On The Road at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.
Every year, more than 700,000 people from all over the world flock to Our Nation’s Capital over the span of three weeks in early Spring when D.C.’s cherry blossom trees are in bloom. Washington, D.C. is home to dozens of National Monuments, the Smithsonian, the White House, and more, but in early spring, the National Cherry Blossom festival becomes the real draw. Families stroll between the trees, stopping every so often to take a selfie or set down a picnic blanket. Across the basin, scores of visitors crowd onto the steps of the eternally-crowded Jefferson memorial to take in a cool river breeze. And then there are the thousands of Prunus serrulata specimens – or sakura, as the Japanese call it. Their multitudes of snowy petals make up a vernal palette of white, fuchsias, and pinks (the color depends on how far along the plant is in the flowering cycle,) and when the wind blows, it looks like it’s raining flowers.
It isn’t just about the trees, however. The Cherry Blossom Festival is a celebration of Japanese culture and the amity between the two countries. It all started with Tokyo mayor Yukio Ozaki’s 1910 gift of 2,000 cherry trees that were introduced into the Capital only to become infested with insects, forcing President Taft to order them burned. Two years later, Ozaki shipped 3020 hearty trees on a barge to Seattle, where the trees’ caretaker moved them onto a train bound for Washington, D.C.
Over the next decade, park rangers planted the Sakura trees around the Tidal Basin and nearby East Potomac Park. In 1935, civic groups around Washington teamed up to hold the inaugural Cherry Blossom Festival. In addition to tree plantings, musical performances, and a huge parade, the festival itinerary includes the Sakura-Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, the largest Japanese cultural festival in the country and a hit among Westerners and Easterners alike. (A good number of Cherry Blossom attendees also come dressed as anime characters; I spotted several girls with colored wigs, and even one guy in a wolf suit).
Due to its scale and popularity, however, the National Cherry Blossom Festival needs to be planned in advance, which every year forces organizers to estimate when the cherry blossoms will bloom. According to the National Park Service, it’s difficult to come up with any sort of accurate forecast sooner than ten days before Peak Bloom (the day that 70 percent of the blossoms are open). Frost, unseasonable warmth, excessive wind, and rain can all shorten or delay the blooming period, as it did in 2012 (nine days, well below the week-and-a-half to two-week average). With the advents of webcams and internet, however, festival organizers have been able to turn the anticipation for those first florets – appropriately titled “Bloom Watch” – into its own attraction. The “Bloom Cam” keeps a faithful digital eye on the Washington monument and the surrounding trees, allowing viewers to wait for Mother Nature’s big reveal.
Over a century after its inception, the National Cherry Blossom Festival has outgrown its humble beginnings to become one of the world’s premiere nature-oriented gatherings, frequently dovetailing with diplomatic initiatives and political photo opportunities. Many of 1912’s inaugural class of trees have perished, giving way to over 4500 others over the generation – including 400 trees propagated from cuttings of the surviving originals to ensure that their genetic heritage is preserved. I pondered this lineage during my visit as I placed my hands on the bark and touched a blossom here and there, lost in thought. I wondered: is this tree a descendant of that original gifted forest? How many couples shared a kiss for the camera underneath that white canopy? Those proud arbors flanking the Jefferson Memorial – what passionate protests went down beneath their branches? History, culture, nature, peace: the National Cherry Blossom festival proves symbolic of so many aspects of life (Japanese, American, and ultimately, human) – and it’s amazing to witness. The Cherry Blossom Festival has been around for 80 years, and there’s a reason it’s still so crowded.