- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2007

That unseasonably warm day in January — when you reached for your shorts, not your scarf — had some folks worried that this year’s cherry blossoms might attain their full pink-and-white glory around, say, Groundhog Day.

Diana Mayhew, executive director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, opening Saturday and running through April 15, says her office fielded many calls from blossom fans.

“People who were not even planning to come to the festival were worried,” she says.

But the blossoms’ legions of fans need not have fretted; the springlike day that startled them in the dead of winter did not, in fact, trigger an early bloom. Rob DeFeo, chief horticulturist at the U.S. National Park Service and the person charged with predicting the blossoms’ peak blooming days, says his current blossom-time prediction is in line with past years’ expectations.

“Barring the advent of a new ice age or the rapid acceleration of global warming, I predict a peak bloom between April 1 and 7,” he says.

Should Mr. DeFeo’s forecast miss the mark, the excitement and pageantry around the National Cherry Blossom Festival — which this spring marks 95 years since Yukio Ozaki, then the mayor of Tokyo, presented 3,000 trees to the people of the United States — will go on as scheduled.

Japan’s gifts

This year, the giving continues. On April 7 at 11 a.m., as part of a ceremony at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Mr. Ozaki’s family — daughter Yukika Sohma, granddaughter Naomichi Hara and great-grandson Fujiko Hara — will be on hand to plant several new cherry trees. So will descendants of President William Howard Taft, who occupied the White House then.

While the cherry trees’ arrival in 1912 made possible the event, begun in 1935, that now draws millions of visitors to Washington each spring, cherry-blossom gazing in Japan dates back centuries.

“For the Japanese, the cherry blossom trees have a spiritual meaning,” says Ann McClellan, the Washington-based author of the festival’s official book, “The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration.”

When the sakura, or cherry trees, bloom in Japan, she says, “everything stops” as people pause to contemplate the beauty of the flowers and reflect on the fleetingness of life itself.

The blossoms also inspired samurai warriors “to perform courageous acts, risking their lives, because they saw it as an honor to strive for that moment of glory and die in their prime, falling unwithered to the ground as do the cherry blossom petals,” Ms. McClellan says.

Chances are your most courageous act at this year’s festival will be simply navigating the throngs of blossom-peepers. Here are some tips on how best to take your place among them.

Blooms the easy way

Savvy festival-goers know better than to drive down to the Tidal Basin and Mall. Don’t do it. Take Metro buses or trains, or hop on a bike.

Erik Linden, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, says that two valet-parking sites for bikes — one at Independence Avenue and 15th Street Southwest (near the Washington Monument) and one at East Basin Drive, behind the Jefferson Memorial — will offer cyclists a fun alternative on Saturdays and Sundays during the festival.

Bring a driver’s license or other form of identification and leave your bike for free at either of these two staffed areas, then stroll over on foot to get a close-up view of the pink-and-white blossoms.

“The idea is to get people out of their cars and onto their bikes,” Mr. Linden says. “We want to treat bicyclists like royalty.”

A bus alternative looms as well: On Monday, the Department of Transportation began a six-month pilot project to extend the Circulator Bus route west to Georgetown.

If the trial is deemed successful, the D.C. Circulator will likely take over the Foggy Bottom line of the Georgetown Metro Connection (the “Blue Bus”), which now links Georgetown to the Rosslyn, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom Metro stations.

For cherry-blossom fans, the new Circulator route “will provide additional coverage” and make it easier to get to Georgetown from downtown, says Ellen Jones, director of transportation for the Downtown DC Business Improvement District. “More continuity is better.”

An interactive map at godcgo.com shows all of the festival events and lets users compare an array of transportation options through the use of Metro, bike routes and other maps overlaid on each another.

Building good will

On your visit to the Tidal Basin or the Washington Monument grounds, keep an eye out for the festival’s “goodwill ambassadors,” college students and recent graduates with an interest in Japanese language and culture and U.S.-Japanese cultural exchange.

More than 50 young people have been named to the honorary positions since the program began in 1994. This year’s crew of three men and four women includes representatives of each of the major universities in Washington as well as Remi Tsukamoto, a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Darla Cornett, a sophomore at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

Miss Tsukamoto says that she and the others will circulate among the crowds, emcee events and give speeches in Japanese and English. It’s a way to build good will among festival visitors and makes for good “customer service,” as Miss Cornett puts it.

Go fly a kite

Kicking off the two-week party is an indispensable part of the blossom fest that stands almost on its own. The 41st annual Smithsonian Kite Festival, Saturday on the grounds of the Washington Monument, calls itself “Tako Age Taikai,” or “kite festival” in Japanese.

It will begin with a 10 a.m. opening ceremony featuring local taiko drummers, followed by kite-flying competitions for children and adults and demonstrations of kite making by Japanese artists.

Amway Japan LTD has donated 800 kites, which will be distributed to children on a first-come, first-served basis.

