Cherry blossom festivals

A Tale of Two Cherry Blossom Festivals: Tokyo and Washington D.C.

Cherry blossom

Have you ever been to a cherry blossom festival?

Have you ever wandered around an orchard in early spring when the trees were blossoming?

Just one bright pink and delicately fragrant tree on a property is enough to entice even the most industrious worker to stop and laze around under the veil of pink or white blooms. This is especially true when you know how fleeting it is.

I remember very distinctly one spring in my college career when conditions were perfect for this gorgeous dogwood tree on my college campus. That spring there was a perfectly warm and sunny week, long before the warm weather set in for good.

It took us all by surprise. Suddenly we could, and did, freely sit outside on blankets without jackets and soak up the sunlight. It was glorious. That dogwood was in all its bridal glory the whole week. I can remember trying to sit under it at least once every day. The day those petals started to fall was magical. I will remember it my whole life.

Cherry Blossom Festivals

Consequently, you might be familiar with the cherry blossom festival held every year in Washington D.C.  Millions of visitors from all over the United States flock to this festival every year. Our nation’s capital is known for this, among many other things.

You might also have an image of the iconic and magnificent cherry blossoms of Japan. Indeed, many Japanese papers and textiles bear the image of a blooming cherry branch. Do you know they’re related?

My guess is, if you’ve gone to D.C. in the early spring, you’ve heard about this.

The Fascinating History Behind the Cherry Trees

In 1912, the Mayor of Tokyo Yukio Ozaki gifted 3,000 cherry trees to the United States capitol. It was a coordinated effort. In fact, the first batch was sent in 1910 but the trees arrived diseased and could not be used.

On March 27th, 1912 the first tree was finally planted on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park by first lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador.

Every year thereafter, our nation celebrates this gift and its continuing friendship with the nation of Japan throughout the cherry bloom season.

The United States government sent a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan in 1915. In 1981, the U.S. was able to supply Japanese horticulturists with cuttings to replace some of Japan’s cherry trees that had been destroyed in a flood.

The First True Cherry Blossom Festival

The first true festival was held in 1927 with a reenactment of the planting by school children. Since 1935, other civic groups have been involved with making the celebration grander. In 2012, our capital celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the gift with a five week celebration but it usually spans about four weeks and the city is host to more than 1.5 million people who want to come and view the blooming trees.

You can take a look at the official website for a “bloom watch” although the National Park Service cannot predict with more than ten days’ lead time when peak bloom time will be. The prediction for 2017 is that peak bloom time will happen between March 19th and March 22, so if you timed it right, you were able to see the blooms in all their glory.

If you want to see cherry blossoms more than you want to also visit our nation’s capitol, there are a number of other cities which have beautiful festivals:

  • Philadelphia has a two-week festival celebrating Japanese culture – Sakura Matsuri.
  • Macon, Georgia celebrates for ten days with hundreds of events and attractions
  • The Brooklyn Botanical Garden Sakura Matsuri is held over weekend to celebrate spring
  • Newark, New Jersey is home to the Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival, highlighting cherry trees gifted to the city 80 years ago. This festival also celebrates Japanese culture with bonsai, origami, and martial arts demonstrations

Cherry Blossom Season in Japan

Of course, the celebration in Washington D.C. is small compared to the cherry blossom season in Japan. Japan has been doing this for centuries. As long ago as the eighth century, elite imperial courtiers were writing haiku and picnicking beneath the cherry blossoms known in Japan as Sakura. Now it’s a national pastime.

Now that we’ve officially reached the first day of spring (the exact day of the year when the Earth’s axis is perpendicular to the Sun’s rays and not tilted – interestingly enough), Japan has turned pink. The lead-up to early spring in Japan is like Christmas in the West – all the retailers switch to “sakura mode” and fill with plastic cherry blossoms and cherry-flavored everything.

There is a televised Cherry Blossom Forecast offering petal analysis of the blossoming trees. It’s called the “blossom front” as trees in the South (near Okinawa) start to bloom mid-January and advance up the archipelago.

Hanami is the art of bloom appreciation. At this time, all of Japan stops what it’s doing to sit and picnic under the trees. It’s one of those moments when you realize things are not the same all over the world and it’s one of the most charming things about Japanese culture.

The Fleeting Nature of Life and of Beauty

For the Japanese, the short-lived flowers symbolize something they take very seriously: the fleeting nature of life and of beauty. This is not the only place this idea gets symbolized in Japanese culture, but it’s one of the most ubiquitous. April first is actually the first day of the financial and academic year in Japan.

If you want to go picnic under the cherry trees with the Japanese, there are many, many places to go. Japan’s two central islands, Kyoto and Tokyo, are the most crowded and filled with tourists, but also have some of the most accessible and beautifully planted cherry tree parks – or Hanami nature spots.

These are usually blooming sometime in late March or early April. As I mentioned earlier, the Sakura Front begins in Okinawa in late January and winds down up in Hokkaido in early May. According to the Sakura Weather Map, flowers should arrive in Tokyo in a few days – March 23 – and peak around April 2. The prediction is for March 30 in Kyoto (they are supposed to peak April 7) and April 4 in Northern Sendai.

Take Away

Wherever you happen to be this spring – whether you dive into the full cherry-themed beauty of Japan or slip into the crowds flocking to Washington D.C., or even if you just take a little jaunt to a local orchard, make sure you do like the Japanese and sit still for a while to appreciate how precious life is and how fast it goes.


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