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There comes a time about three months after the official onset of winter — after months of freezing temperatures, early sunsets, late sunrises, barren trees, and drab, colourless landscapes — when, finally, the first signs of spring make an appearance.
The tiniest buds begin to emerge along seemingly lifeless stalks. Trees take on the electric, green sheen of fresh, new leaves. Pruning shears see the light of day after a long winter’s sleep. Birds wing back north. Abandoned porches and stoops buzz with signs of life again. Neighbours linger to talk for longer than it takes to exchange pleasantries. It’s a heady time when memories of snow, ice and slippery sidewalks recede to the background, and when unruly lawns and the hot, humid days of summer are too far off in the distance to ruin the party.
In Washington, D.C., these last days of winter are tinged with just that little bit of extra excitement — the region goes under a “Bloom Watch” (rather than a flood watch or a storm watch, for a change), and waits for the National Park Service to announce exactly when the 3,000-odd cherry blossom trees in the city are expected to bloom.
Over a period of two weeks around the end of March and the beginning of April, delicate flowers burst out of these trees in a profusion of pink and white petals. Most of the cherry blossom trees (these are the non fruit-bearing kind) are located near and around the Tidal Basin, close to the monuments on the National Mall, their concentrated presence creating a dramatic sensory overload. Leaves, if any, are tiny at this point and are lost in the thick cover of the blossoms.
Forecasting peak blossom time is far from being an exact science, of course, with the finicky weather having the final word, but the yearly ritual gets its due attention as everyone — from the Mayor of Washington to the media to the local businesses with an eye on the tourism dollars — gets into the act. Park personnel bemoan the squirrels that ravage the trees and implore the public not to pluck the flowers off the branches. (There was one memorable year when beavers, not native to the area, took a liking to the trees and merrily chomped on the trunks. Park officials went into a tizzy until they devised a way to trap the rodents.) Reporters camp out near the trees, zoom in on the buds, and, year after year, recount the story of how the trees came to Washington.
This year, luckily for the locals and tourists alike, the blossoms are expected to peak during the two-week Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington’s annual springtime celebration commemorating the arrival of the cherry blossom trees to Washington from Japan almost a century ago. A gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the people of the United States — following a few failed attempts by local residents to transplant and grow cherry trees in the Washington region — that first gesture paved the way for more exchanges between two countries intent on building and solidifying a relationship. World War II promptly put an end to the niceties, but the Festival returned to its rightful place on Washington’s social calendar in 1947. In a poignant twist to the story, Japanese horticulturists arrived in Washington in the early 1980s and returned home with precious cargo — cuttings from the trees that comprised their original gift — to replace their own trees that were lost to a flood.
The hundreds of thousands of tourists that are expected to arrive in Washington during the two weeks of the Festival (between March 29 and April 13 this year) will find a whole host of events clamouring for their attention.
Among them, the Sakura Matsuri (a street festival) organised by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C. with Japanese art, cuisine, martial arts demonstrations and a market; the walking tours, bike tours, night-time lantern tours and jogging tours with park guides who recount the natural and cultural history of the trees; the kite festival on the National Mall; the Cherry Blossom soccer tournament, the winner of which will be awarded (you guessed it!) the Cherry Blossom Cup; and the Family Day for a day of exploring Japanese art and design. But what’s a Japan-themed festival without some tea? There’s that too. The Cherry Blossom River Tea takes you on a two-hour cruise around the cherry blossoms while being served “full service seated” tea.
If none of these or the myriad other events of the Festival strikes your fancy, nothing beats a quiet, early-morning stroll along the Tidal Basin at your own, preferably unhurried, pace.
No matter whether you approach the city by metro or by road, you are bound to have caught a glimpse of the trees around the Tidal Basin and on the National Mall from a distance. It’s a striking visual image but merely a taste of what’s yet to come. Further up, low-hanging trees on the path to the Tidal Basin are perfect for investigating the intricate beauty of the individual blossoms up close (without touching, of course). Once you get to the Tidal Basin itself, the water on one side, the lush and seemingly never-ending canopy of the trees in full bloom on the other, and the Jefferson Memorial in plain view in the distance ahead, all combine to exhilarate the senses and bowl you over. The path wraps around the Tidal Basin, leads up to the Jefferson Memorial and provides yet another fantastic vantage point from which to view the trees.
When you’ve viewed the trees from all possible angles to your heart’s content, when you’ve marvelled at how such a simple but cherished gift from so long ago and so far away has managed to provide quiet enjoyment to generations of people, when your feet are finally tired, you might want to find an empty seat on one of the benches thoughtfully laid out along the Tidal Basin.
It’s a perfect place to just sit there and do nothing at all.
Air India, Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways and Air Emirates fly to Washington from Indian metros via European and West Asian gateways. The Tidal Basin and the other Cherry Blossom Festival venues are accessible by metro from downtown Washington, and Virginia and Maryland suburbs. Accommodations to suit all budgets are available at these locations ( www.washingtondchotels.com).
The National Cherry Blossom Festival’s website ( www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org) contains a comprehensive listing of related events, and ticket and cost information (most events are free of charge, but not all).
The National Park Service ( www.nps.gov) maintains a “National Cherry Blossom Page” that’s a goldmine for festival transportation information, including parking, a shuttle service and a bike valet service.
Originally published in 2008 in The Hindu.