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The National Cherry Blossom Festival (全米桜祭り Zenbei Sakura Matsuri ) is a spring celebration in Washington, D.C., commemorating the March 27, 1912, gift of Japanese cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo City to the city of Washington. Mayor Ozaki donated the trees in an effort to enhance the growing friendship between the United States and Japan and also celebrate the continued close relationship between the two nations.
The effort to bring cherry trees to Washington, D.C., preceded the official planting by several decades. In 1885, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore returned from her first trip to Japan and approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the idea of planting cherry trees along the reclaimed waterfront of the Potomac River. Scidmore, who would go on to become the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, was rebuffed, though she would continue proposing the idea to every Superintendent for the next 24 years. Several cherry trees were brought to the region by individuals in this period, including one that was the location of a 1905 cherry blossom viewing and tea party hosted by Scidmore in northwest D.C. Among the guests was prominent botanist David Fairchild and his fiance Marian, the daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
In 1906, David Fairchild imported 1000 cherry trees from the Yokohama Nursery Company in Japan and planted them on his own property in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The Fairchilds were pleased with the results of their planting and in 1907 began promoting Japanese flowering cherry trees as an ideal tree to plant around avenues in the Washington area. On September 26, with the help of the Fairchilds' friends, the Chevy Chase Land Company ordered 300 Oriental cherry trees for the Chevy Chase area. In 1908, Fairchild donated cherry saplings to every D.C. school to plant on its school grounds in observance of Arbor Day. At an Arbor Day speech that Eliza Scidmore attended, Fairchild proposed that the "Speedway" (a now non-existing route around the D.C. Tidal Basin) be turned into a "Field of Cherries."
In 1909, Scidmore decided to raise the money to buy cherry trees and donate them to the District. As a matter largely of form, on April 5 she wrote a letter to First Lady Helen Herron Taft, wife of newly elected president Howard Taft, informing her of her plans. Two days later, the First Lady responded:
Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.
By chance, Jokichi Takamine, the Japanese chemist who discovered adrenaline, was in Washington with Mr. Midzuno, the Japanese consul to New York City, on April 8. Informed of a plan to plant Japanese cherry trees along the Speedway, Takamine asked if Mrs. Taft would accept an additional 2000 trees, while Midzuno suggested that the trees be given in the name of Tokyo. Takamine and Midzuo subsequently met with the First Lady, who accepted the offer of 2000 trees.
On April 13, Spencer Cosby, Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, purchased ninety cherry trees (Prunus serrulata) that were planted along the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial south toward East Potomac Park. It was subsequently discovered that the trees were of the cultivar Shirofugen, rather than the ordered Fugenzo. These trees had largely disappeared by the 21st century.
On August 30, 1909, the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C., informed the U.S. Department of State that the city of Tokyo intended to donate 2000 cherry trees to the United States to be planted along the Potomac. These trees arrived in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 1910. However, the inspection team from the Department of Agriculture (led by Flora Wambaugh Patterson) found that the trees were infested with insects and nematodes, concluding that the trees had to be destroyed to protect local growers. President Taft gave the order to burn the trees on January 28. Secretary of State Philander C. Knox wrote a letter expressing the regret of all involved to the Japanese Ambassador. Takamine responded to the news with another donation for more trees, 3020 in all, of a lineage taken from a famous group of trees along the Arakawa River in Tokyo and grafted onto stock from Itami, Hyogo Prefecture. On February 14, 1912, 3020 cherry trees of twelve cultivars were shipped on board the Awa Maru and arrived in D.C. via rail car from Seattle on March 26.
In a ceremony on March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two of these trees on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. At the end of the ceremony, the First Lady presented Viscountess Chinda with a bouquet of 'American Beauty' roses. These two trees still stand at the terminus of 17th Street Southwest, marked by a large plaque. By 1915, the United States government had responded with a gift of flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.
From 1913 to 1920, trees of the Somei-Yoshino variety, which comprised 1800 of the gift, were planted around the Tidal Basin. Trees of the other 11 cultivars, and the remaining Yoshinos, were planted in East Potomac Park. In 1927, a group of American school children re-enacted the initial planting. In 1934, the District of Columbia Commissioners sponsored a three-day celebration of the flowering cherry trees.
