jrodriguez@mercurynews.com

SAN JOSE--After a blustery, cold start on Sunday, Japantown's annual Nikkei Matsuri cherry blossom festival bloomed into sun-splashed display of Japanese music, dance and food with a good measure of pan-Asian arts and crafts.

The only things missing were cherry blossoms.

"That's not a cherry tree," said Kimiko Nishima, a master maker of mataro kimekomi dolls, marking her 15th year at the festival. She caressed one of her smaller examples of the 400-year-old art form and cast an eye at a tree behind her booth. The impostor possessed a few pink blossoms and struggled to cast shade over Nishima's exquisite dolls.

"I don't know what it is," she said. Nobody else did either.

Then again, the festival in one of America's last surviving Japantowns has become much different from the traditional rite of spring in the old country.

In Japan, people continue the tradition of hanami. They feast and party under and around the flowering blossoms, whose stunning looks and quick deaths each spring have come to symbolize the transience of nature and beauty. The cherry blossom is practically everywhere in Japanese art, from ancient pottery to film and modern anime cartoons.

Mass roundup

San Jose's Japantown was founded about 122 years ago and survived the mass roundup and imprisonment of many of its residents during World War II. That was enough time and experience for the cherry blossom rite to evolve here into a celebration of Japanese culture and to become an event to connect today's sonsei youngsters, the fifth generation, to their heritage.

"We do have a plan for that," said Barbara Uchiyama, a volunteer with the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, which had pitched its booth under the pink blossoms of another noncherry tree. "Our vision is to educate the community, to keep them informed on the contributions of Japanese-Americans to the United States, and about the internment."

The museum since its start in 1987 has been a cultural anchor for Japantown. Another anchor, one that's been around for about 115 years, is the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin, one of the largest temples of that faith in the country. Its two major festivals--the Nikkei Matsuri and the Obon in summer -- draw tens of thousands to Japantown every year, many of them non-Japanese.

Inside the church hall, 72-year-old Rick Mirabel exhibited a few of his bonsai plants. The retired industrial designer of mixed Filipino, Portuguese, Spanish and Malaysian blood took up the art of miniature horticulture only five years ago.

"It's sculpture with living trees," Mirabel said.

One of his teachers is Seiji Shiba, a retired orthodontist and bonsai prize winner, who said anyone can attend classes offered by the Buddhist's church's bonsai club. Shiba and Mirabel were recruiting new members because, well, the average age of the club is somewhere between 60 and 70.

Blend and adapt

Across the street, Corinne Okada Takara's 3-D art station reflected the city's fascination with the intersection of technology and art. The mixed-media artist and teacher was offering free, plastic models of small frogs and plum blossoms as a way to promote the new, three-dimensional manufacturing technology.

While he waited in line, 17-year-old Kennedy Vu said he was of Vietnamese, Chinese and Russian ancestry. Someone reminded him that just 60 years ago, those three countries were at bitter war with Japan. What would his ancestors say about his cavorting with their old enemy today?

"It never crosses my mind at all," the Independence High School senior said. "I like the Japanese community here and their arts and crafts, especially the anime," he said of the stylized, Japanese form of animation.

A couple of blocks away, ceramic artist Thomas Arakawa embodied the to-and-fro of art and culture between old and new countries. His tableware looked heavy, as if the plates, cups and bowls were designed for museum display. Still, the items were deceptively light and cheerful.

"It looks better with food in it," Arakawa told a customer.

Arakawa's second-generation nisei father was born in America but moved to Japan, where the artist was born and raised. He now lives in Los Gatos. As a returnee, he identifies himself as "sort of sansei," or third generation

"I make Japanese-American art," Arakawa said. "The technique is American. The materials are American. The look is Japanese. It's a lot like the people here. We adapt to local culture and blend in where we come from."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767, and follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.