Serving as the 2015 United States Cherry Blossom Queen, I have had the distinct honor of representing the United States for the last year and helping to celebrate and further strengthen our friendship with Japan. While serving as the United States Cherry Blossom Queen has presented me with many wonderful opportunities to grow as a leader, the memories I cherish most were gained on my official visit to Japan in May 2015. 

My trip began in Tokyo were I was honored to plant my very first cherry blossom tree with leadership from the Fussa City Lion's Club. I was also thrilled to attend the Lion's Club 50th Anniversary Reception and tour the Yokota Air Force Base just outside of Tokyo. Following my time in Fussa City, I traveled south of Toyko to Japan's beautiful coastal city of Ise in the Mie Prefecture. I was honored to meet with Mr. Kenkichi Suzuki, the Mayor of Ise, as well as the Governor of the Mie Prefecture on my visit. This opportunity also led me to learn about the great Japanese political influencer, Mr. Ozaki Yukio. Throughout my stay, I enjoyed the company of the Flowering Dogwood Queen Erika Minami and members of her court along with the generous support of the N.P.O. Gakudo-Kofu members. I also had the very special opportunity to visit Mikimoto Pearl Island and learna bout the traditional art of pearl diving. 

The knowledge I gained about the history and traditions of Japan while in Ise were further deepened during my return to Tokyo. Working as a staffer in the United States Congress, I was humbled to be given the opportunity to meet with members of the Diet, including the President of the House of Councillors and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I felt truly blessed to be able represent my country before Japan's very own head of state, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. We discussed my recent viewing of his speech before a Joint Session at the U.S. Congress, the cherry blossom trees planted in my home state of Nevada, and Ozaki Yukio's leacy and vision that helped to bring the U.S. and Japan closer. While in Tokyo, I was also honored to meet with Governor Yoichi Masuzoe, who expressed his great excitement to host the U.S., among other nations, for the 2020 Olympics which will be held in Tokyo, Japan.

My trip concluded with visits with generous sponsors such as Otsuka, ANA, and Mikimoto along with an unforgettable celebration hosted by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. From sightseeing with the Japan Sakura Foundation, growing closer to the 2015 Japan Cherry Blossom Queen Mamiko Watanabe, and trying traditional sumo chankonabe, my trip to Japan has left a lasting imprint on my life. I am so grateful to have followed in the footsteps of so many strong and talented women since 1948 who have served their natin as the Untied States Cherry Blossom Queen. I am also forever grateful to the Japanese people for welcoming me to their beautiful country and providing me with the countless memories that I will forever cherish.

-Noelle Verhelst, 2015 United States Cherry Blossom Queen