Blossoming Custom: See the Buds by Night

Well-lit landmarks such as the Washington Monument provide a luminescent backdrop for viewing the Tidal Basin cherry trees after dark.
Well-lit landmarks such as the Washington Monument provide a luminescent backdrop for viewing the Tidal Basin cherry trees after dark. (Photos By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

Pssst. Hey, you, cherry blossom lover.

There's a secret way to see Washington's fabled flowerets in relative solitude, with few crowds, little traffic and your choice of parking spaces, right along the Tidal Basin.

Go at night -- really late at night.

"This is the BEST way to see them, it's just amazing," said George Yu, who pulled right up to a gorgeous cluster of Washington Yoshino trees in his white Mercedes-Benz and began taking pictures last weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. and he and his date, Millie Cave, had a stretch of cherry trees all to themselves.

"The branches are so full, and they just glow in the night light," Cave said.

It's Washington's backroom way of seeing the biggest show in town for the past two weeks, after the bus loads of tourists have gone, when the grandmothers garbed in pink sweat suits are back at home and when the stroller brigade is fast asleep.

The National Park Service said that over the years, more and more people have discovered this after-hours ritual. It's a rare time when a piece of Washington parkland has a bonafide nightlife that has nothing to do with bars, when it feels like we have a grand, lamp-lit boulevard along the waterfront. But that will surely change come Sunday, when the National Cherry Blossom Festival wraps up and the blossoms have blown away.

Officials have put few restrictions on the night owls, aside from signs at the parking lot near the pedal boats forbidding cars to stay there from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. This is the part of the basin where lovers tend to hang out, where cars roll up, engines are cut and windows steam up.

Midnight blossom viewing may seem weird, or even a little racy, for buttoned-down Washington. But in Japan, it is a genuine sub-genre of the cherry blossom culture, said Akitaka Saiki, the deputy chief of mission for the Japanese Embassy.

There's even a name for it, "yozakura," literally "night cherry blossom." Parks all over Japan hang paper lanterns in trees or float them on the water to add to the evening glow. Every night until the petals fall off, Japanese families spend hours singing, drinking sake, talking under the trees.

"The blossoms come and go very quickly, so we enjoy them as much as we can," Saiki said. "Regular American citizens are beginning to understand this. A little bit."

Around the Tidal Basin, the persistent glow of city lights, the man-made illumination that never lets the Washington sky go inky black, works for the nocturnal showcasing of the blossoms. It leaves a luminous, pastel backdrop for the trees.

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