In Japan they have a word for cherry-blossom-watching: It's hanami and it's a centuries-old tradition. Families spread picnic lunches under blossoming trees in parks and spend the afternoon admiring the most fragile of spring's harbingers.
Here in Washington, the tradition is a little younger -- most of the blossom trees were planted in 1912 -- but judging by the number of tour buses and the length of traffic lines snarling the 14th Street Bridge, cherry-blossom-watching is also a capital passion.
There are about 3,000 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, along the nearby Potomac and near the Washington Monument, and they're expected to start blooming this weekend. All of them were a gift from the City of Tokyo and most of them are of the Yoshino variety, which bears white single blossoms. In 1920, some pale pink Akebono trees were planted, adding a pink cast to the whole show.
The best way to see the blossoms is on foot. But even on foot you can't escape the fumes and noise of tree- inspired traffic. If you like your blossoms with less bustle, here are a few locations more congenial for strolling and admiring. AUDUBON SOCIETY -- 8940 Jones Mill Road, Chevy Chase. 652-9188. Open sunrise to sunset daily. Here in this historic 40-acre estate, you can wander among cherry trees as well as other exotic flowering trees. Free. BROOKSIDE GARDENS -- 1500 Glenallan Avenue, Wheaton. 949-8230. Open 9 to 5 daily. Look for cherry blossoms down by the Gude Garden section of this 50-acre public display garden. Free. CAPITOL HILL -- There are cherry trees scattered around the Capitol grounds and, nearby, around the Robert A. Taft carillon at First and Constitution Avenue NW. CHEVY CHASE -- Along the west side of Connecticut Avenue between Thornapple Street and East-West Highway. DUMBARTON OAKS -- 31st and R streets NW, Georgetown. 342-3200. This exquisite 16-acre garden is open from 2 to 5 daily, except Monday. Around the swimming pool you'll find graceful weeping cherry trees and, at the lower end of the garden near the peony beds, some Yoshino cherry trees. Admission is $1. GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION -- Off Gunston Road, past Pohick Regional Park in Lorton. 550-9220. Open daily 9:30 to 5. Follow the nature trail down to the river or stroll around the 556-acre 1775-era plantation and take in the cherry blossoms. Adults $2; children six to 15, 50 cents. HAINS POINT -- Two-mile scenic drive, east of the Jefferson Memorial. Most of these cherry trees are of the Kwanzan variety, with heavy clusters of deep-pink blossoms. They usually come a week or two after the main display around the Tidal Basin. KENILWORTH AQUATIC GARDENS -- Kenilworth Avenue and Douglas Street NE, near Eastern Avenue. 426-6905. Open daily 7 to 3:30. Not all the attractions here are in or under water. Along with the famed water lilies, there are also cherry trees. Free. KENWOOD -- Maryland. From Wisconsin Avenue, turn left onto River Road and right onto Dorset Avenue. The planners of this Maryland suburb had a good idea when they lined the streets with clones of the Tidal Basin Yoshino cherry trees. Some present-day residents may not agree as the cherry- blossom-watching crowds descend each year. But at least some of the younger residents take advantage of their neighborhood's attraction by setting up lemonade and hot dog stands. KENWOOD PARK -- Plainview Road, Bethesda. Although not as old or as affluent as nearby Kenwood, this suburb has pink cherry trees that usually blossom a couple of weeks after the Kenwood trees. MacARTHUR BOULEVARD -- Near the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant and the Army Map Center. Cherry trees blossom around the water's edge. NATIONAL ARBORETUM -- 24th and R streets NE. 472-9280. Open 10 to 5 on weekends, 8 to 5 weekdays. Cherry trees abound throughout the Arboretum's 440 acres. But for the most impressive stand, try the far northeast end near the Gotelli collection of dwarf conifers and around the main Administration building. Free. NORTH ARLINGTON -- Nellie Custis Street from Lorcom Lane to Military Road..