By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 10:28 PM
Views of Washington's famous cherry blossoms are still free. But the popular Japanese culture street fair that culminates the two-week-long National Cherry Blossom Festival no longer is.
The Sakura Matsuri festival along Pennsylvania Avenue NW will take place April 9 behind a six-foot-high fence and, for the first time in 15 years, require visitors to pay a $5 admission fee, organizers said Tuesday.
The fee will help cover about $300,000 in costs to produce the event, which has drawn about 150,000 people in each of the past several years, said John R. Malott, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington, which stages the street fair. About 4,000 staff members, volunteers, government officials and performers are part of the staging process, he added.
"The number one complaint we get is that there are so many people, it's become so crowded that people can't enjoy it," Malott said. "Hopefully an admission fee will reduce the size of the crowd and people will have a better time."
A fence will run along Pennsylvania Avenue between Ninth and 14th streets NW, Malott said. The fair will no longer run north-south along 12th Street NW, which it traditionally did. There will be five entrance gates, and customers can purchase tickets on site. But Malott encouraged event-goers to buy tickets ahead of time at the festival's Web site.
This year, the fair will feature appearances by Japanese astro-naut Soichi Noguchi and Japan's only NASCAR driver, Akinori Ogata. Maki Kaji, the "father of Sudoku," who appeared in 2009, will return. Several performers, including Uzuhi, a Japanese pop-punk band, will also be on hand.
"Knock on wood, the weather will be good, and the net income from that will allow us in the future to bring more performers from Japan," Malott said.
The fee will provide access to the crafts, entertainers, exhibits and lectures, but food and drink will cost extra. Children 12 and younger may enter for free.
Asked whether he thought event-goers would grumble about the admission fee, Malott said his organization conducted surveys for the past several years asking how long visitors stayed and whether they would be willing to pay. Most visitors remain at the event for five hours, he said, and 30 percent are tourists from out of town - both groups that will find the entrance fee a minor inconvenience for a day's worth of entertainment.
And most of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay.
Michael Wright, a video editor at WJLA (Channel 7) who organ-izes a Japan culture meet-up group in the Washington region, said he was unaware of the new policy. "That's the first I've heard of it," he said. Wright added: "That sounds like it's a small enough fee that you get a lot for your money, having been before. I don't mind paying. It would be nice if it held crowds down."
Malott said organizers of the Philadelphia Sakura Matsuri charged $5 last year and had the same size crowd - about 40,000 - as they did the previous year, when it was free.
"Experts told us when we did the study that some people will object, but the number one factor is that as long as the line is moving and people get in quickly, they'll come in," he said.