- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

Tom and Margaret Block flew 3,000 miles from Sacramento, Calif., last week to catch a glimpse of the cherry blossoms and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the famous flowers.

Yesterday, the Blocks saw first lady Laura Bush, Japanese Ambassador Shunji Yanai and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams at the official opening ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival at the Kennedy Center.

But the retired couple didn't see what they came for: the delicate white and pale pink blossoms in full bloom. The florets aren't expected to reach their peak until this Saturday, the day of the National Cherry Blossom Festival parade.

"We wanted to come here in the spring so that we could see the cherry blossoms up close," Mr. Block said yesterday afternoon as he and his wife stood among the hundreds of people who gathered in front of the Millennium Stage to watch the annual ceremony.

"But we didn't get to see any of them and we're pretty disappointed," Mrs. Block said. "But we're here for a week, so we haven't given up all hope yet."

Cold temperatures once again have delayed the blossoming of the 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees that are descendants of those given to the United States by Japan in 1912. Some 1,678 cherry trees ring the Tidal Basin, while the other 2,023 trees grow on the grounds of the Washington Monument and in East Potomac Park.

But the delay didn't stop city and federal government officials yesterday from paying tribute to the blossoms and celebrating the opening of the citywide festival that will end April 14.

"The cherry blossoms represent the enduring relationship between the United States and Japan," said Mrs. Bush, who served as honorary chairman of this year's festival. "They also are a poetic symbol of brevity of seasons and of life itself."

The trees bloom for about three days, after which the petals begin to float to the ground.

Mr. Yanai said the blossoms represent friendship and spirit of goodwill between the two countries. "Their beauty is fleeting," Mr. Yanai said. "You must keep that beauty in your heart and your mind long after they're gone."

During the ceremony, officials also named Mika Morse, of Bethesda, Md., as the festival's goodwill ambassador; Keiko Tatsumi, of Japan, as the Japanese Embassy princess, and Tracy Alexandra Weber, of Annandale, Va., as this year's festival queen.

The Washington Toho Koto Society and the Kasuga Taiko Odori performed at the ceremony, as did jazz pianist Eric Mantel and singers Kimiko Shimada and Andrew Stuckey, who sang the national anthems of the United States and Japan.

The festival is planned to coincide as nearly as possible with the blooming of the trees. The celebration, which includes a black-tie gala, street fairs and sports tournaments, was expanded to two weeks in 1994 to increase the odds that the annual festival would coincide with peak bloom.

The mean date of blooming is April 7. The earliest bloom date was March 15, 1990. The second earliest was last year on March 17.

This year's delay has disappointed tourists who came to the District specifically to see the cherry blossoms that have surrounded the Jefferson Memorial for nearly 90 years. Each year, more than 700,000 people visit the District to see the cherry trees.

"It's really hard to predict when the blossoms will bloom and when is a good time to come to Washington," said Richard Janis, who came here from Reno, Nev., late last week.

"It's hit or miss, really. Those who make it on the day the trees bloom don't know how lucky they are," he said.

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