NATIONAL CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL
A Day Bubbling With Beauty, Ancient Skill
Sunday, April 1, 2007
If you were on the Mall yesterday for the opening of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, it looked like the whole world was a carnival of kites, bubbles and flowering trees exploding in white.
But there was a parallel festival world up the street, one with a ferocious undertone and a ticking clock.
Celebrating Japanese culture in a very different way, about 80 people sat at tables in an elegant pink ballroom at the Charles Sumner School, at 17th and M streets NW, and battled silently at Go, an ancient board game played with smooth, disklike stones. One of only about 10 Go competitions in the region each year, the Cherry Blossom Go Tournament included some of the nation's top players, who had the chance to bump up their rank for national events. Moves by the top players were broadcast live on the Internet to fans in the United States and Asia, where Go was born more than 4,000 years ago and remains wildly popular.
Although most people think Go originated in China, the Japanese became the primary stewards of the game after World War II. In Go, players seize territory on the board with stones and seek to surround and block out opponents. For the past nine years, the tournament has been part of the Cherry Blossom Festival, which centers on cherry blossom trees such as the 3,000 Japan sent to Washington in 1910.
In a classic example of today's globalized culture, Go seems to be getting a little lift in the United States from, of all things, a Japanese anime show kids here watch via the Internet. The show is about a sixth-grader inhabited by the spirit of an ancient Go master.
Watching "Hikaru no Go" on his computer is how 11-year-old Joey Phoon of Falls Church got interested in playing the game. Yesterday, he took down a young woman in the first round of the championship.
"I'm just trying to rest," Joey said between rounds in a side room, where some players practiced moves on the square, wooden board and others sifted through high-end stones made of jade and clamshell. Inside the main room, a small crowd surrounded table No. 1, where the top round was being played by a teenage boy and a middle-age man wearing an "I love Go" pin on his baseball cap.
With players nervously eyeing clocks on their tables, the tournament had a totally different vibe from the Mall area, where tens of thousands of people were roaming under blue skies between a performance stage at the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument, where the 41st annual Smithsonian Kite Festival was underway.
In a very Washington type of scene, the rainbow of kites around the monument shared the skies with the periodic low-flying military helicopter. Meanwhile, traffic on nearby streets barely moved.
Many festival-goers gathered around a feat of fun and engineering: a large machine with wheels and fans that churned out a stream of bubbles, which floated off amid the kites. Near the machine was a gaggle of children on their parents' shoulders, giggling as bubbles popped all over their faces and circus-type music played from a stereo.
"It's what I call the 'Wall of Dads,' " said Felix Cartagena of Newark, Del., who has been operating his bubble machines at kite festivals for a quarter-century. He got into it to learn about the wind for his kites, he said.
"It's so great that all these people came and brought their own kites," said Vaneska Adams, who came from Gambrills with eight relatives and a Spider-Man kite. A Maryland native, Adams had never been to the Cherry Blossom Festival.
"It's definitely worth it -- even this," she said, pointing to the bubble residue in her hair.