"Cherry blossom time"—that’s how Washingtonians casually refer to their annual Cherry Blossom Festival on the National Mall. For 16 days each spring, politicians in the world’s single remaining superpower must compete with the lovely pale pink blooms of ornamental Japanese cherry trees for dominance in the local headlines. Happily, as often as not the cherry blossoms win. The 2011 festival ran from March 26 through April 10.
Much of the festival consists of just what you might expect: a parade down Constitution Avenue complete with supersized balloons, concerts, arts and crafts shows, family activities, food vendors, fireworks, walking and bicycle tours, "royalty" selected to reign over various events, and a formal grand ball.
Other aspects of the festival aren’t so usual. The opening ceremonies, for example, are officiated over by representatives from Japan, the United States, and the District of Columbia and involve lighting a 2-ton, 350-year-old stone Japanese lantern. The grand ball incorporates a traditional sushi reception. The festival’s royalty includes Japan's Cherry Blossom Queen. Indeed, there is a distinct Japanese essence to many of the events associated with the festival—including the attendees. Washington typically enjoys disproportionate numbers of Japanese visitors at this time of year.
As it happens, the cherry trees that are the focus of this annual celebration were gifts of friendship from Japan to the United States, as was the lantern used in the lighting ceremony. The trees, which were presented by the Mayor of Tokyo in 1912, were planted around the Tidal Basin and in West Potomac Park. These elder trees are now mature weeping cherries with beautifully gnarled trunks. A second gift of trees arrived in 1965, and most were planted in the area of the National Mall that surrounds the Washington Monument. The stone lantern was presented by the Japanese ambassador in 1954, honoring the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Amity and Friendship between his country and ours. The 1980s brought these gifts of friendship full circle when cuttings from the cherry trees in Washington were returned to Japan, replacing trees lost during a natural disaster.
The course of friendship is not always smooth, of course. Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, a few trees were cut down in what was thought to be a symbolic retaliation against Japan. During the next few years, local officials described the trees and their blossoms as "Oriental" rather than "Japanese."
The war years aside, the cherry trees have been a symbol of the growing bond of friendship between Japan and the United States. The crowds of Japanese visitors who arrive during the festival often resemble pilgrims, reverently paying homage to the century-old trees from the original gift. These guests teach the local community quiet lessons in dignity, patience, and respect. The sights, sounds, tastes, and elegance of Japan have become integral contributions to the National Cherry Blossom Festival and lend a sense of ancient Eastern grace to the brashness of a young Western capital.
This year, as evidence of this continuing friendship, the festival has taken "Stand With Japan" as its slogan. In acknowledgement of the continuing tragedy brought by earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, festival organizers invited participation in a "walk around the Tidal Basin in the spirit of hope and rebuilding." Proceeds from the event and other contributions received throughout the festival will be presented to the International Red Cross to support rebuilding efforts in Japan. But then, there’s nothing like an emergency to bring friends closer.
© BawBaw, LovesTravel - 2011