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The celebration brings koto music, taiko drumming, kimono competition, dancing, games and more to the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on March, 16, 2019. Anna Reed, Statesman Journal

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Dressed in a small blue kimono her mother got from Japan, Ava Duimstra wasn’t about to stand in line with the other kimono competition contestants Saturday inside the Oregon Capitol.

The 15-month-old quickly broke ranks, toddling toward audience members on the Capitol rotunda steps. Her mother, Natalie Duimstra, stayed in line beside the other competitors, keeping a watchful eye on her daughter.

Duimstra, who describes herself as half-Japanese, joked afterward that Ava was freestyling.

The kimono competition was part of the Cherry Blossom Day at the Capitol, an annual event meant to celebrate the mall’s 150 or so Akebono cherry blossom trees, Japanese culture and Salem’s cherry industry.

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The festival is in its fifth year. But many might not know that Oregon legislators passed a law in 2017 recognizing every third Saturday in March as Cherry Blossom Day, because the trees are “an essential part of Salem’s history, culture and economy,” according to Senate Bill 146.

Salem held its first Cherry Festival over three days in 1903. It had a queen’s coronation and cherry exhibits along Court Street.

In 1986, Salem and Kawagoe City in Japan became sister cities “to strengthen the bonds between them,” SB 146 states. And the Akebono flowering cherry trees were planted outside the Capitol in 1992 “in keeping with Salem’s renowned affinity for cherries.”

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Sure, the trees weren’t in blossom this weekend. But the weather was gorgeous, and several hundred people still gathered in and around the statehouse for the celebration.

Drummers from Monmouth Taiko kicked off the event around 10 a.m. with pounding music that could be heard down the street near the Salem Family YMCA and IKE Box.

The taiko drumming was a favorite for the Duimstra family.

Inside the Capitol, Masumi Timson regaled audience members on the southwest end of the rotunda with koto music, flicking and strumming the instrument’s harp-like strings to produce sharp, beautiful melodies.

The kimono competition started around 11:30 a.m. One competitor, Devin Dondero, of Tacoma, Wash., was there with his husband and clad in a vintage red, orange and black kimono. The big draw for Dondero to festivals like this is getting to see a different culture while staying close to home.

He also appreciated how well organized the event was: “Sometimes events can kind of get convoluted, but it’s a really great layout and everyone seems to be circulating pretty well.”

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Kudos for the event’s organization goes to people like Stacy Nalley, the Capitol’s public outreach coordinator. Sitting at her desk in an office away from the festivities, Nalley explained that the program is paid for through the Oregon State Capitol Foundation.

“They give me the money to put on these programs,” she said. “I go annually to, you know, solicit them basically for a budget to put on the Capitol History Gateway programming.”

Officials chose the third Saturday of March, she said, because March is usually when the cherry blossom trees bloom. “Is it different every year? Absolutely,” she said.

In 2020, Cherry Blossom Day will fall on March 21, almost a full week later than this year.

Nalley said: “I’m sure by March 21 next year they’re going to be in bloom — I hope.”

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Email jbach@statesmanjournal.com, call (503) 399-6714 or follow on Twitter @jonathanmbach.

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