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CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL - WASHINGTON D.C.

Story and photos by

Are you tired of winter and looking for a sure-cure for the winter blahs? Then fast forward into spring at the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC.

Washington Monument and cherry trees
Washington Monument and cherry trees
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

It all began in 1912, when Helen Taft, wife of the US president, decided that Potomac Park needed something colorful to brighten it. (The US Army Corps of Engineers created the Washington DC park from a mosquito-infested swamp.)

Dr. Jokichi Takamine, the Japanese chemist who discovered adrenalin, was visiting Washington at the time, so Mrs. Taft persuaded him to approach the mayor of Tokyo with a request for some of their renowned cherry trees.

Flowering cherry trees

The mayor, Yukio Ozaki, responded with a generous gift of 3,000 cherry trees. Transporting them halfway around the world wasn't easy. The trees were carefully wrapped and shipped from Japan to the US capital. They arrived in Washington DC after more than a month in transit.

Mrs. Taft planted the first tree on the north bank of the Tidal Basin. Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the second tree as a symbolic gesture of the friendship between the Japanese and Americans. These two trees still stand today, near the statue of John Paul Jones at the end of 17th St. NW.

The United States government gave Japan some flowering dogwood trees in 1915, then in 1935, civic groups began the first Washington DC Cherry Blossom Festival. It expanded from one week to two in 1994.

Lady Bird Johnson accepted 3,800 more cherry trees in 1965. When a flood destroyed Yoshino cherry trees in Japan in 1981, horticulturalists replaced them with cuttings from the Washington DC trees. In 1999, cuttings from a 1,500-year-old Gifu province cherry tree were planted in the Tidal Basin.

Special events

The Cherry Blossom Festival features daily events, including art exhibits, cultural films, book readings, marathons, tree plantings, Union Station concerts, Potomac River dinner cruises, sushi and sake tasting, regattas, a kite festival and rugby, lacrosse, golf and soccer tournaments.

A popular event is the traditional lighting of the ceremonial Japanese lantern that was given to Washington DC by the Governor of Tokyo in 1954. Made of granite, it measures 2.6 meters (8 1/2 feet) high and weighs 2,722 kg (6,000 lb). The lantern is located just north of the Tidal Basin, a lagoon-like extension of the Potomac River and Washington Channel.

Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Tidal Basin and cherry trees
Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Tidal Basin and cherry trees
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Tidal Basin is one of the best spots for what the Japanese call hanami, the centuries-old art of cherry blossom watching. About 650 trees form a lacy pink fringe around its edges. Blushing blossoms frame the gleaming white marble of the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Both are reflected in the sapphire water.

You can rent paddle boats to circle the Tidal Basin, or join the Washingtonians and visitors who parade along the pathway skirting the water, lost in the spell of hanami. Couples stroll, hand in hand, enjoying the spectacle. Cameras click in rapid succession. Women wear pink blossoms in their hair. Children play hide-and-seek among the trees. You may even see dogs with blossoms in their collars!

Winter fades as you stroll beneath a floral canopy toward the Washington Monument. Gentle breezes send showers of petals fluttering down like pink confetti. The fragrance is as overwhelming as the view.

Cherry blossoms
Cherry blossoms
© Barb & Ron Kroll

If you arrive in Washington DC to find a carpet of petals surrounding the Tidal Basin, don't be too disappointed. The more spectacular double-blossomed Kwanzan cherry trees bloom about two weeks after the single-blossomed Yoshino trees that fringe the Tidal Basin. The former are a deep-rose hue; the latter, a creamy-pink.

Cherry blossom dates

Timing the Cherry Blossom Festival to coincide with peak flowering times is an annual game of hit-and-miss for festival organizers. Cherry trees need 10 days in a row with temperatures above 15.6 °C (60 °F) to bloom.

Since 1924, the Yoshino have bloomed as early as March 20 and as late as April 17, with the average date being April 5. The Kwanzan have burst into bloom as early as April 14, and as late as May 1.

The average date is April 27. The 2017 National Cherry Blossom Festival dates are March 20 through April 16.

One highlight of the festival is the Cherry Blossom Grand Ball. The black-tie event features dancing to a big band and the crowning of the US Cherry Blossom Queen.

The Cherry Blossom Queen is crowned with the Mikimoto Crown that was donated by Mr. Yoshtaka Mikimoto in 1957. The jeweled tiara is so valuable that it's stored in a vault at the National Savings and Trust Company. A bonded guard brings the crown to the Ball for the crowning of the queen. After photographs are taken, the crown is returned to the bank's vault.

Parade and street festival

The Cherry Blossom Parade is the most popular event of the festival, with floats, bands, clowns, antique cars, Japanese taiko drummers, dancers and festival princesses parading down Constitution Avenue. The 2017 Cherry Blossom Parade date is April 8.

Although the parade is free, huge crowds make viewing difficult unless you buy a ticket for one of the grandstand seats. For a spectacular backdrop to the parade, reserve the seats directly opposite the Washington Monument.

Cherry blossoms reflected in sunglasses
Cherry blossoms reflected in sunglasses
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Sakura Matsuri, the largest Japanese street festival in the United States, follows the parade. It takes place on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 14th and 10th streets; and 12th Street between Pennsylvania & Constitution Avenues.

The sights, sounds and scents of Japan come alive with traditional dances, taiko drums, popular Japanese culture, including J-POP, anime and manga, Japanese martial arts and sumo wrestling, Japanese handicrafts, like origami, Japanese foods and drinks.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival brings Japan, as well as spring, to Washington DC.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

National Cherry Blossom Festival: www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org