On a gorgeous cloudless January day, three cherry trees outside of Fumi Bonk’s home reflect the type of blossoming that happens in Waimea. Planted in honor of their three children, the first tree is filled with bright pink blossoms. The middle tree has light pink buds just starting to bloom and the third tree is bare as if it is winter.
“That third tree blooms later in the year,” said Keiko Bonk, Fumi’s middle child and daughter.
The trees on Bonk’s land were planted in the 70’s when it was the Waimea Lion’s Club vision to begin planting cherry trees throughout Waimea.
“A man named Ishihara passed out small cherry plants to everyone,” said Emi Wakayama. “It was their dream to see these trees alongside the road and everywhere in town.”
The 21st Annual Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival is now the largest event Waimea town holds. The festival, on Saturday, Feb. 1, honors Waimea residents Emiko “Emi” Wakayama and Fumi Bonk. Several thousand people are expected to attend this festival, though the event had humble beginnings in 1993.
“It was mainly Asian people who started the festival,” remembers Wakayama, who was on the first planning committee. “We held it at Church Row near the cherry trees and it was very small.”
Bonk who was also present at the first event in 1993, said she recalls serving coffee at 6 a.m. with the AARP. “We enjoyed it and it brought camaraderie,” she said.
Wakayama and Bonk were selected as honorees by the Cherry Blossom committee, headed by Roxcie Waltjen, culture education administrator with the County of Hawaii.
“These women have made an outstanding contribution to the community,” Waltjen said. “They both have given so freely of themselves, their knowledge and their skills.”
Very active in community events and affairs over the years, Wakayama and Bonk have shared their knowledge in their own unique ways to perpetuate their culture as well as to educate others.
Over the years Wakayama has taught the art of the Japanese formal tea ceremony, known as Chanoyu. Teaching students from her home, she has also demonstrated the tea ceremony at each Cherry Blossom Festival from the start. She recalls that her favorite place to perform the tea ceremony was in front of the fireplace at Richard Smart’s home, Puuopelu.
“It was fabulous!” Wakayama exclaimed. “The setting was perfect.”
It can take years of practice to master the art of Japanese tea ceremonies, a cultural activity involving the ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha (powdered green tea). Students learn how to properly enter the tea room, when to bow, how to make the tea correctly, proper placement of cups and utensils and how to drink from the tea cup. They are also taught the correct words to say, how to handle the bowls, and many other precise details related to the ceremony.
“I just wanted to share with people a part of the culture that is fading away,” Wakayama said.
This year, the Japanese tea ceremony will be held in the lobby of the Kahilu Theatre. It’s not Wakayama’s first choice of venue, as she loves the home setting, but she is very grateful to Kahilu Theatre that she and her student Miga Takahashi will have a location.
“I can no longer wear a kimono because the obi is too tight and I can’t breathe,” said Wakayama who is 83 years old this year. “And I can’t sit on the floor anymore so my student Miga, she is going to wear the kimono.”
Wakayama learned the art of the tea ceremony (Chanoyu) in Japan. Born and raised in Hilo, she graduated from Hilo High School and studied fashion design at both the University of Hawaii and Pratt Institute in New York. After five years of working in New York, Wakayama traveled to Tokyo, Japan where she met her husband, the late Kinya, and returned to Waimea with him. Working as a seamstress, she made muumuus and appliqued Hawaiian quilts.
“I made Hawaiian quilts and sold them at Mauna Kea Beach hotel,” Wakayama said. “You’ll be able to see some of my quilts on Saturday, they will be displayed in the Kahilu Town Hall.”
Bonk is a ceramicist, educator and an advocate for peace and social justice. In December, she had a 90th birthday party and made 100 ceramic plates in her home studio.
“I made a haiku for my party,” said Bonk. “It goes, ‘Ups and downs of life — It’s been a long, long journey — With lots of laughter.’”
Sitting with Wakayama in her living room, Bonk said with a laugh, “I’m still kicking, but in slow motion.”
Bonk was born and raised in Waialae, Oahu and moved to the Big Island in the 1940’s. She served as co-director of Hilo High School’s alternative “School Within a School” before moving to Waimea in the early 1980’s to teach at Waimea Intermediate. In the 1960’s she founded the Big Island Art Guild and was a member of the Hawaii Craftsmen.
She has been working with clay for more than 50 years, and her pieces are found in state collections as well as private collections.
“A lot of her work is in Honolulu,” said Keiko Bonk.
Standing in Bonk’s ceramic studio, there are a few pieces sitting on the shelves. “A lot of her art went down in the ’06 earthquake, but right before it happened, we had shipped 30 boxes to Honolulu, and they arrived safely.”
Bonk still spends a couple of hours each day in her studio creating pottery. Her work is known for being influenced in the Japanese Jomon period (12,000-300 BCE) and Bonk has produced large 21st century modern sculpture.
“Gordon Motta comes and helps me,” Bonk said. “He is one of the best studio ceramic artists. Some friends you have for life.”
Bonk is also known for her work as a human rights advocate. In her 80’s she traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the One Nation Rally of educators “to stand up for better education, housing and health care for all American people.”
“They are beautiful people and they deserve to be honored,” Waltjen said.
There will be several opportunities for the public to take part in the planting of flowering cherry trees; at 10:30 a.m., Gov. Abercrombie will plant a cherry tree on the front lawn of the Historic Spencer House, honoring retired Judge and former Lt. Governor Nelson Doi. Then at 11:15 a.m., the governor will plant three more cherry trees at the entry to Lalamilo farm lots. The trees will “honor the three generations of Japanese families that turned Lalamilo’s arid, rocky lands into the highly productive leafy greens and other produce ‘food basket’ of the state.”
Festival parking is available at Parker Ranch Center, the soccer field across Church Row Park and Parker School. Three festival shuttles offer free transportation among the many venues participating in the event.
Fumi Bonk and Emi Wakayama will be honored and recognized at the opening of the Cherry Blossom Festival, Saturday at 9:00 a.m. on the entertainment stage at the rear of Parker Ranch Center. Both Gov. Abercrombie and Mayor Billy Kenoi will be present at the ceremony.