After two years of dormancy due to the pandemic, the Northern California Soy and Tofu Festival returned July 2 to where it all began to hold its festival on San Francisco Japantown’s Peace Plaza. The festival, praising all that is the “joy of soy,” celebrates and educates visitors about the versatile legume and the Asian American community coming together in the ethnic enclave.
Mike Inouye, NBC Bay Area’s weekday morning traffic anchor, emceed the event. He noted that visitors might be surprised at how people use soy today.
“In modern forms, we’re doing so much more than just that white tofu block that people have made fun of for so many years,” he said.
Sure enough, aside from staples such as Morinaga’s silken Mori-nu tofu, the festival featured brand name soy products, including Hodo’s new All-Day Egg Scramble and Kikkoman’s lineup of ponzu sauces and soy milk.
This year, new sponsors such as Bachan’s Japanese Barbecue Sauce and vendors such as US Soypresso joined the festival, selling their variety of soy milk flavors, including matcha and black sesame, and exemplifying the wide applications of soy.
The festival, a fundraiser for the Nichi Bei Foundation, had become a paid event for the past four iterations at the nearby indoor Event Center at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The revived outdoors festival was brought back to the Peace Plaza for the first time in seven years due to the presenting sponsorship of the Japan Center Malls East and West, facilitating a goal to bring visitors back to Japantown after the devastating pandemic.
The festival was free to attend and raised funds through sponsors, vendor fees, a raffle and food sales — including through the organization’s Nichi Bei Café, which served mabo tofu and other products, along with Pine United Methodist Church, which sold their Wafu Dogs using soy-based vegan hot dogs.
While the nation continues to slowly recover from the ongoing pandemic, Kenji G. Taguma, founder and president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, said he was emboldened this year after seeing the success of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in April.
“This was our biggest fundraiser, and it was one of our earliest fundraisers since 2011,” Taguma said. “We had a little hiccup here the last two years, like everybody else did, but we were encouraged by the Cherry Blossom Festival and the large audience there. Everybody was asking about the tofu festival, so we decided to bring it back.”
Ryan Yamamoto, a Nichi Bei Foundation staff member who was part of the festival’s planning committee, said it was a major challenge to bring the festival to fruition in about two months, but that it was worth it in the end.
“So, the planning process was very complex, it was, personally, my first time having a hand in planning the Soy and Tofu Festival,” Yamamoto said. “I was really happy that everything turned out the way that it did. Even if the planning was difficult, it still yielded great results.”
Yamamoto, along with Kelly Yokoi, the Nichi Bei Foundation’s special projects and marketing coordinator, helped spearhead this year’s event in two months. Yokoi started as an intern for the Nikkei Community Internship program in 2020. The Nichi Bei Foundation pledged a portion of the festival’s proceeds to the internship program this year, as its mission of developing future community leaders alligns with the vision of the festival to serve as a vehicle for community-building and leadership development, Taguma said.
The annual summer program allocates interns to Japanese American organizations operating in one of the three remaining historic California Japantowns in San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles.
“This year, we’re happy to have 20 interns under us,” Erika Tamura, program director at the Japanese Community Youth Council, said during the festival. “Some of them are here today, but we are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, so 20 years of building community with young people as they invest their time and self in helping to preserve all the Japantowns.”
This year’s program invited a slew of entertainers and merchants to the Peace Plaza. The event started with a lion dance by Gee Yung Dragon and Lion Dance Association and a performance by Jiten Daiko. Additionally, the Wesley Ukulele Band performed with hula dancers, singer Flora Hui, the Nikkei Choral Ensemble, and family singers and rappers Larissa Lam and Only Won, with their daughter Little Won, performed on stage throughout the day.
Sacramento Taiko Dan finished the day’s entertainment before a raffle drawing with a grand prize of two tickets to Japan from Japan Airlines.
Other vendors included coconut pudding maker Tong Sui and pickled plum maker Mume Farm, alongside crafts and artisan products by Made by Cas5, Old River Design Co., Designs by Masako, HolidayPop, Yanchako/Fog Cats and festival logo designer Ben Kam’s Makimino.
Aside from vendors and music, Inouye led the crowd with a number of lighthearted games featuring tofu. The festival introduced a new contest, Tower of Tofu, a two-and-a-half minute contest to see who can build the tallest tofu structure in the allotted time. Eric Truong of San Francisco took the inaugural title after he stacked smaller blocks of slippery tofu over larger blocks. While he said he loved eating tofu, “more so than meat,” he noted that this was the first time he used it to build a structure.
The tofu eating contest also made its return with two rounds of contestants slurping down silken tofu, with an Austrian visitor taking the first round while Grantis Peranda of Santa Cruz, Calif. taking the second round. Peranda told the Nichi Bei Weekly that while he had never ate tofu without using his hands, he hoped his hunger would give him an edge in the competition.
“I didn’t have lunch so that’s what made me think I could win, and happy I did,” he said.