Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The wind is warm and fragrant, the honey-toned Potomac swells with tiny, white-capped waves, and winter’s skeletal brown trees and hard-packed embankments are foaming with green life again. Spring has arrived.

And every spring a celebration unlike any other takes place in the nation’s capital: The National Cherry Blossom Festival.

“This year’s festival will be the biggest ever, and we have some incredible sponsors,” says Diana Mayhew, executive director of the festival.

“The cherry blossoms bring more people to D.C. than any other event each year. The festival helps us not only to take care of the trees for the rest of their lives, but also to showcase D.C. and celebrate the Japanese culture.”

Opening Saturday and running through April 11, the festival celebrates the 92nd anniversary of Japan’s gift of the trees to the United States in 1912. It also marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the United States and Japan in 1854, officially beginning formal relations between the two countries.

The festival is a two-week-long, citywide event featuring daily international cultural performances, sporting events, arts and crafts demonstrations and other special attractions. Some of the festival’s key events — besides the unfurling of the cherry blooms, currently predicted to be right on time — include the associated Smithsonian Kite Festival on Saturday, a parade and a street festival. In addition, expect sumo wrestling, movies, concerts, and a visit by Sony’s two-legged robot, which will dance and even make a speech.

The Cherry Blossom Festival Parade begins at 10 a.m. April 3 and runs along Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th streets. Showcased will be entries from across the country and around the world — marching bands, floats, helium balloons and international performing groups. Seats in the grandstand, at 15th and 16th streets NW, are available for $15, but of course anyone can watch from any sidewalk along the parade route.

• • •

The cherry trees, or “sakura” in Japanese, are perhaps the most revered flowering plants in Japan. The trees are celebrated both here and in Japan, not just for their beauty, but for what they represent to the Japanese culture.

“To the Japanese, the cherry blossoms are a symbol of life, and how life is fleeting,” says Ms. Mayhew. “Let’s appreciate life while we are here; it will soon be gone,” she says, approximating the Japanese view.

The blossoms also epitomize the transformations Japanese culture has undergone through the ages, and the enduring friendship between the Japan and the United States.

At the turn of the 20th century, Japan had gained the admiration of President Roosevelt for its spirit in defeating Russia in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt helped broker the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth, which ensured Japan a much larger measure of equality among world nations than it had previously been allowed.

As a result, Japan viewed the United States as a great friend. This relationship was furthered even more when Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, took office in 1909. First lady Helen Herron “Nellie” Taft had relished traveling in Japan. When she and other Washington and Japanese dignitaries started a movement to have cherry trees planted around the Tidal Basin, Japan was more than happy to comply with a flowering gift of gratitude.

“It was a wonderful, flourishing period of U.S.-Japanese cooperation,” says professor Kevin Doak, chair of the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Georgetown University and the Nippon Foundation Endowed Chair in Japanese Language and Culture there. “The United States’ relationship with Japan has been critically important, and they remain a strong democratic nation and one of our closest allies.”

In 1912, Japan donated 3,020 cherry trees, and on March 27 of that year, a memorial that would eventually awe millions was begun when Mrs. Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two trees at the north end of the Tidal Basin, roughly 125 feet south of what is now Independence Avenue SW.

Ninety-two years later, roughly 3,750 cherry trees flourish along the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park and the Washington Monument grounds, thanks largely to the work of the National Park Service.

“Only a handful of the original trees are left. Usually cherry trees only live to 50 or 60,” says Bill Line, a spokesman for the Park Service in the National Capital Region. “They have to be cared for. The Park Service has fourteen people who specialize in the cherry trees and keep their numbers level with annual replantings. Maintaining the trees doesn’t happen just in the spring. It is a year-round job.”

The first Washington Cherry Blossom Festival took place in 1935. Today the festival has grown to include dozens of activities for all ages.

• • •

The festival will see a number of firsts this year.

Opening ceremonies will not take place at the Kennedy Center as in years past, but at the Oriental Mandarin Hotel, a new 400-room luxury hotel overlooking the Tidal Basin. Held in the grand ballroom, the ceremonies will feature such invited speakers as Ambassador Ryozo Kato of Japan and the District’s Mayor Anthony A. Williams, as well as performances by musicians and the Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe. Also appearing will be the robot QRIO (pronounced “curio”), which serves as Sony’s corporate ambassador. Tickets for the one-hour ceremony are no longer available.

Some of the festival’s more unusual new events won’t even be at the Tidal Basin:

• Union Station will be the site of concerts and cultural performances.

• The Freer/Sackler Gallery will host an “Ozu Retrospective” film festival, celebrating the work of the legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

• The Art Institute of Washington will present “The Ancient Art of Mukimono” — or garnishing — that includes contests and demonstrations. This event demonstrates how the intricate garnishes that decorate Japanese dishes have influenced Western cuisine today.

“Japanese food arrangement is a work of aesthetic beauty,” says chef Benita Wong, culinary instructor at the Art Institute of Washington. “The food of Japan is a reflection of a number of elements about Japan — geography, history, and society.”

