Cherry Blossom Festival Opens in D.C.

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Architect Kengo Kuma thinks the United States could learn something from Japan's culture of sustainability, reuse of scarce resources and living small.

The McMansions, sport-utility vehicles and living large this country has been infatuated with for the past decade contrast sharply with the simple teahouse on display inside the National Building Museum as part of the two-week-long National Cherry Blossom Festival, which opened yesterday.

In Japan, the structure, used for traditional ceremonies, might be made with local wood and concrete. But Kuma's has a balloon for a roof and translucent fabric walls -- an example of environmental sustainability at a time of recession and fewer resources. He compared Japan's "lost decade" of economic growth in the 1990s to the end of America's recent "gilded age." As the world grapples with dwindling energy reserves, greenhouse gases and a deep recession, Kuma said, "We can export Japanese wisdom to others."

The white teahouse was a calm outpost among the thousands of people and hundreds of strollers who jammed into the museum. The opening ceremony featured music, martial arts demonstrations and traditional Japanese crafts.

The festival, which commemorates Japanese-American relations and the 1912 and 1965 gifts of cherry trees to Washington, features lantern walks among the famous cherry blossom trees, an anime marathon, walking tours and a parade April 4, among other activities.

At the ceremony, children learned and practiced "furoshiki," which involves using small pieces of decorative fabric to wrap gifts. The fabric is traditionally used repeatedly for many things, said Deborah Sorensen, a curatorial assistant with the museum.

Children also did plantings in containers called "cow pots," made from a mix of cow dung and other biodegradable materials.

One plants the entire container in the ground instead of taking the plant out of a plastic pot that is then discarded, a common practice in the United States.

Sorensen said that a lot of the themes and technology that the developed world is now embracing, such as hybrid technology, solar power, extensive transit use, the reuse of wastewater and the ethos of leaving small carbon footprints, are byproducts of traditional Japanese culture. Modern Japan, with its neon lights and concrete towers, is turning back to its roots, Sorensen said. "Even Japan can learn from itself," she said.

Kuma's teahouse is an example. Kuma said the balloon came from a manufacturer who usually makes them for floating advertisements above department stores. The fabric is called "super organza," a material one-tenth the weight of traditional organza, a sheer fabric made from silk. The fabric drapes a small wooden platform covered with tatami mats and materials for a tea ceremony. Kuma said it wouldn't last long in nature. "If there is wind, the balloon goes away,'' he said.

The larger point, Kuma said, is learning to make do. Lack of space, natural resources and oil forced his country to conserve, he said.

"Humbleness is a theme of our culture," he said. "We are different than China and the United States, which is rich in natural resources."

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