While area residents gear up for spring, two Maryland performing groups are gearing up to contribute to the annual Cherry Blossom Festival activities less than a month away.

Members of the two Japanese groups, the Washington Toho Koto Society and the Kotobuki Kai, a dance group, will perform during the festival. At sunset March 29 at the Tidal Basin, the Koto Society will participate in the candle-lighting of the stone lantern, initiating the area's Cherry Blossom Festival. The Kotobuki Kai, accompanied by a koto player, will perform April 22-24 at the Barney Studio House at the National Museum of American Art, a part of the Smithsonian Institution.

For the past 11 years, Kyoto Okamoto has been playing Japanese music in the Washington area using three traditional instruments. Since founding the Washington Toho Koto Society in 1971, she has worked with Western musicians to acquaint the American public with Japanese music.

Okamoto teaches koto, a 13-string instrument that averages six feet long and one foot wide, made of paulownia wood.

The shamisen, a square, banjo-like instrument with a long neck and three silk strings, also is played at the society's concerts. And the shakuhachi--Japanese for the length of the instrument (20 inches)--is a five-fingerhole bamboo flute.

Kiyoji Yamamato, a master shakuhachi player from Japan, will perform at the society's annual spring recital March 27 at Tawes Recital Hall at the University of Maryland's College Park campus. The concert, sponsored by the school's music department, will feature several University of Maryland students playing the koto.

According to Carol Robertson, associate professor in ethnomusicology, the students receive credit for performing on the koto and they can minor in it. "Pianists and organists can tune up their ears by learning to play the koto," she says.

For the Cherry Blossom Festival, the society is rehearsing "In the Glowing Sunset" at Okamoto's home in Silver Spring, where she frequently squeezes 14 kotos and three shakuhachi players into her living room. She is planning to take the society to Virginia to perform and she hopes the group can cut a record soon.

"After every concert, someone comes up to me and asks, 'Where can I buy a record of koto music?' and I have to tell them that there just aren't many," she says. Last summer Okamoto returned to Japan to obtain permission from contemporary koto composers to play their music in America.

Before becoming a master koto teacher in America, "I was plucking for my own enjoyment," she says. "Taking the koto from me would be like removing the air or the water from my life. Something important would be missing."

Yoko King, a Riverdale resident who founded the 12-member Kotobuki Kai dance group in 1976, began Kabuki dancing in Japan at the age of 4. "I was always jumping around in the hallways, so my parents thought it would be good to take dance. During World War II, I had to stop dancing because my home was burned out."

Bringing a dance teacher's certificate earned at age 17 to the United States, King has taught the feminine side of Kabuki, or dance drama. Often accompanied by koto players, the Kotobuki Kai performers use a dance vocabulary of stylized gestures. For example, elbows bent onto the body and hands concealed in sleeves represent a butterfly; a face focused forward with hands fanned away from the side of the face signifies a flower.

King tries to keep the dance costumes as authentic as possible. But one costume from Japan and accessories such as fans and umbrellas can cost $2,000. King's husband Gerald, who teaches art at Prince George's Community College, and other artists have helped paint costumes to defray costs.

The Kotobuki Kai received a $4,000 grant from the Maryland National-Capital Park and Planning Commission to perform in its Arts Alive Program in Prince George's County schools. It is accompanied by one of the Koto Society's players. And King is anticipating a $500 grant from the Maryland Arts Council and is slated to perform for the public June 25 and 26 at the Prince George's Publick Playhouse in Cheverly.

The two Japanese groups were among seven that performed recently when the Prince George's Publick Playhouse celebrated its fifth anniversary Feb. 13 with a benefit gala before an audience of more than 250. At $15 a ticket, the group brought in $3,750.

The gala opened with a well-choreographed selection, "Wilkommen" from the music of "Cabaret," performed by members of the Prince George's Little Theatre. Kotobuki Kai and the Washington Toho Koto Society followed with three selections: "Sakura" (Cherry Blossom), danced by Yoko King and accompanied on the koto by Kyoko Okamoto; "Karodabushi" (Soldier of Kuroda) by King and Okamoto; and koto variations.

Addison Hoffman, artistic director of the county's Hoffman Dance Consort, choreographed and danced to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 26. The Clarion Puppet Theatre presented a moving mixed media puppet story, "In Peril of Witches." Members of the Adelphians, the oldest theater group in the county, performed a selection from Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun." The three members of Plexus Mime Theatre presented their own showstopping piece, "Work."

The Prince George's Choral Society ended the program, which had been emceed by television personality Charlie Rose, with Broadway music selections.

According to Sarah C. Potter, president of the theater's support group, Friends of the Publick Playhouse, the proceeds of the benefit only slightly exceeded the break-even point. But she said, "The event showed all doubters that the theater not only survived for five years but housed fine performances and has achieved a long-term gain in recognition for it."

Bob Peters, Rockville Civic Center supervisor, said President Reagan's son, Ron Reagan, will be among dancers appearing with the Joffrey II Dancers in Rockville's F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre April 16 through 18. The president's son will arrive 10 minutes before each performance and will depart immediately afterwards, according to Peters.