By Mark Carter and Sarah Coleman // Photos provided

Hot Springs keeps finding new ways to stand out in a crowded landscape of tourist attractions and destination events. The city is already home to high-caliber thoroughbred horse racing at what was once known as Oaklawn Park, from which Arkansas Derby winners have gone on to win multiple legs of horse racing’s Grand Slam. In 2015, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.


These days, a full casino and luxury hotel and spa overlook the racetrack, and the attraction now known as Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort attracts hundreds of thousands to the Spa City each spring.


A highlight is Hot Springs National Park, from which flow the thermal hot springs that put the little Ouachita Mountain city on the map in the first place. Beautiful bathhouses representing varied architectural styles welcome visitors to relax in the thermal spring water that gave the city its name and purportedly has healing properties. Visitors to Hot Springs will also find fine dining, museums unlike any to be found elsewhere, the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, internationally renowned mountain bike trails and, of course, bountiful lakes offering up even more opportunities to recreate outdoors.


The first weekend of March, however, Hot Springs will shine a little brighter than usual. The city’s eclectic menu of things to see, do and taste — the ponies, the lakes, the pizza at Deluca’s Pizza and everything else that makes the Spa City so unique — will be imbued with a distinct Japanese flavor. Cherry blossoms — better known as sakura in Japan and east Asia where they are common — sake and sumo are headed to the Ouachitas.


The fourth annual American Craft Sake Festival from the Sake Brewers Association of North America runs through March 3 at the Bridge Street Live! Entertainment District in downtown Hot Springs, where local brewer Origami Sake will serve as host for the first time. As part of the Craft Sake Fest, the North American Sake Sommelier of the Year competition will take place, marking the first time the event recognizing the world’s top sake steward will be held in the United States.


The seventh annual Arkansas Cherry Blossom Festival, held in recognition of Hot Springs’ Japanese sister city, Hanamaki, and presented by the Hot Springs National Park Sister City Foundation, will take place 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. March 3 at Bank OZK Arena and the Hot Springs Convention Center.


Exhibition sumo wrestling will follow at 6 p.m. inside the arena and include some of Japan’s top professionals squaring off against three local business leaders: Heather Baker, president and publisher of AY Media Group; Don Gooch, regional director of community banks for Arvest Bank in Hot Springs; and Hot Springs native, radio personality and part-time actor Roger Scott of 103.7 the Buzz.


Mary Zunich, executive director of the Hot Springs National Park Sister City Foundation, said any one of these events would make for a big weekend in Hot Springs, but all of them taking place at the same time will make for an even better experience.


“Sake and sumo are both new to a lot of people, and having them together makes for a very rare opportunity,” she said. “They are both unique in nature and the proximity of having all three of these events take place at the same time makes for an absolutely amazing event.”


Hot sake


Hot Springs hosting the American Craft Sake Festival is a big enough event in and of itself, but adding the Sake Sommelier of the Year competition makes it a really big deal in the sake community. Sake industry officials, brewers and lovers from across the country and even beyond are expected to convene on Hot Springs for the festival.


Maggie Culp, community manager for Origami Sake, said the festival represents the largest gathering of the North American sake industry each year. Unlike previous events, Culp said the Craft Sake Festival is “going big” in 2024.

Sake lovers can learn all about the libation at the American Craft Sake Festival in Hot Springs.

“We are honored to be connected to the Hot Springs sister city program, which is the host of the Arkansas Cherry Blossom Festival,” she said. “Together with the Visit Hot Springs, we felt that sumo would add a fun flair to the weekend and bring in even more visitors to Hot Springs for the weekend. 


“There will be a ticketed sake-tasting area for $45 and unlimited sake samples, and the Bridge Street Entertainment District will be full of food trucks and live entertainment to enjoy, as well as the sake-tasting tent, so bring a lawn chair and come listen to Tragikly White while enjoying some craft sake.”


Origami Sake quietly emerged onto the national sake radar since its launch in 2022, when co-founder Ben Bell envisioned Arkansas, which produces almost half of the U.S. rice harvest, as the Napa Valley of sake. The first weekend of March could go a long way toward turning that vision into reality. Origami purchases its rice from Isbell Farms, located just outside of England in Lonoke County.

“Origami Sake is the first and only sake brewery in Arkansas, using rice grown only about 80 miles from the brewery,” Culp said. “The Isbell family has been growing sake rice for about 15 years, and the majority of brewers [in the U.S.] purchase their sake rice from them. We use Hot Springs water from our onsite well that is perfect for brewing sake.”


The festival will feature sake from 14 of the top breweries in North America, including more than 30 different varieties of the beverage. The SBANA People’s Choice Sake Tasting Competition will crown the best sake of the day, while seminars will educate sake newcomers about brewing techniques, styles and culture. Tours of the Origami farm, mill and brewery will be available, and interested attendees can attend a Wine & Spirit Education Trust global certification level 1 course. Other attractions include food trucks, vendors and artisans and an exclusive welcome party with sponsors, brewers and VIPs to kick things off.


