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Valley’s most famous dog to be a part of Cherry Blossom Fest

May 5, 2012

Tina Go, left, operations manager for Beacon Charter School for the Arts, and Dr. Robert Pilkington, former school principal, unveil a bronze statue of Hachiko in March of 2011. Hachiko is the co-star of the 2009 movie ‘Hachiko - A Dog's Story,’ which starred Richard Gere and was filmed throughout Woonsocket. The statue will be unveiled at its new home at Depot Square in Woonsocket on May 19 during the Cherry Blossom Festival.

The Japanese consulate general will visit Woonsocket on May 19 for a festive unveiling of a permanent statue of the legendary Japanese dog, Hachiko, in front of the city’s historic train depot.
Takeshi Hikihara’s diplomatic excursion is part of a broader celebration of the growing Cherry Blossom Festival in Pawtucket and Central Falls, where he also plans stops earlier in the day, says Robert Billington, executive director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.
City officials in Woonsocket have been trying to capitalize on the Hachiko story since Hollywood star Richard Gere chose One Depot Square as the backdrop for his feature film about the iconic Akita several years ago. The film was based on the true story of an Akita in Japan that became famous for greeting his master, a professor, at Tokyo’s Shibuya train station when he came home each day. After his master suffered a deadly stroke at school in 1925, Hachiko lived as a stray and maintained his sadly hopeless routine until his own death, nearly a decade later.
The touching story of Hachiko’s enduring loyalty has become as much a part of the Japanese identity as Daniel Boone’s pioneering spirit is to America’s. In tribute to its celebrity pooch, Japan erected a statue of Hachiko– the original – at Shibuya station and, in 1987, the Japanese film about the dog’s life was released. Gere chose Woonsocket’s old P&W passenger depot as the defining set piece for his American version, which premiered at Woonsocket’s Stadium Theatre in 2009.
Billington says Hikihara was thrilled when he learned the Board of Directors of the Beacon Charter School for the Arts (Billington is a member) had acquired a replica of the Shibuya statue and planned to display it permanently outside the train station. Billington said he recently showed the statue to Hikihara at Beacon, where it is temporarily housed.
“He was floored,” said Billington. “He was really, really taken off guard. He said, ‘This story is folklore in Japan. Everybody knows about Hachiko.’”
With the support of Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and Beacon’s directors, former Beacon Principal Bob Pilkington bought the Hachiko replica last year from a sculptor who advertised it on eBay for about $2,000.
The bronze figurine, which stands about three feet high and weighs about 90 pounds, depicts the dog in a sitting position, with a sad look of longing in his eyes. It has been stored at Beacon since February 2011 while city officials and Billington laid the groundwork for the permanent display of the statue.
Last month, the city obtained an easement to erect the statue from the state Department of Transportation, owner of the depot, which currently serves as the headquarters of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission.
Billington says New England Stone, in Smithfield, donated a granite base for the monument.
The unveiling will be an open-to-the-public, celebratory affair, bringing Woonsocket under the umbrella of the Cherry Blossom Festival for the first time. The event will feature a performance of traditional Japanese drumming, an appearance by a Cherry Blossom “princess” from a Maryland beauty pageant, and the planting of two cherry trees, clones of Tokyo’s original gifts to Washington, D.C., exactly a century ago, according to Billington.
He says Hikihara is so excited about Hachiko he wants to promote the statue on the Boston-based consulate’s website. Combined with the arrival of first-ever direct flights between Japan and Logan Airport, Hikihara is sure that the American version will bring Japanese tourists to Woonsocket for photo opportunities in front of the canine monument.
“It’s going to happen,” said Billington. “Hachiko is popular enough to make it a sure thing. You’re going to see people standing in front of that train station and taking pictures.”
Mayor Fontaine, who joined Hikihara and Billington for the sneak preview of Hachiko, is equally convinced of the dog’s power.
“You will definitely see people from Japan, perhaps as they detour from a shopping trip to one of the nearby shopping plazas in Massachusetts, come to Woonsocket to see that statue,” said Fontaine.
Fontaine and Billington both agree that tourism-based economic development is often sewn from such humble seeds. Billington says just getting a few Japanese visitors to put Woonsocket on their itineraries is an achievement, to be sure. But he says “it’s up to us” to figure out new ways to build on it.
Hikihara’s original purpose in coming to the Blackstone Valley recently wasn’t to see Hachiko, according to Billington. It had more to do with cherry trees.
Hikihara intends to present a combined 22 cherry trees, all clones of the famous trees in Washington D.C. that were given to the nation by Japan in 1912 as a token of friendship, said Billington.
“He wanted to see where we were going to put the trees,” said Billington.
In addition to the two trees slated for the depot in Woonsocket, four more will be planted at the Pawtucket Gateway, near Exit 30 off Route 95, while the balance will become part of a cherry tree nursery at Chocolate Mill Overlook, a new park in Central Falls. The nursery trees will become breeding stock for future plantings in the area, which already has some 200 Japanese cherry trees along the Central Falls-Pawtucket line, on Roosevelt Avenue.
The original trees were donated to the city several years ago by businessmen Louis Yip and Sunny Ng. Now in its fourth year, the Cherry Blossom Festival is an offshoot of the gift, established as a way to create a fund for maintaining the trees, says Billington.
Beyond donating the trees and helping unveil the Hachiko statue, Hikihara ceremonial agenda includes
formal “thank you” to Yip and Ng for spearheading area fundraising efforts on behalf of the victims of the 2011 tsunami in Japan.


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