- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The National Cherry Blossom Festival begins today, and organizers are hoping the annual celebration will be more welcoming for visitors — especially guests from Japan, the country that first gave the trees.

Among the changes are more translators to help visitors speaking little or no English.

About 40 Japanese speakers have signed up to answer questions and give directions, organizers said. They will work in shifts at a welcome station near the Washington Monument and across from the Tidal Basin.

“There’s absolutely a need,” said Bill Line, a National Park Service spokesman, noting the festival has been drawing more visitors from Japan in recent years.

The reasons vary, from an improving travel climate to an increasing number of festival exhibits that focus on Japan. This year’s festival includes everything from a kimono exhibit to a retrospective of Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse.

“For two weeks every year, the capital of the free world becomes Japan Town,” said former U.S. Ambassador John Malott, who heads the Japan-America Society of Washington. “We celebrate not just the arrival of the cherry blossoms, we celebrate Japanese culture. There’s no other country in the world that gets that kind of treatment year after year.”

Most of the 3,700 trees lining the Tidal Basin are descendants of those presented to the United States by Japan in 1912 to mark 60 years of friendly relations.

The blossoms are greeted by the Japanese each year as a symbol of spring, as well as of the fleeting nature of life.

“The Japanese have a much higher level of reverence, almost a magical draw to the cherry trees,” Mr. Line said. “It has a much higher significance culturally.”

Other changes for visitors this year include a brochure featuring self-guided walking tours around the Tidal Basin and nearby memorials.

Rangers with the National Park Service also will offer guided tours — including an evening lantern walk highlighting the history and lore of the blossoms.

About 1 million people are expected to visit Washington during the festival, which begins today with opening ceremonies and runs through April 9.

The blossoms are expected to be at their peak starting Monday, but some flowers aren’t waiting.

The pink-and-white petals already are popping out on some trees, and most buds appear ready to burst at any time.

“With Mother Nature, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Diana Mayhew, the festival’s executive director.

Still, she notes the blossoms have reached their peak during the festival in nearly each of the past 15 years.

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