The Sake Sommelier of the Year competition is in its 12th year, organized by the Sake Sommelier Association and the Sake Brewer’s Association of North America. The competition will entail some of the continent’s best sake sommeliers testing their skills. Like their wine counterparts, sake sommeliers are an integral part of the fine dining experience, ensuring that food and spirits work in harmony.


The competition previously took place in Europe and Asia and will make its North American debut in Hot Springs.


Festival tickets are $45 online and $55 at the door, and VIP tickets are $150. Tickets give holders access to unlimited sake samples at the tasting tent, as well as a commemorative glass.


“The American Craft Sake Festival has grown, thankfully, each year in the number of attendees and participation,” Culp said. “As the category of sake grows, so does the fest.”


Zunich said city officials attended last year’s sake fest in Charlottesville, Va., with the Origami contingent and successfully pitched Hot Springs to the brewers’ association.


“It encourages a lot of interest in both festivals and having these events back to back creates a great way to celebrate sake,” she said. “The goal of Origami Sake is to make Arkansas the Napa Valley of Sake, and this only helps with that.”


Sumo under the sakura


The Arkansas Cherry Blossom Festival has grown each year since its first free festival in 2021. Last year, it attracted more than 2,500 attendees to join in celebrating Japanese culture. Since 1993, Hot Springs has been the sister city of Hanamaki, a city of approximately 95,000 located in the mountainous north of Japan’s main Honshu Island.


Along with sake from Origami Sake, a variety of Japanese arts and culture will be on display at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Hot Springs.

The festival will include cultural demonstrations, exhibits, dances, traditional Japanese carnival games, workshops, lectures, an anime cosplay contest, a haiku contest and musical performances that include taiko drums.


Admission is free, and the event is family friendly. This year’s event, however, will stand out for one thing: sumo.


“We take a trip every September for our sister-city exchange,” Zunich said. “We were able to go to Tokyo and see sumo in person, and I remember really enjoying it and knowing that we needed to bring sumo to Arkansas. Through this, we were very excited to connect with USA Sumo, and during this event, we are actually able to bring the world’s largest sumo wrestler to Hot Springs.”

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That wrestler, Hiroki, is 6-4 and weighs 580 pounds. He was featured in the recent fourth installment of the John Wick movie franchise. Other sumo wrestlers visiting Hot Spring include Ramy, 6-4 and 500 pounds, and the relatively slight Mendee, 5-10 and 330 pounds.


“This is the first sumo event we have ever had in Hot Springs, and we are excited to bring this experience to this region,” Zunich said.

Sumo wrestlers Hiroki, from left, Ramy and Mendee will display their skills during the Arkansas Cherry Blossom Festival in Hot Springs.

General admission tickets for the sumo exhibition are $30 or $15 for youth 12 and under, and floor seating is $50.


The Cherry Blossom Festival started off several years ago as a fundraiser for the sister-city student exchange program, which has seen hundreds of students, teachers and host families participate. As it turns out, Hanamaki and Hot Springs have more in common than student exchange.


“Hanamaki is a small, rural city a long way from big metropolitan areas,” Zunich said. “Like us, they also have bathhouses and people who travel to the thermal baths from all over. It is a beautiful rural area with a mountainous backdrop similar to us, although our mountains aren’t quite as high. Hanamaki resembles the true heart of Japan, and we are fortunate to have them as our ongoing sister city connection.


“This is part of the Sister Cities International, established in 1955 by President [Dwight] Eisenhour as a way to create people-to-people, city-to-city connections with others. This is separate from a government connection. The program has thrived and flourished. Although not every student can travel to Japan, and not every family is able to be a host family, we have been able to help Hot Springs experience that culture.”

Zunich believes the Cherry Blossom Festival serves a purpose that extends far beyond hosting a local event.


“Sharing culture is so important, especially in today’s world, where there is so much focus on differences between people,” she said. “When you get to know about a culture different from yours, you can truly see how much in common you have with each other. When we get to know the people of Japan, we can see that we share so much in common, from wanting a peaceful world to enjoying meals with family and enjoying time together.”


The first weekend of March will be something to remember, Zunich said.


“It will be unlike any other weekend in Hot Springs,” she said. “March is already so action packed, but these events will kick off the month, as we will continue to have the eclipse, the state high school basketball playoffs and the World’s Shortest St. Patty’s Day Parade. This is absolutely one of the many weekends to be in Hot Springs. We have fun events all year long in the region, but this goes beyond the state of Arkansas with sake, sakura and sumo. To have all of this here in Hot Springs is something to celebrate.” 

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