- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

Umbrellas and ponchos, not cherry blossoms, surrounded the Tidal Basin yesterday as visitors and officials turned out for the lighting of the historic stone lantern to celebrate the Cherry Blossom Festival.
Just a handful of spectators stood in the rain to witness the lighting of the 350-year-old lantern, which has been part of the annual celebration since 1954.
"It's wonderful to see such an event," said Barbara Dean of Rockville, Md., who dropped in on the ceremony as she walked around the Tidal Basin. "Even though it's raining, it still beautiful to watch."
Organizers of yesterday's lighting event did the best they could to keep the rain from putting a damper on the ceremony. Members of the Cardinal Choir and the Toho Koto Society of Washington performed for the small crowd before Keiko Tatsumi, the Japanese Embassy Cherry Blossom Princess, lit the 8 and 1/2-foot-tall lantern.
"I told all the Cherry Blossom princess last week that they'll see the cherry blossoms sometime this week," said Mark Rhoads, president of the National Conference of State Societies, which sponsors the ceremony.
"So, for now, I told them to bring their sunshine when they come here," he said, standing in the rain. "Who knows? Maybe it was raining 350 years ago when the lantern was carved."
Some blossom watchers have been disappointed that the 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees did not bloom in time for the two-week festival. It isn't the first time. In 1993, a late winter snowstorm delayed the peak bloom until April 8, five days after the festival ended.
Cold temperatures earlier this year delayed the blossoming of the cherry trees by at least a week. The National Park Service now says the peak blooming dates will be tomorrow through Thursday.
"They're what you call conspirators of the festival," said Larry Nicholson of Arlington, Va., who took a walk around the Tidal Basin yesterday. "You never know when they're going to come out, so you really can't depend on them coming out for the festival."
But others said the blossoms go beyond the festival and the parades.
"The festival is just physical," said Rex Butler, with the Toho Koto Society of Washington D.C. "For some, the blooming is much more of a spiritual experience. The blossoms show us just how fragile we are, that we can come and we can go in an instant."
Cherry blossoms or not, officials continued to celebrate the festival yesterday by lighting the lantern, which sits among the cherry trees at 17th Street and Independence Avenue NW.
The lantern came to Washington in 1954, the 100th anniversary of the first treaty between the United States and Japan. Historians now say that like the cherry trees the hand-carved stone lantern symbolizes friendship and peace between the two countries.
"The cherry blossoms are like friendship," said Yoshio Sakurauchi, a former speaker of the Japanese parliament who was born eight weeks before the first cherry trees were planted in Washington in 1912.
"They keep blooming year after year," he told the crowd through a translator.
Japanese Ambassador Shunji Yanai shared the sentiment. "They give you a sense of the peace and harmony that the two countries share," he said.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, and Thomas Hubbard, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, also attended the ceremony.
Despite the weather, no one has given up hope that the blossoms will soon open.
"Spirits will be high this week when they bloom," Mr. Butler said. "And if we don't see them, then there's always next year."

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