- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Hundreds of thousands of observers are expected to celebrate the blooms of spring as well as partake of concerts, parades and sporting events during the District of Columbia's annual cherry-blossom festivities, which kick off this weekend.

A free ceremony at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage will open the National Cherry Blossom Festival at 1 p.m. Saturday with speeches by dignitaries and entertainment by U.S. and Japanese performers.

Festival organizers are planning two weeks of activities to coincide with the blooming peak of the city's 4,000 cherry trees, gifts to the District from Japan's government in the last century.

The festival, which attracts more than 700,000 people each year, will run for two weeks beginning Saturday.

The marquee event is the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, which will feature floats, dance troupes and bands as well as several special guests and the Cherry Blossom Queen.

The parade which has drawn an average of 100,000 visitors each year for the past 30 years gets under way at 9:30 a.m. March 31 and will run from Seventh Street to 17th Street NW on Constitution Avenue. The parade is free, but grandstand tickets can be purchased for $14 through Ticketmaster.

After the parade, the 40th annual Sakura Matsuri Festival will transform the 12th Street stage into a celebration of friendship between the United States and Japan.

Japanese dance, music, arts and a variety of Japanese cuisine will be among the festival's highlights.

An official luncheon cruise on the Odyssey will give observers a chance to view the trees from the water. The two-hour tour begins at 11:30 a.m. March 29, offers music and dancing and costs $44.80.

On April 4, a parade of lighted boats will sail the channel in front of East Potomac Park, home to half of the city's Japanese cherry trees.

During the festival, high school students from Wisconsin, Ohio and Arizona will perform free concerts at the Lincoln Memorial and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.

Sporting events include soccer tournaments on the Mall; the 35th National Cherry Blossom Festival Rugby Tournament at the Reflecting Pool; and the 29th annual Nortel Networks 10-mile Cherry Blossom Run, which has 6,000 runners registered.

Swimmers from 13 states will compete for three days at the Eastern Zone Swimming Championships at Prince George's County's Sports and Learning Center.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled to coincide with the three-day peak, when 70 percent of the blossoms are open, but officials cannot determine a precise period until 10 days before peak bloom, the National Park Service said.

To estimate a peak period, officials determine the buds' growth stage by examining the blossoms closely and then factor in the weather.

National Park Service horticulturalists predict this year's peak will be between March 31 and April 5. Frost or excessive heat could delay blossoming, and strong winds or rain could shorten the peak period.

The earliest peak date was March 15 in 1990; the latest, April 18 in 1958. The average peak date is April 5.

The District received 3,000 pink and white cherry trees in 1912 as a gift from the mayor of Tokyo on behalf of the Japanese government. Almost 4,000 cherry trees, including 112 from the original donation, now line the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial and East Potomac Park.

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