Each year, tourists and D.C. natives alike flock to the Potomac waterfront to see the famous cherry blossoms.
The pink blossoms are the buds of the sakura, or the Japanese flowering cherry. To celebrate the flowering of the trees, a 1912 gift from the city of Tokyo to the District of Columbia, the National Cherry Blossom Festival has been held every year since 1935.
The festival takes place in the three locations where the Japanese cherry trees are planted: West Potomac Park, East Potomac Park and on the grounds of the Washington Monument. It typically attracts over a million people in just a few weeks, according to the festival’s website nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.
While the Cherry Blossom Festival has become a D.C. institution, it is truly a celebration of Japanese-American friendship and a Japanese tradition. “It’s a thank you to Japan for those flowers,” said Yuko Shimada (SFS ’13), president of Georgetown’s Japan Network, also known as J-NET.
“Cherry blossoms are a big part of Japanese culture because they really signal … spring’s here. Going to see the cherry blossoms — that’s like an everyday thing for Japanese people,” she said. Since the Japanese school year begins in April and ends in March, with only a two week summer vacation (unlike the two months that American schoolchildren have off), the blossoming of the cherry blossoms coincides with a joyful time of year. Taking pictures near blossoming cherry trees is a tradition at school graduations in Japan, Shimada said.
In addition to the national festival, J-NET has several events planned on campus and elsewhere in the District to observe springtime Japanese traditions.The most prominent of those upcoming events is the celebration of the Matsuri festival.
Matsuri is a holiday commemorating the arrival of summer. “This is our biggest event. All other schools with Japanese clubs usually have some sort of Matsuri during the year. Ours happens to be on April 16,” Shimada said, adding that J-NET’s Matsuri event typically coincides with the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “Matsuri is supposed to be a summer festival, but we don’t have school in the summer, so it’s usually in the springtime.”,
Additionally, on April 9, during the final weekend of the Cherry Blossom Festival, J-NET, in conjunction with Japanese student groups at the six other schools of the Japanese American Student Union of D.C., will sponsor a District-wide Matsuri celebration. The celebration will take over six city blocks in downtown D.C., with its center at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy a wide array of Japanese music, food and entertainment.
While the Cherry Blossom Festival is meant as a celebration of many different cultures, spokeswoman Danielle Piacente said there is an emphasis on remaining true to its Japanese roots.
“We incorporate Japanese culture into the Festival and its events. We have tons of cultural performances that celebrate contemporary and traditional arts and culture from Japan. We have free daily performances at the Washington Monument,” Piacente said. Several of the festival’s Japanese cultural events are happening this weekend.
The “Arts of Japan” tour takes place at 1 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, showcasing Japanese painting, ceramics and sculpture at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries. A lecture and demonstration on Japanese kimonos will be held on Saturday from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Hillwood Museum. Film lovers can go to a two-day Japanese film festival starting Saturday at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Va.
The Ikebana International Annual Spring Flower Show also begins this weekend and lasts through April 17 at the National Arboretum’s Bonsai and Penjing Museum (3501 New York Ave. NE). Ikebana is the Japanese art of floral arrangement, and the exhibit features demonstrations of ikebana this Saturday and Sunday, running for the next two weekends.
The festival’s signature event, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, showcases the best of Japanese culture and traditions. The parade will take place between 10 a.m. and noon on Saturday, April 9, and will run along Constitution Avenue from 7th to 17th Streets. For those unable to watch the parade in person, it will also be broadcast live on WJLA-ABC7 and TBD TV, according to the festival’s website.
The cultural element of the Cherry Blossom Festival has taken on a unique meaning this year in the wake of the tragedy resulting from the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Piacente said that after the earthquake, organizers of the festival sought to add a philanthropic aspect to this year’s event.
“It’s something we’re doing this year because of everything that happened. We’re a 501(c)3. The majority of our events are free and open to the public. We raise all the money that we do to keep our events free and open. This year, we decided we really needed to give back. Japan is really at the heart of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. In light of such a terrible tragedy, we decided to do everything we could,” she said.
Motivated by that desire to help, the festival sponsored an event called Stand With Japan on March 24, before the festival itself actually began.
During the Stand With Japan event, supporters gathered at the Sylvan Theater and then walked together to the Tidal Basin, taking the time to reflect and think of those affected by the earthquake, all the while enjoying the beauty of the cherry trees.
Supporters were urged to make a donation at the time of the walk, with all proceeds sent to support Red Cross relief efforts.
“We wanted to do something before the festival started to come together in the spirit of rebuilding and hope and to let the people of Japan know that while enjoying their beautiful gifts of cherry blossom trees, we were thinking about them,” Piacente said.
She also said that two of the festival’s sponsors, Safeway and Macy’s, are each donating $100,000 to relief efforts. Here at Georgetown, J-NET members have taken the time to consider how best to support earthquake victims as they plan their Matsuri celebration.
“We just had an event two weeks ago at Cafe Asia. It was a huge charity event for earthquake victims. A lot of media came to that,” Shimada said.
She said that the event was a collaboration between J-NET members and their counterparts in Japanese clubs from other universities in the area.
“We were just discussing what we should do for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and then the earthquake happened, and then we all came together and we decided to do the Cafe Asia fundraiser,” Shimada said.
As a result of the efforts of the National Cherry Blossom and college students alike, this year’s cherry blossom season is an unprecedented opportunity to help Japan, have fun and experience another culture on and away from Georgetown’s campus.