Before he moved to Canada’s West Coast during elementary school, Nobu Ochi spent several afternoons in his native Kyoto going to the park with his grandmother. He remembers how the cherry blossoms in spring would blanket the ground in pink. The executive chef of West Vancouver’s Zen Japanese Restaurant is as much in awe of the iconic trees now as he was then.
“In Japan, the season is about family and friends getting together and spreading out a big blanket under the cherry blossoms,” Ochi tells the Georgia Straight by phone. “Everyone brings food, and the adults bring sake, and it’s a big outing. People just sit and enjoy. That’s what the whole spirit of it is, and that’s what we’re trying to portray at Sakura Night.”
The gala—which takes place at the Stanley Park Pavilion on Sunday (April 2)—raises funds for the annual arts-and-culture festival and will feature food from eight local chefs. Ochi will be preparing several dishes, among them three types of temaki, or hand-rolled cone, including one of the most popular variations from Zen, which was the first Japanese spot in the city to become certified by the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program. The cone consists of tangy wild sockeye salmon, won-ton chips, seven-spice, seaweed, and microgreens.
Joining Ochi that evening are, among others, Hapa Izakaya chef Takayuki Sato (whose creations will include tuna tataki); Benkei Ramen’s Taka Omi (tori-shio ramen with cherry blossom); Justin Paakkunainen of Prestons Restaurant Lounge (sake-poached octopus on sesame crisp with cherry-blossom gel); and Ancora Waterfront Dining and Patio’s Ricardo Valverde (B.C. trout aburi with avocado mousse, puffed nori, and ikura). Look, too, for gelato art resembling various types of nigiri and maki by Bella Gelateria’s James Coleridge.
It’s the first year Sakura Night has featured the participation of non-Japanese chefs.
“The majority of restaurants in the city use Asian ingredients, and that’s what the cherry-blossom festival is: it’s multicultural,” Ochi says. “It’s a way for everyone to appreciate and experience the beauty of the flowers.”
Now in its 11th year, the festival got its start because of Vancouver resident Linda Poole’s own appreciation of the spectacular trees. The founder of the festival left the city for several years beginning in the early ’90s while her husband was with the foreign service. During the pair’s travels, from the Middle East to the Caribbean, Poole met a Japanese ambassador who told her about his home country’s festival.
“I was away from cherry blossoms for 13 years, living in hot countries where I never saw a cherry blossom,” Poole says by phone. “I so missed them.…He didn’t have to say anything more. I just said to myself, ‘When I get back home, I’m going to do this.’
“When I came home, that first spring, nobody else seemed to be noticing it [the cherry blossoming], and it really bothered me,” she adds. “Now people notice the beauty. They stop in their tracks and look up.”
The festival offers an array of activities and events, including tree-related walks and talks (some in Mandarin) and a haiku-writing competition. On April 8 and 9, the Sakura Days Japan Fair takes place at VanDusen Botanical Garden. Geared to food lovers are Japanese-cooking demonstrations, sake flights, and tea-ceremony demonstrations; other highlights include live music, woodworking, calligraphy, Japanese-garden displays, a lantern procession, and more. Japadog, Zakkushi, and Ichiyo’s Matcha Bar will be among the on-site food venders.
A signature gathering at the festival is the Big Picnic at Queen Elizabeth Park. The date of the city’s largest spring picnic is to be determined, with this year’s unusually harsh winter having delayed the blooms. (Keep an eye on the fest’s website.) Attendees will have the choice of bringing in their own food or taking the easy route and ordering one of two bento boxes ($20) prepared by Cocktails and Canapes Catering.
Blossom Bliss includes a sandwich consisting of furikake-seasoned chicken breast, miso-marinated slaw, pickled cucumber, sriracha, and Japanese mayo on a soft egg baguette; a red-and-green kale salad with buckwheat soba noodles, lemongrass cabbage, and grilled zucchini in a peanut dressing; temari sushi; and a white-chocolate square with rose petals.
The vegan-friendly and gluten-free Sakura V box, meanwhile, contains the same items except for the sandwich, which is swapped out for a rice-paper roll with lemongrass cabbage, pickled daikon radish, red and yellow peppers, furikake-spiced tofu noodles, cilantro, and edible flowers.
“You can order one of those and take your shoes off and sit on ‘petal mats’, which are tarps that zip up in different ways,” Poole says. “The ground is always wet, so a blanket doesn’t help you much. When you take your shoes off, it feels amazing. You just hang out and chill out.
“I remember someone saying that people become chattier and friendlier when the cherry blossom opens,” she adds. “It opens our heart, and we’re more likely to reach out. It’s so true. Come to the Big Picnic and meet some new people and make friends.”
Presented by the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival takes place at various venues from March 30 to April 23. Full details are at the VCBF website.