By Ray M. Lane
Friday, March 24, 2006
If nature cooperates, thousands of luscious pink and puffy white flowers will bloom on the city's famous Japanese cherry trees next week during the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.
On the predicted peak dates -- Monday and Tuesday -- Washington will become one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The blossoms could last as long as 14 days and coincide with the two-week festival, which runs from Saturday to April 9.
All this is cause for celebration. And there's lots to enjoy during the festival besides the beckoning trees of the Tidal Basin, West Potomac Park, East Potomac Park and the grounds of the Washington Monument. But just sorting through the many planned activities on the festival Web site would take an hour. That's too exhausting.
We've simplified matters with a list of 10 ways to marvel at the blossoms and experience Japanese culture. You can start with something new: Family Day at the National Building Museum. Follow that by flying kites, watching a parade or fireworks, or taking nature photos. Then, as the weather warms and fading blossoms scatter in the breeze, do as the Japanese do -- go have a picnic.
1. Fear not the rain showers, high winds or occasional snow squalls of early spring. Visitors to Saturday's opening ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival will be well protected in the National Building Museum.
Pass through a tori gate, a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, starting at 10 for Family Day, featuring hands-on presentations of Japanese arts and crafts, such as paper-folding and floral arrangement, designed especially for families; kids will have a chance to make miniature paper gardens to take home. Watch a demonstration of mukimono , the art of carving vegetables and fruits.
Fan-making, brush painting demonstrations, a fashion show and a bonsai display are scheduled as well, and Japanese comic books, or manga , will be on display. The "Anime Blossom" exhibit will include banks of televisions offering continuous screenings of Japanese animation videos.
Opening ceremonies are at 4, with speeches, a presentation of the festival's goodwill ambassadors and the ear-shattering artistry of internationally renowned taiko drummer Kenny Endo.
FAMILY DAY AND OPENING CEREMONY Saturday 10 to 5:30. National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW (Metro: Judiciary Square). Free. 202-272-2448. http://www.nbm.org/. A listing of all festival events is at http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/.
2. The 40th annual Smithsonian Kite Festival, titled "Blowin' in the Wind," swoops onto the Washington Monument grounds Saturday and again features competitions, "hot tricks" showdowns and kite beauty contests and races. The psychedelic, '60s-themed festival, commemorating the groovy decade of the event's birth, will have kite-making and other activities for children, as well as the traditional rokkaku battle of the kites, in which competitors try to ground their opponents' kites.
Participating in the cherry blossom festival April 7 and 8 will be the Shirone kite club, a 300-year-old kite association from Japan. Assisted by members of the Wings Over Washington Kite Club on April 7, eight kite fliers from the Shirone club will construct their Tasuke -- a 24-foot-long war kite based on a mythical fish and requiring as many as 50 handlers. As the Shirone team assembles the bamboo and mulberry-paper Tasuke at the National Air and Space Museum, visitors will be able to examine the huge kite and Japanese kite-making materials.
Shirone members will march in the Cherry Blossom Parade on April 8 with their American helpers hauling big kites. They will set up by noon on the Washington Monument grounds and fly their kites until sundown. The kite club will also bring 40 smaller kites and encourage youngsters to fly them.
SMITHSONIAN KITE FESTIVAL Saturday from 10 to 4. Washington Monument grounds (Metro: Smithsonian). Free.http://www.kitefestival.org. Rain date Sunday.
SHIRONE WAR KITE DEMONSTRATION April 7 from 10 to 5 in the west wing of the National Air and Space Museum, Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW (Metro: Smithsonian). Free. 202-633-1000. Also April 8 from noon to sundown on the Washington Monument grounds. Free. Kite demonstrations are weather permitting.
3. "One of the problems with the blossoms and the festival is that it's spread all over the place," says Kelly Diamond, a bicycle tour guide for Bike the Sites.
"I mean, even a young person is gonna die doing all that walking," she says with a laugh.
The better way is on a bike. For $30, an adult can rent a mountain bike and see the blossoms with a guide familiar with local history and the lore of the festival. Cyclists will ride across the Mall to East Potomac Park, loop around Hains Point and head west to the Jefferson Memorial to get their fill of the nearly 4,000 trees.
With advance notice, the company will give private group tours and customized tours for disabled or older visitors on motorized scooters.
BLOSSOMS BY BIKE GUIDED TOURS Two-hour tours daily at 3; additional weekend tours at 9:30 and 12:30. Bike the Sites. Old Post Office Pavilion rear plaza, 12th Street NW between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues (Metro: Federal Triangle). $30 adults, $20 ages 12 and younger, including bikes. 202-842-2453. http://www.bikethesites.com. Reservations advised.
