The quintessential Cherry Blossom Festival events consist of a parade down Constitution Avenue and the classic stroll around the Tidal Basin at peak blossom time, but there’s a great deal more than this to the two-week-long festival, which begins in March and continues well into April each year. There are bike tours, evening lantern-lit walks, a fireworks display on the waterfront, events at the National Arboretum and other local horticultural venues, and a virtual smorgasbord of food and culture at restaurants, embassies, art galleries, and concert halls around town. In short, the entire two weeks is packed with things to do. This year’s festival ran from March 26th to April 10th and benefitted from a rare convergence of peak blossoms on the most important days of the festival.
I took a special interest in the festival this year, as I’m travelling to Japan in May and am immersing myself as much as possible in all things Japanese, so I devoted several days to the Cherry Blossom Festival, going downtown on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of the final week. What I learned from my treks is that if you want to see the blossoms in relative peace and quiet (and that’s relative, mind you), then it’s really necessary to visit the most popular spot, the Tidal Basin, fairly early on a weekday. Forget about seeing the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin on the day of the parade – you need the scrum-busting skills of a rugby player just to make your way through the crowds.
Luck was with me the Wednesday that I roused myself earlier than normal and took the bus from Poolesville to the Metro in Rockville and then into D.C. Just three days before, the weather had been cold and blustery for the Smithsonian Kite Festival, but on Tuesday, the fickle Atlantic Coast weather turned unexpectedly benign. Temperatures rose, the sun came out... and the blossoms began to open.
A word about the history of the trees: Ninety-three years ago, the mayor of Tokyo presented 3,000 cherry trees to the people of Washington, D.C. as a gesture of friendship. Only around 125 of the original trees that were planted around the Tidal Basin remain, but there are more than 3,000 trees today, as cherry trees have been planted and replanted all throughout the town. Cherry blossoms are the emblems of Washington, D.C. (along with the monuments), and the festival attracts over a million visitors each year.
I arrived on the Mall by 9am and made a beeline for the Tidal Basin. Most of the people there that time of day were busy photographing the blossoms; the best light for catching the classic view of the Jefferson Memorial is in the morning. In the afternoon, the sun is behind the monument. Plus, the cherry blossoms just seem to look their freshest in the morning, though I can attest that they also look quite alluring at night lit only by streetlamp.
Unfortunately, there’s still a considerable amount of construction/terrorist-proofing going on around the Washington Monument and the new World War II Memorial, but the real challenge to the morning visitor is threading through rush-hour traffic. D.C. is one of the few places where I always watch and obey the pedestrian-crossing signals; even then, there’s no assurance that some type-A maniac won’t round the corner and try to zoom past.
There was scarcely any wind at 9am – another benefit of coming in the morning – providing near-ideal conditions for appreciating and photographing the blossoms. I strolled past the paddleboat rental docks and along the east side of the Tidal Basin toward the Jefferson Memorial. Young lovers find this walk irresistible, and more than a few brides and grooms use it as a wedding photo backdrop. Everyone wants a photo of themselves framed by the boughs of the cherry trees with the glistening white memorial in the background. I must’ve taken a dozen photos for couples and families just traversing the mile or so around the Tidal Basin.
It took me a while to reach the Jefferson Memorial, as I stopped practically every other minute to take in some new vista. By the time I reached it, the day’s entertainment at the stage in front of the memorial was about to begin. I got a schedule from a volunteer and noted there would be a traditional Indian dance performance later in the day. I kept on walking, making a side excursion to the George Mason statue, which was ringed by a stunning display of deep pink saucer magnolias, bright-yellow forsythia (I am not, on the whole, a fan of forsythia, but this display was stunning), and cheerful plantings of daffodils and pansies. By this time, the tour buses were clogging all the roads near the Tidal Basin, and great hordes of tourists were descending clutching disposable cameras and sunhats. It was a zoo, but a very agreeable one.
There are actually four main types of cherry trees planted in Washington, and they bloom at different times. The Weeping Higan, which ranges from a deep pink to white, blooms first, followed about a week later by the white Yoshino and pale pink Akebono cherry trees. Pink Kwanzan cherry trees, laden with heavy clusters of double flowers, bloom last. The Tidal Basin is noted for its 1,400 Yoshino trees, while other impressive displays are at the West and Potomac Parks and the Washington Monument grounds.
Akebono cherry blossoms
It’s illegal to climb the trees or pick the their blossoms, but I still saw clueless visitors hoisting their offspring into the branches of trees. I later read in the Washington Post that the main damage sustained by the trees each year is caused the compaction of the soil over the trees' roots caused by the trampling of millions of feet, slowly killing the trees in the process. It’s actually hard not to walk on the areas below the trees at some points because the concrete path that runs around the Tidal Basin is fairly narrow. Two people walking abreast are more or less the width of the path in certain places. (That’s another reason to come early on a weekday morning to do this walk!)
I wended my way back to the performance stage and watched a performance by the Jayamangala Indian Dance Company – three young ladies (the youngest, I learned, was only ten) with the poise and precision of experienced dancers. Then I continued my trek around the Tidal Basin, admiring some of the extravagantly twisted older trees and stopping by the FDR Memorial, which, somehow, I’d never managed to visit before. By the time I’d made the complete circuit, it was well into the afternoon, and I was starving. The sight of groups of people basking in the sun and picnicking beneath the cherry trees made me wish I’d had the foresight to bring a packed lunch.
I made my way over toward the Smithsonian castle for a snack – a longish trek, but as there are unfortunately no Metro stops close to the main monuments my only other option would have been a cab. I considered it, but it was such a lovely day that it just didn’t seem right. I felt positively revived, however, upon entering the Enid Haupt Garden fronting the Smithsonian Castle on the Independence Avenue side. Here the saucer magnolias were giving the cherry trees a run for their money. The entire large courtyard was an almost overpowering display of PINK. Often in this region, a late frost will mar the saucer magnolia blossoms before they bloom, turning them an unsightly brown, but not this year. This year everything was perfection.
I had a one gigabyte card in my digital camera, and somehow I managed to fill it that afternoon taking pictures. Was I content with that one perfect day at the festival? No; I came back on Friday for a second dose of cherry trees and then on Saturday afternoon to take in the Sakura Matsuri Street Festival. Once you’ve gotten into the spirit of the Cherry Blossom Festival, you see, it’s hard to stay away from it.