From about 2 p.m. until the festival ends at 4 p.m., master kite flyers will take part in the crowd-pleasing Hot Tricks showdown and Rokkaku kite battle, in which teams compete to bring down opponents’ kites.

The kite festival is sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates and the National Air and Space Museum. It kicks off the Associates’ cultural program series, “Japan Wow! From Traditions to Trends,” which will include 30 educational and cultural programs on Japanese arts, cuisine, technology, fashion and travel running through early June.

All the kite festival events are subject to wind conditions, and the rain date is Sunday. See kitefestival.org or call 202/357-3030 for more information.

Mice on the march

Winding down the Cherry Blossom Festival on its penultimate day, April 14, is the signature event everyone waits for — the parade along Constitution Avenue from Seventh to 17th streets Northwest, which this year boasts as its grand marshals those quintessentially American characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

In Japanese dress, of course.

With the mice in the lead, the marchers step off at 10 a.m. Spectators can enjoy the Shaw Jr. High School and other marching bands, a tap team and a youth choir, floats that feature the goodwill ambassadors and cherry blossom princesses, taiko drummers, balloons and a live performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock and other entertainers.

New this year is a grand finale that features more than 100 local performers in a Pan-Asian mix of drumming and dance.

The parade is sponsored by Southwest Airlines. Tickets in the grandstand along Constitution Avenue between 15th and 16th streets Northwest are $15 through Ticketmaster, but standing along the route is free. See nationalcherryblossom.org.

Full slate of events this year

The National Cherry Blossom Festival opens Saturday and runs through April 15. Below are selected events. All are free unless otherwise noted. For a complete listing of events that are part of and related to the National Cherry Blossom Festival, see nationalcherryblossom.org or call 202/547-1500.

Opening day, March 31

m Family Day and Opening Ceremony: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Hands-on family activities explore Japanese arts and design. Children will learn to fold an origami frog or decorate a kabuki mask, among other crafts. See an original Japanese garden installed by the Japanese Garden Society of Oregon. Opening ceremony at 4 p.m. features dignitaries’ remarks and performances emphasizing Japanese and Western cultures. See nationalcherryblossom.org or nbm.org/events/calendar/blossom2007.html or call the museum for this event only at 202/272-2448.

m Smithsonian Kite Festival: Washington Monument grounds. 15th Street SW. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For details, see the main story.

m Cherry Blossom Go Tournament: Charles Sumner School, 1201 17th St. NW. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sponsored by the Northern Virginia Go Club. The popular board game is easy to learn but requires analytical skill and intuition to master. Players must pre-register at novagoclub.org and pay $20; free to observers. 202/442-6060.

m Wish Trees: Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial or at the Japanese lantern at Independence Avenue and 17th St. NW. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through April 15. Public art installations created by Yoko Ono that invite viewers to imagine peace, unity and healing. See streetscenesdc.com.

m Japan Wow! Concert: Baird Auditorium, Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 7 p.m. The opening concert and reception for the Smithsonian Associates Series, “Japan Wow! From Traditions to Trends” features violinist, music producer and filmmaker Kenji Williams, who opens with a video montage of images from Japan and performs, as well as three Japanese master musicians on shakuhachi, flute, koto and sangen. Reception follows in the Rotunda. $40-$50. Tickets online at residentassociates.org/japan; follow links.

March 31-April 1

m Cherry Blossom Soccer Tournament: JFK hockey/soccer fields, south of the Reflecting Pool on the Mall. 8 a.m.-6 p.m. March 31, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. April 1. A two-day community tourney involving 32 teams. See cherryblossomsoccer.org or call 479/595-3030 and ask for Jeremy Pearce.

April 1

m Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run: West Potomac Park. 8 a.m.-noon. Runners will jog or sprint past the cherry blossoms and other Washington landmarks as they compete for $32,000 in prize money. Registration is closed for the 10-mile run and the 5K run-walk. Parents can still register children on-site for the 1K children’s run. 301/320-6865 or cherryblossom.org.

April 4

m Condensed Mikado: Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NW. Times vary by performance, through April 15. The Washington Savoyards, the region’s premier Gilbert and Sullivan light opera company, squeezes G&S’ most popular opera into a one-hour-plus show. $20. See savoyards.org, atlasarts.org or call the theater at 202/399-7993.

April 6

m Symposium on History of U.S.-Japan Cultural Exchange: Library of Congress Members’ Room, first floor, Jefferson Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE. 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. The history of the Japan-American cultural relationship. Speakers include violinist Midori Goto and former Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

April 6 -7

m George Washington Invitational Regatta: Thompson’s Boat Center, 2900 Virginia Ave. NW or Washington Harbor. 1-5 p.m. April 6, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. April 7. Several of the nation’s best crew teams compete on the Potomac in one of the East Coast’s premier regattas. 202/994-8603.