4. The fluttering pink clouds of cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin "are so darn pretty," says Washington Walks tour guide Dwane Starlin, who fills in the audio portion -- the history of the festival and the trees bestowed by the Japanese -- while tourists ogle the trees by the Tidal Basin.
"We really just try to keep them from falling in the water as they walk around," he says.
"Mostly it's 25 or so people from all over America and sometimes overseas. They're lost in the beauty and just need a voice to make it come alive."
BLOSSOM SECRETS STROLL Two-hour walks Saturdays and Sundays at 2 through April 9. Washington Walks. Meet at Independence Avenue exit of Smithsonian Metro station. $10, $5 ages 12 and younger. 202-484-1565. http://www.washingtonwalks.com. No reservations required.
5. "Most people know how to take pictures," says E. David Luria, a professional photographer specializing in architectural and historical work. "But they may have never seen anything as beautiful as the cherry blossoms -- it kinda floors them."
For the past 13 years, Luria has run Washington Photo Safaris for visitors who want to take the kind of pictures of the nation's capital found on postcards and in guidebooks. Throughout the festival, he takes groups counterclockwise around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial, stopping for his followers to take pictures as he offers photography advice.
Tourists come loaded with the most elaborate equipment or just those little cellphone cameras, he says. No skill level is required.
After so many years of guided tours, Luria says he knows where the most beautiful trees are. "What I do is show them how to backlight the cherry blossoms, or maybe throw a flash on a darker branch."
For the real camera buffs, advanced photography tours can be arranged by appointment.
WASHINGTON PHOTO SAFARI Tours are 2 1/2 hours. Daily from 3 to 5:30 through April 9; meet at the FDR Memorial (Metro: Smithsonian). Also April 5, 8, 9 from 6 to 8:30 a.m.; meet at the paddleboat rental station on the Tidal Basin. $49 daily tour; $53 sunrise tour. 202-537-0937. http://www.washingtonphotosafari.com.
6. The blooms present such an arresting sight from the Potomac River that Eric Slaughter jokes he could get away with serving crackers and peanut butter on his fancy high-tea charter tours this time of year.
Instead, blossom watchers are treated to pastries, varied teas, chocolates, soups and sandwiches while seated at table-clothed tables on the 85-foot yacht Finished Business and the 100-foot Celebrity.
"Everyone's eyes are glued to the blossoms, the water. . . . The colors and water reflections and everything moving sort of hypnotize everybody," says Slaughter, co-owner of Capital Yacht Charters with his fiancee, Lisa Finney. "It's pretty on land, but until you see it from the water, you really don't know how beautiful they are."
Not surprisingly, several cruise operators offer an array of viewing possibilities, complete with meals, drinks, entertainment, music and dance. But whether it's a quick pass-by on a chugging nautical bus or dining on a luxury barge, "the pink clouds of those blossoms are what overwhelms you," he says.
Phone ahead because spaces fill quickly among the charter operators, who, depending on weather will add or drop cruises, Slaughter says. "Bring a camera," he says. "Maybe you'll get hungry, maybe not."
CAPITAL YACHT CHARTERS Cherry Blossom High Tea Sundays through April 9. Two hours. $50 per person. Small boat tours leave every two hours from 9 to 5 (later when daylight saving time starts April 2). Saturdays and Sundays through April 9. $15. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Washington Marina, 1300 Maine Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-554-0677. http://www.capitalyacht.com.
ODYSSEY CRUISE Brunch, lunch and dinner tours on selected dates. $54-$126. 888-741-0281. Gala benefit dinner cruise. April 6 from 6 to 10. 202-661-7585. $125 per person. Gangplank Marina, 600 Water St. SW. http://www.odysseycruises.com. Reservations required.
SPIRIT OF WASHINGTON Two-hour lunch and three-hour dinner cruises with entertainment on selected dates. $42-$75. Pier 4, Sixth and Water streets SW. 202-554-8000. http://www.spiritcruises.com.Reservations required.
7. Along with the Sackler Gallery's gorgeous "Hokusai" exhibition (see review on Page 43), another feast for the eye is the museum's daylong anime film festival April 1, with special guests and a costume show based on the incredible creatures found in the pop art form. Arrive early for film tickets.
Across the river, entries in the National Cherry Blossom Festival Art Contest are on display at the Art Institute of Washington's gallery. The winning entry, selected from more than 70, is a painting by Reston artist Ann Marie Williams showing lush, pink trees in the foreground with the Jefferson Memorial in the back.
ARTHUR M. SACKLER GALLERY "Hokusai" through May 14. Daily 10 to 5:30. Free. Anime Marathon, April 1 11 to 7. Free film tickets distributed on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10:30. 1050 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000. http://www.asia.si.edu.
