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This Weekend: A Seasonal Event that's Multi-Generational, Multi-Cultural

I've been going for a few years with my family to the cherry blossom festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—we bring a picnic, enjoy the longed for warmer air, take lots of pictures under the beautifully blooming trees, and let my little guy run around and around. Even my grandmother gets in on the act; she's the quintessential people watcher (you know, the senior citizen who peers out the window from behind curtains all day, who doesn't bother to camouflage her staring at passersby when walking on the sidewalk)—and besides being a popular annual cultural celebration, BBG's Sakura Matsuri is a people watcher's haven. Amidst the kimono-clad attendees you'll see families in jeans and shorts, and you'll spot costumes that run the gamut. Most of all, though, you'll see pink. [caption id="attachment_4976" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Left to right: Petrina Cheng Tatara, Merry Wu, Tania Vivas, Carlos De Santiago, member of the Parasol Society, Grace Scott, Amber Rutland, Donna Lin Left to right: Petrina Cheng Tatara, Merry Wu, Tania Vivas, Carlos De Santiago, Tia, Grace Scott, Amber Rutland, Donna Lin[/caption]  

Cherry Blossoms, Japanese Culture, Music, Sushi...and Little Bo Peep?

I used to marvel at the winding lines to get into the festival (yes, it's that popular—though a new visitor's center entrance should curtail long waits this year): We'd wind past girls done up in royal blue wigs, polka dotted socks, lace frill here and lace trim there, parasols shading girls' delicate faces from the sun while serving as stylish props for photo ops. I reveled in the festivity of it all, laughed at their clear joy, and waltzed past them for a relaxing day in the fresh air with my family. As a naturally curious type—a journalist, no less—I wonder why I never investigated what this phenomenon was? It turns out, all I needed to do was ask. As I discovered today, those who partake in the theatrical "cosplay" are eager to share their enthusiasm—and, umm, it's contagious!  

The World of Frills and Fashion and Everything Pink

What do you think of when I say "Lolita"? If you're of a certain age, my bet is the iconic Vladimir Nabokov book—or Sting's reference to said book in the lyrics to the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Or maybe you'd guess it's a newly gentrifying NYC neighborhood to the Left of Little Italy. Never would I have guessed it looked like THIS: [caption id="attachment_4953" align="aligncenter" width="619"]Lolita-1 Top right, Merry Wu[/caption] At a sneak preview today of this weekend's awe-inspiring Sakura Matsuri, which takes place Saturday and Sunday, April 27-28 from 10a.m.-6p.m. at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I talked with and photographed a group of members of BBG's Parasol Society. To say they were enthusiastic would be an understatement. Their dress—known alternatively as "cosplay," short for costume play, which is often inspired by manga and anime stories, and "Lolita," which I learned is a sub-genre of Japanese street style—was pretty, modest, and very, very pink. [caption id="attachment_4963" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Three-Girls-Small Left to right: Merry Wu, Amber Rutland, and Donna Lin[/caption] Lolita is "Japanese fashion inspired by the Victorian fashion sense of modesty but with the opulent flair of Marie Antoinette," says twenty-something Petrina Cheng Tatara, who grew up in Queens and "was big into anime." She's since immersed herself in the NYC Lolita community, writing a blog called Lolita and the City, which is chock-full of resources, hair and makeup tutorials, and "tips and tricks for anyone into frills and cupcakes navigating around the city." The Lolita fashion subculture presents itself in various guises, including the Sweet Lolita style I encountered today (which, I am told, is very popular in New York City). If you can make it out to the festivities this weekend, you're likely to spot people dressed in Gothic Lolita and Punk Lolita costumes, as well. Even if all the trees are not yet in bloom, the fashion are sure to be! [caption id="attachment_4966" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Top: Grace Scott; bottom left: Donna Lin; bottom right: Amber Rutland Top: Grace Scott; bottom left: Donna Lin; bottom right: Amber Rutland[/caption] Grace Scott, who grew up in Hartsdale, went on a school trip to Japan when she was 15. Now 23, she revels in all that comes with "being" a Lolita, including wearing "lots of bonnets!" What does she love the most? "I just like lace—lace everywhere. And I guess I just like looking adorable all the time. I wear it to work, and I wear it outside of work. I wear it all the time." Really? Not sure how welcome I'd be if I came into my office dressed as Little Bo Peep—but it sure sounds fun. And all I could think was, Good for you! Grace says she's sometimes compared by passersby to Alice in Wonderland or Nicki Minaj, and these comparisons delight her. Why dress up? "It makes me happy!!" said Grace's friend and fellow Parasol Society member Donna Lin. And isn't that what matters most?!!  

A Community Spirit that Transcends the Cultural Roots of Sakura Matsuri

I was struck by the togetherness and joy that exuded from the members of the Parasol Society I met. Watching them as a bystander I could sense a real community spirit, and engaging with them confirmed my perception. Twenty-three-year-old Brooklynite Amber Rutland, who has been dressing the Sweet Lolita part for "too many years to remember," said she first discovered the community online. She now helps organize activities—meet-ups, clothing swaps, occasions to promenade in full regalia such as this one. She is drawn to the elegance, she said. "Dressing like a princess, especially the elements from Rococo and Victorian fashions" appeal to her. As various members of the press—and quite a few public visitors to BBG—snapped the Lolitas' pictures and asked them questions, the young ladies alternatively giggled, answered thoughtfully, and yelled messages over one another's shoulders mid-interview. They were bonded—by their obvious romance with Japanese youth culture, their full skirts and petticoats and ribbons, a genuine feeling of acceptance. I thought, Would they be outsiders if they were out of costume? Somehow I imagine they would; a quirkiness, an exuberance, something a little left of center seemed characteristic of each—something innocent and joyful and young that aligned them just so. I find it both charming and empowering (in a Gwen Stefani kind of way) that anyone can shed their skin, don an over-the-top and elegant outfit, and promenade around the Cherry Esplanade—or down Broadway—and fit right in.  

Celebrating Traditional & Contemporary Japanese Culture

While I focused on the costume aspects of Sakura Matsuri, there is an incredible amount going on at BBG this weekend that make it worth the trip, whether you're in Westchester, Manhattan, or any of the boroughs! From a children's suzuki recital to the next generation of talko drummers, from samurai sword shows to bonsai and garden tours, from martial arts masters to anime rock from Tokyo, from flower arrangement to video game illustration, from traditional folk dance to drawing with manga master Misako Rocks...the list goes on and on. Check out the full schedule, or just drop by (though I highly recommend getting your tickets in advance). Although the 76 Prunus 'Kanzan' trees on Cherry Esplanade have yet to flower, dozens of flowering trees in the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden are in peak bloom. Here are a few shots from my stroll this sunny morning: White-Blossoms-Horiz-Small   Blooms   [caption id="attachment_4980" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Brooklyn twins Maeve (in pink) and Helen, 2, played in the garden amidst fallen flowers. Brooklyn twins Maeve (in pink) and Helen, 2, played in the garden amidst fallen flowers.[/caption]

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