The Japanese Church of Christ honored the local Japanese community and shared its culture with other Utahns at its first-ever summer festival, Natsu Matsuri.

The JCC, founded in Salt Lake in 1918, has held its annual fall festival, Aki Matsuri, for decades. But this is the first year it has been moved up to a summer festival as a way to bring together the community and celebrate Japanese culture.

It was also the JCC's first festival event in five years after cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a series of remodels.

Event chairwoman Jani Iwamoto, member of the JCC and former state senator, said the festival is an important way for the local Japanese community to honor its ancestors and share its culture.

"This event is great for sharing our culture as much as we can (with) the greater public and (with) everyone, and it's really been a community effort," Iwamoto said.

The JCC building at 268 W. 100 South and the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple down the street at 211 W. 100 South are the only two remaining structures of what Iwamoto said was a thriving Japantown in the 1960s. Iwamoto is part of the movement to restore and maintain what remains of the Japanese community in Salt Lake.

The garden just east of the church is dedicated to Japanese pioneers, called Issei (people born in Japan who moved to America) and Nisei (children of Issei who are native-born citizens). A plaque was recently added honoring Utah Japanese American soldiers who received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.

Judy Iwamoto folds origami while surrounded by bonsai trees made by Ken Yamane at Natsu Matsuri, a Japanese culture festival at the Japanese Church of Christ in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Judy Iwamoto folds origami while surrounded by bonsai trees made by Ken Yamane at Natsu Matsuri, a Japanese culture festival at the Japanese Church of Christ in Salt Lake City on Saturday. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Iwamoto said the festival was a way for locals to honor those pioneers. She shared the Japanese saying "Okage sama de," which she said means, "I am what I am because of you."

"It's sharing our culture," Iwamoto said. "This place has been a sacred place for our community for over 100 years, and we just are blessed to have those that came before us."

Performers at the festival included the JCC Kenshin Taiko drummers group using traditional drums more than 30 years old, and the Utah Japanese Language School presenting a traditional fashion show. The Rocky Mountain Judo Club and Lotus Blossom School of Martial Arts shared presentations of their respective sports. The Utah Japanese Language School taught classes and gave presentations on making rice balls, called Onigiri.

Volunteers and performers at the festival also came from the Japanese American Citizens League, and from other local churches, including the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple. The Anchored in Christ Wesleyan Church Choir, a Tongan group that worships in the JCC's church building, also sang at the festival.

Floyd Mori is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who said volunteering at the festival gave him a great opportunity to connect with his relatives and with the community.

Sam Downey, 13, and others from Lotus Blossom Martial Arts in Murray perform with wooden swords at Natsu Matsuri, a Japanese culture festival at the Japanese Church of Christ in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Sam Downey, 13, and others from Lotus Blossom Martial Arts in Murray perform with wooden swords at Natsu Matsuri, a Japanese culture festival at the Japanese Church of Christ in Salt Lake City on Saturday. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

"It's something the community looks forward to, and we get pretty good support," Mori said. "It's great — I've seen some relatives I haven't seen in years."

A silent auction was also held, including a Japanese fabric quilt handmade by Jodi Iwasaki, who ran the now-closed Pagoda Restaurant in Salt Lake. Local artist and JCC member Ron Nishijima also auctioned off a large watercolor painting.

Children attending the festival also participated in face-painting, games and coloring paper koi fish, cherry blossoms and kokeshi dolls. Exhibits in the church displayed origami projects, photos dating back to the early days of the JCC, bonsai trees and ikebana, the Japanese art of floral arrangements. Japanese food was available to buy.

Money earned from the festival will go toward the JCC and preserving local Japanese history.