rogers' Big Bugs, through August

Grand Opening Dress as a bug for a celebratory parade around the Morris Arboretum garden. Bug-inspired music, a bug craft activity, and Big Bugs scavenger hunt maps. Naturalists from the Academy of Natural Sciences will be on hand with a variety of insects live and not so live. Saturday.

Bug Art Children make bug-inspired art and learn about insects' roles in the environment and history. 1-2:45 p.m. April 14, 21, 28, and May 5.  

Bugs a-Brewing Arboretum experts discuss good bugs and bad ones, their threats and merits at Chestnut Hill's Iron Hill Brewery. 6:30 p.m. April 22.

Let's Move - Be a Bug Kids make their way through a "bug boot camp." Third Saturday of every month, May 18-Aug. 17. The arboretum is at 100 E. Northwestern Ave.

Details at http://www.business-services.upenn.edu/arboretum/events_big-bugs.shtml.


Contact Elizabeth Horkley at ehorkley@philly.com.

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