April 7

m Prelude to the Fireworks: Southwest Waterfront Park, 600 Water St. SW. 5-8 p.m. Three hours of musical entertainment by military and local musical groups.

m Cherry Blossom Fireworks Cruise: Board the Spirit of Washington at Pier 4, Sixth and Water streets SW. Boarding at 7:30 p.m., cruise 8-11 p.m. Dinner buffet, live entertainment, DJ for dancing. $90. See spiritcitycruises.com/dc/bridge.jsp.

m National Cherry Blossom Festival Fireworks Show: Best viewing from East Potomac Park or the Southwest Waterfront Promenade at Seventh Street and Maine Avenue SW. 8:30-8:50 p.m.

April 8

m Lantern Lighting Ceremony: Tidal Basin, near Independence Ave. and 17th St. NW. 2:30-4 p.m. The 350-year-old stone lantern will be lit and traditional dancers will perform. The cherry blossom princesses will also make an appearance. Presented by the U.S. National Park Service and the National Conference of State Societies. 202/224-6142; ask for Tim Schlack.

April 9

m Cherry Blossom Concert: St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Maine Avenue and Sixth Street SW. 7:30 p.m. Chamber music from the Southwest Chamber Players. 202/484-6354; ask for David Ehrlich.

April 12 - 13

m Dinner cruise: Board the Odyssey at the Gangplank Marina, Sixth and Water streets SW. Boarding 6 p.m., cruise 7-10 p.m. Ship affords passengers a prime view of the cherry blossoms at night along with Washington’s monuments. Four-course dinner, live entertainment, dancing. Black tie optional. $125 per person. Download ticket order form at nationalcherryblossom.org; click on calendar date and follow links.

m 15th Annual National Japan Bowl: The Marriott at Metro Center, 775 12th St. NW. 5 p.m. April 12 to 9 p.m. April 13. Modeled after such popular quiz shows as “It’s Academic,” the Bowl features 100 teams of U.S. high school students who are challenged on their knowledge of Japanese history, culture and language. 202/833-2210 or us-japan.org/dc and follow the links.

April 14

m National Cherry Blossom Festival parade: Constitution Avenue from Seventh to 17th streets NW. 10 a.m. For details, see the main story.

m Sakura Matsuri, or Japanese Street Festival: Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 10th streets NW and 12th Street between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues NW. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Presented by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., this is the largest one-day exhibition of Japanese culture in the United States, featuring traditional performing arts, popular culture from manga to Jpop, martial arts demonstrations, food and drink, handicrafts and more. See sakuramatsuri.org or call the society at 202/833-2210.

Celebrating Japan’s culture

Even when the blossoms are scattered on the ground and the National Cherry Blossom Festival is officially over, myriad exhibitions and performances exploring different aspects of Japanese arts and culture will still be offered around the city and region. Among them:

m The Botanical Art of Yoshitsugu Koyanagi: U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave. NE. Enjoy works by this Japanese artist, including pen, ink and watercolor pieces. 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily through May 31. 202/245-4523.

m Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe: Discovery Theater, S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW. The only traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet troupe active in the United States. Multiple puppeteers, in full view of the audience, manipulate some of the lifelike and meticulously detailed puppets. Family performances 10:15 and 11:30 a.m. April 27. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates. $4-$6. See residentassociates.org and click on the calendar date or see bunraku.org.

m Bunraku Bay Puppet Troupe: Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Evening performance at 7:30 p.m. April 27. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates. $10-$20. See residentassociates.org and click on the calendar date or see bunraku.org.

m Gardens of Asia: Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. How the cultivation of gardens played a central role in the ceremonial, religious and economic life of Japan and other Asian countries. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through May 20. 202/633-4880.

m Kodomo-No-Hi, or Japanese Children’s Day: Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Choreographer and dancer Shizumi Shigeto Manale and the Kodomo Dance Theatre, a troupe of young dancers who perform in traditional kimono, entertain youngsters aged 6-10. Children will also learn Japanese phrases and explore examples of Japanese art at the Sackler. 10:15, 11 and 11:45 a.m.; 12:30 p.m. May 4. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates. $4-$6. See residentassociates.org and click on the calendar date. 202/633-1000.

m On the Cutting Edge: Contemporary Japanese Prints: Library of Congress, Northwest Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First St. SE. More than 200 prints (known as hanga) from the College Women’s Association of Japan Print Show, an annual event in Japan since 1956. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday through June 30. Free.

m The Spirit of Japanese Gardens: National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW. The Zen Garden Society of Kyoto presents photographs celebrating the art and spirit of Japanese gardens. Also on display will be a typical Japanese garden created by master gardener Yotaro Ono. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday through April 29. 202/857-5828.

m The World of Modern Ukiyo-e: To Life and the Future: Japan Information and Culture Center, Embassy of Japan, 1155 21st St. NW. Artist Mari Mihashi connects traditional woodblock prints of the Edo period to the present day. Opening lecture on April 16 at 6:30 p.m.; reservations required. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except weekends and April 6 and May 8. Free. Through June 8. 202/238-6949.

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