ART INSTITUTE OF WASHINGTON "Artistic Impressions" exhibition through April 8. Monday through Thursday 9 to 8, Saturday until 3. 1820 N. Fort Myer Dr. (Metro: Rosslyn). Free. 877-303-3771. http://www.aiw.artinstitutes.edu.
8. Check out the National Cherry Blossom Festival's All-Star Tap Dance Team strutting in the closing parade, along with 15 marching bands, a contingent of taiko drummers, giant tethered balloons bobbing down the street -- think Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with Japanese animated characters instead of Rudolph and Santa.
Pat Sajak of "Wheel of Fortune" serves as grand marshal, with a newly crowned Miss Cherry Blossom to wave from her throne atop a decorated float. "American Idol" finalist Anthony Federov and singer Martha Wash ("It's Raining Men") perform amid the tapping and the boom-boom-boom.
Adding their unique touch, too, are a squad of performers decked out to look like mythical Japanese figures who will cavort among the paradegoers.
NATIONAL CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL PARADE April 8 from 10 to noon. Constitution Avenue from Seventh to 17th streets NW (Metro: Federal Triangle, Smithsonian, Archives-Navy Memorial). Standing room free; seats $15 from Ticketmaster. 202-397-7328. http://www.ticketmaster.com.
9. Washington area restaurants have worked up special menus tied to the festival (see Short Orders on Page 15). But many of the dishes are fanciful and disconnected from the Japanese tradition of hanami, which involves admiring the cherry blossoms while eating simple picnic foods. A closer form of the Japanese culinary ideal is chirashi, a light, summery rice salad. Topped with shrimp, chicken or attractive vegetables, it's the perfect dish to serve under the trees (where picnicking is permitted). This recipe was adapted from a family recipe supplied by Hiroko Malott of Alexandria.
4 cups cooked sushi rice
3 shiitake mushrooms, tough stems discarded
1/2 medium carrot
8 green beans
1 green onion
1 sheet nori (dried seaweed)
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon sake or dry sherry
1/2 cup dashi (Japanese stock) or chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
Cut the mushrooms, carrot and green beans into matchstick-size pieces; set aside. Cut the green onions on the diagonal into 1/4 -inch-wide pieces; set aside. Cut the nori into thin pieces, about 3/4 -inch long; set aside. In a small saucepan, heat the soy sauce, sugar, sake and dashi stock until just simmering. Add the mushrooms, carrots and green beans. Cook on high until the vegetables just begin to soften, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Beat the eggs with the salt and sugar. Spray a nonstick frying pan with cooking oil and heat on medium. Pour in just enough egg mixture to coat the pan, swirling to cover the surface. Cook until set, remove cooked egg onto a cutting board, roll into a cigar-shaped cylinder and slice across into thin shreds. Repeat with remaining egg mixture.
To assemble the dish, mix the rice with half of the soy sauce mixture and julienned vegetables, half the nori and half the egg pieces. Lightly press into serving-size bowls or on a platter. Top with the remaining egg and soy mixture, finishing with a sprinkling of nori and the sliced green onions. Add optional toppings such as crab meat, tuna (fresh or canned), water chestnuts, spinach, peas, asparagus, snow peas, shrimp or shredded chicken.
Per serving: 541 calories, 13 g protein, 112 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 71 mg cholesterol, 1 g saturated fat, 345 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber
Recipe tested by Jeanne Maglaty; e-mail questions email@example.com.
10. By the festival's final weekend, attention will shift away from the sad sight of dying blossoms to the lively Sakura Matsuri street festival on April 8.
"This is the big one," says Japan-America Society President John Malott. "We expect over 100,000 to take in perhaps the finest example of traditional and pop expressions of Japanese art and culture."
Four performance stages will be set up for continuous demonstrations, including traditional Japanese singing and dancing, a children's choir, taiko drumming and folk ensembles from Tokyo.
Martial arts will be showcased at Freedom Plaza, including judo, jujitsu and karate; sumo wrestlers will have it out in a ring; and Japanese fencing and archery will be nearby.
The J-pop stage on 10th Street will focus on the contemporary scene, including two pop groups from Tokyo (Mitsu Mashu and Aun), a hip-hop artist who combines taiko drums with a synthesizer and a DJ spinning the latest songs from Japan.
Kids can try their luck on "Dance Dance Revolution" video game stations, and vendors will sell the latest anime and manga products.
Twelve area Japanese and Asian restaurants will sell samples of traditional (and some American) foods, and there will be two beer gardens and a sake stand.
SAKURA MATSURI April 8 from 11 to 6. Organized by the Japan-America Society. Pennsylvania Avenue between 11th and 13th streets, and on 12th Street between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues (Metro: Federal Triangle). Free. 202-833-2210. http://www.us-japan.org/dc.
Ray M. Lane is a freelance writer from Takoma Park who marched in the Cherry Blossom Parade in 1964.