D.C.-area nightlife, events and dining

Correction to This Article
The Cherry Blossom Regatta, scheduled for today, has been postponed because of weather. No new date has been set. For more information, e-mail Gary Hauptman (gphauptman@9yahoo.com).

Cherry Picks

Escape the crowds at the Tidal Basin: To bask in the blossoms, try areas such as Stanton Park in Northeast Washington.
Escape the crowds at the Tidal Basin: To bask in the blossoms, try areas such as Stanton Park in Northeast Washington. (2006 Photo By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By Eve Zibart
Friday, March 30, 2007

Cherry blossoms are the rosebuds of Japan, so to speak, the gather-while-ye-may symbols of fleeting beauty, the harbingers of spring and new life but also the gentle heralds of decay. So sakura hanami, the tradition of blossom viewing, isn't just about the picnicking and the partying and the karaoke binges afterward. It reflects a quintessential tenet of Japanese philosophy: the transitory nature of perfection. Artists, musicians, actors, puppeteers, poets, athletes and scholars, even chefs, aspire to their best while acknowledging the inherent flaw and brevity that is human. The cherry blossom has even been used to symbolize the samurai death in battle. (The cherry blossom is also the Japanese rose in the sense that it represents love, a graceful warning about the likely fading of that gentle emotion as well.)

In Japan, aficionados chase the front of the blooming tide, or sakura zensen, from Okinawa in the south, where the first blossoms open in March, through Kyoto and Tokyo and eventually up to Hokkaido in May. One of the most famous folk anthems, "Sakura," describes the blossoms as looking like "the mist, or else the clouds" that spread across "the expanse of the spring sky." (Not that it's solely a Japanese passion: My father always quoted A.E. Housman's "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now," a sort of English haiku celebrating the blossoming tree "hung with snow.") But perhaps no art can fully prepare one for the vision of the Tidal Basin in full living glory.

These cherries, one of the most magnificent horticultural gifts in American history, were famously a token of friendship between the people of Japan, represented by Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador in 1912, to the people of the United States, in the person of first lady Helen Taft. The first two they planted are marked with bronze plaques and stand, photo-op friendly, near the south end of 17th Street NW at Independence Avenue. (Chinda often gets the credit, but in fact the 3,000 trees were donated by Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki, and this year his 95-year-old daughter, Yukika Sohma, who was born the year of the gift, is traveling to Washington with her daughter and grandson to meet with the Tafts' granddaughter, Helen Taft Manning Hunter, and other members of the Taft clan, to plant cherry trees in the garden of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel looking out over the Tidal Basin.)

Washingtonians instantly fell in love with the trees, which were the original attraction of the then-new Tidal Basin. The Lincoln Memorial wasn't begun until 1914, and when the first National Cherry Blossom Festival was held in 1935, a Jefferson Memorial was still several years off. Although the festival was suspended during World War II (and the trees temporarily referred to as "Oriental cherry trees," a la "freedom fries"), the 1947 event was a record-breaker, attracting 450,000 visitors to the Tidal Basin in only two days.

(One of several other gifts of the Japanese people to Washington is seen only by a lucky few: the crown of the cherry blossom queen. Presented to festival officials in 1957 by the founder of the Mikimoto pearl company, it has 1,585 pearls set in 14-karat gold and is not only far too valuable to wear -- it's worth more than $300,000 -- but too heavy. The queen, who is chosen from all the princesses by a spin of the wheel at the Presentation Ball, gets to wear the crown only long enough for her coronation photos, and then it's returned to the bank vault for another year. The tiara she wears on the parade float is just a little memento she takes home.)

Most of this year's Cherry Blossom Festival events are bracketed by the opening ceremonies Saturday at the National Building Museum and the Smithsonian's annual Tako Age Taikai kite festival on the grounds of the Washington Monument, and by the parade, with grand marshals Mickey and Minnie Mouse (in kimonos), and the Sakura Matsuri, or street festival, April 14. For more on the parade and other festivities, call the festival hotline at 202-547-1500 or visit http://www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/.

In addition, scores of exhibits, displays and performances, most free and many Metro-handy, will showcase Japanese culture, traditional and contemporary. For more educational and cultural programs, part of the Smithsonian Associates' "Japan Wow! From Traditions to Trends" series, see Page 23.

SEE AND BE SCENE

The blossoms come first, of course, and there may be a lot more than you realize. There are more than 3,700 trees of a dozen species around the Tidal Basin and environs. The most easily recognized are the pale-pink-edged white Yoshino, which encircle the Tidal Basin and bloom first -- this year they're predicted to peak the first week in April -- and the deeper pink double-blossomed Kwanzan, which peak a little later and dominate East Potomac Park. The cluster-bloom pinks, something like large azaleas, scattered among them are Akebono.

Although most tourists visit the cherries during the day, they are truly spectacular at sunset and under the lights. National Park Service rangers lead two-hour tours by lantern light -- they supply Japanese lanterns, but you can bring a flashlight as well -- leaving at 8 from the paddle boat parking lot at 15th Street and Maine Avenue SW (Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and April 7, 8, 11, 14 and 15). They also lead walks daily at 10, noon, 1, 2:30, 4 and 5:30, one shorter, one longer, starting from the Tidal Basin entrance to the FDR Memorial.

(Watch for yet another Japanese-American gift: Yoko Ono's Wish Trees, young potted cherries that will be donated by the artist-activist and set up at the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial, in the Hirshhorn Museum's sculpture garden and on THEARC cultural campus near Oxon Run Park in Anacostia. Tags will be provided on which to write a wish, and when tied to the branches, the wishes will form the "blossoms" of the tree. Eventually the wishes will be joined with others into a giant Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland.)

Washington Walks' two-hour "Blossom Secrets" tour, which meets at the Smithsonian Metro station exit on Independence Avenue, includes anecdotes about Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, a Washington writer who fell in love with the cherry trees on a trip to Japan in 1885 and spent the next two decades trying to persuade local officials to use them to fill in the artificial peninsula -- now East and West Potomac parks -- that was to rise from the Foggy Bottom swamps. It wasn't until the Tafts, who had also lived in Japan and knew the beauty of the trees, came into the White House that she made headway. The walks are Fridays and Mondays at 10, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 through April 15 ($10; 202-484-1565; http://www.washingtonwalks.com/).

Architectural photographer E. David Luria will lead twice-daily photo safaris throughout the festival, a sunrise trek from 6:15 to 8:30 ($57) and an afternoon walk from 3 to 5:30 ($53). A sunrise safari especially for digital-camera users is $89; for information, visit http://www.washingtonphotosafari.com/. Get a really good shot and you might win the festival's first photo contest: Twelve winning pictures will be used for the official 2008 festival calendar, and the grand prize is a Canon digital camera (for information and entry forms, visit http://www.lulu.com/blossoms).


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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