WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – When Yoko Battista was asked to help with the White Plains Cherry Blossom Festival over 13 years ago, it was a small event that drew a few hundred visitors. She became the lead organizer shortly afterwards, and now the annual spring rite draws more than 5,000 visitors.
Battista, a Realtor with Better Homes and Gardens Randy Realty, helped move the event to a safer location and added additional attractions to support it's growth. The festival has helped White Plains beautify its parks, and this year its 100th tree will be planted. “White Plains has been very gracious to us,’’ Battista said. Westchester County, with the help of Arts Westchester, has also helped the festival flourish.
“Jane Mercaldi asked me to help out and that was the start of it,’’ Battista said. “She was busy in her other job and this event became overwhelming for her, and that’s when I took over. At the time it was very small. I asked the city if we could move it to a different location. It just gets better every year.”
Cherry Blossoms have had significance in Japanese culture for hundreds of years. In Japan, due to the nature of their blooming, cherry blossoms represent both the beauty and fleeting fragility of life.
Many citizens of Japan celebrate hanami (cherry blossom viewing) during the height of the blooming by having picnics under the trees. That tradition extends to Battista’s festival.
“The festival is like a rebirth of the culture and a family reunion,’’ Battista said. “We’ll have a special Japanese picnic for everyone who attends the event.”
Battista said the growth of the festival surprised her. “It’s just overwhelming how much it has grown,’’ she said. “We're all volunteers and we’re running around like crazy. I feel like it’s important for me to do it, though. The United States has given me so much. It’s time to re-pay it.”
Battista, the mother of three adult sons and the grandmother to four, also volunteers with a Japanese Taiko drum team that performs about 10 times a year. The team includes drummers ages 6-60 and has about 20 members. The team performs at many community events, including the Cherry Blossom festival.
“When I started I didn’t have any experience,’’ Battista said. “Now I love it, the team is very good team. And the people really enjoy them. It’s a hard instrument to learn, but it’s something I’ve really learned to enjoy.”
This year's White Plains Cherry Blossom Festival will be held on Sunday, April 27 from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Turnure Park in White Plains.