• The sumo world’s version of Michael Jordan will be on hand: Musashimaru, the legendary yokozuna, or sumo grand champion, will appear at the Sakura Matsuri Street Festival April 3. He will be joined by other wrestlers to present this distinctive sport in the new Martial Arts Arena on Freedom Plaza. Also on show will be demonstrations of Japan’s varied martial arts — kendo, aikido, kyudo, naginata, judo and, of course, karate.

The street festival, presented by the Japan-American Society of Washington, D.C., will follow immediately after the parade. It’s meant to give visitors a glimpse of what cherry blossom festivals in Japan are like and will feature cultural performances, arts and crafts and Japanese foods. Organizers expect the event to attract 50,000 people. More than 90 separate organizations and over 250 volunteers participated in the event in 2003, making it one of the largest Japanese street festivals in the United States.

• A shimmering fireworks finale on April 10 will end the festival with a bang. It can be experienced by land (along the southwest waterfront across from Arena Stage) or by sea dinner cruise on the ship Spirit of Washington II. The ship, docked at Pier 4 and Water streets SW, offers a full dinner buffet, entertainment and DJ and dancing. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the National Capital Region Cherry Tree Replacement Fund.

• • •

The Cherry Blossom Festival is a one-stop shop for traditional Japanese arts and crafts.

• Learn the gentle curves and arches of calligraphy, the delicate folds and tucks of origami, or the art of folding paper into shapes, at the Cultural Fair in the D.C. Visitor Information Center at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. The event will include calligraphy and origami demonstrations as well as Japanese tea ceremonies. Or learn to make a tissue-paper cherry blossom at the Capital Children’s Museum.

• The Festival of Origami Architecture at the National Building Museum on April 10 is a “hugely popular family event,” according to Ms. Mayhew. It celebrates origami combined with the art of designing buildings. Construct an origami city, create pop-up paper buildings, attend advanced origami workshops, and more.

• Celebrate “150 Years of the Traditional Japanese Kimono” in the gallery of the Oriental Mandarin Hotel for the duration of the festival. Rare Japanese textiles from the Edo period (1830s through the 1980s) will also be available to view and even buy.

• • •

As in years past, more than 60 free daily cultural performances will take place from noon to 2 p.m. every day at the Jefferson Memorial. These will include music, dance, martial arts demonstrations and hands-on arts and crafts activities.

The third annual Sushi and Sake Tasting, presented by the United States-Japan Sushi Association, has quickly become a festival favorite. This year, it will be held at the Oriental Mandarin. Grand master sushi chefs from Japan and area Japanese restaurants will create Washington’s largest sushi bar and provide sake, too.

Meanwhile, area restaurants will feature exceptional dishes highlighting cherries for the Cherry Picks portion of the festival. Visit the Cherry Blossom Festival Web site ( for a list of participating restaurants.

Fly a kite on the Mall

One of the best-loved events of the Cherry Blossom Festival is the Smithsonian Kite Festival, in which hundreds of participants and competitors try their hand at the timehonored sport, this year for the 38th time. Children and adults alike will be amazed to see kites of every color diving across the Washington sky.

This year’s theme is “Kites Around the World.” The festival will feature kite displays, demonstrations and a competition for handmade kites capable of flying at a minimum of 100 feet high for at least one minute. Kites must be created by the participant and will be judged on design, appearance, construction and performance. Awards will be given in categories including aerodynamics, beauty, funniest and patriotic. A special award will be given for the kite that best interprets the international theme. Non-competitors are welcome to fly kites throughout the day.

New this year is the “Hot Trick Competition,” in which competitors show off their skills on the field.

In addition to the competitions, the festival will feature demonstrations by kite-flying masters as well as the traditional “Rokkaku Challenge,” in which Japanese-style kites battle one another.

Representatives from kite organizations will set up displays on the Mall, where participants and spectators will be invited to learn about kite making and kite flying.

The kite festival runs on the National Mall from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Rain date is Sunday. Take Metro to the Smithsonian or L’Enfant Plaza stations. For further information, see or call 202/357-3030.Lots to do at festival this year

One of the largest spectator events in Washington, the National Cherry Blossom Festival offers visitors 16 days of internationally flavored events. Visitors are encouraged to use Metro to get to events. Volunteers are still needed and welcomed. See the Web site at or call 202/661-7590 for more information.

Here’s a list of selected events, all free unless otherwise noted. A full day-by-day schedule is on the Web site or can be obtained at the phone number above.

Daily or extended events

• Blossoms by Bike: Meet at Old Post Office Pavilion rear plaza, Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street NW, to see the blossoms with touring company “Bike the Sites.” 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily, March 27-April 11. Adults $30, children $25. Metro: Federal Triangle.

• Cultural performances at the Jefferson Memorial: March 27-April 11. Metro: Smithsonian.

• March 27 and 28

• March 31

• April 3

• April 4

• April 7

• April 8

• April 10

• April 11

• Metro: Waterfront-SEU.

• April 11

• Smithsonian.

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