The first "Cherry Blossom Festival" was held in 1935 under joint sponsorship by numerous civic groups, becoming an annual event. The cherry trees had by this point become an established part of the nation's capitol. In 1938, plans to cut down trees to clear ground for the Jefferson Memorial prompted a group of women to chain themselves together at the site in protest. A compromise was reached where more trees would be planted along the south side of the Basin to frame the Memorial. A Cherry Blossom Pageant was begun in 1940.
On December 11, 1941, four trees were cut down. It is suspected that this was retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan four days earlier, though this was never confirmed. In hopes of dissuading people from further attacks upon the trees during the war, they were referred to as "Oriental" flowering cherry trees for the war's duration. Suspended during World War II, the festival resumed in 1947 with the support of the Washington, D.C., Board of Trade and the D.C. Commissioners.
In 1948, the Cherry Blossom Princess and U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen program were started by the National Conference of State Societies. A Princess was selected from each state and federal territory, with a queen chosen to reign over the festival. In 1952, Japan requested help restoring the cherry tree grove at Adachi, Tokyo along the Arakawa River, which was the parent stock of the D.C. trees but had diminished during the war. In response, the National Park Service sent budwood back to Tokyo.
The Japanese ambassador gave a 300-year old stone lantern to the city of Washington to commemorate the signing of the 1854 Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Friendship by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. For a number of years, the lighting of this lantern formally opened the Festival. Three years later, the president of the pearl company started by Mikimoto Kōkichi donated the Mikimoto Pearl Crown. Containing more than five pounds of gold and 1,585 pearls, the crown is used at the coronation of the Festival Queen at the Grand Ball. The next year, the Mayor of Yokohama gifted a stone pagoda to the City to "symbolize the spirit of friendship between the United States of America manifested in the Treaty of Peace, Amity and Commerce signed at Yokohama on March 31, 1854."
The Japanese gave 3,800 more Yoshino trees in 1965, which were accepted by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. These trees were grown in the United States and many were planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument. For the occasion, the First Lady and Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of the Japanese ambassador, reenacted the 1912 planting. In 1982, Japanese horticulturalists took cuttings from Yoshino trees in Washington, D.C., to replace cherry trees that had been destroyed in a flood in Japan. From 1986 to 1988, 676 cherry trees were planted using US$101,000 in private funds donated to the National Park Service to restore the trees to the number at the time of the original gift.
In 1994, the Festival was expanded to two weeks to accommodate the many activities that happen during the trees' blooming. Two years later, the Potomac and Arakawa became sister rivers. Cuttings were taken from the documented 1912 trees in 1997 to be used in replacement plantings and thus preserve the genetic heritage of the grove. In 1999, fifty trees of the Usuzumi variety from Motosu, Gifu, were planted in West Potomac Park. According to legend, these trees were first planted by Emperor Keitai in the 6th century and were designated a National Treasure of Japan in 1922. From 2002 to 2006, 400 trees propagated from the surviving 1912 trees were planted to ensure the genetic heritage of the original donation is maintained.
Today the National Cherry Blossom Festival is coordinated by the National Cherry Blossom Festival, Inc., an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of business, civic, and governmental organizations. More than 700,000 people visit Washington each year to admire the blossoming cherry trees that herald the beginning of spring in the nation's capital.
The two-week festival begins on the last Saturday of March with a Family Day and an official opening ceremony in the National Building Museum. An array of activities and cultural events takes place on the following days. The Blossom Kite Festival (formerly the Smithsonian Kite Festival) usually takes place during the festival's first weekend. Every day there is a sushi/sake celebration, classes about cherry blossoms, and a bike tour of the Tidal Basin. Other events include art exhibits (photography, sculpture, animation), cultural performances, rakugo, kimono fashion shows, dance, singing, martial arts, merchant-sponsored events, and a rugby union tournament.
On the second Saturday of the celebration, a three-stage festival takes place on the Southwest Waterfront. When the festival ends, a fireworks show begins on the nearby Washington Channel. The next morning, the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run begins on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Later in the day, dignitaries gather at the Tidal Basin to participate in a ceremonial lighting of the 360-year old Japanese stone lantern.
On the last Saturday of the festival, the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade takes place along Constitution Avenue. During and after the parade, the Sakura Matsuri-Japanese Street Festival (Japanese: さくらまつり), the largest Japanese Cultural Festival in the United States, takes place at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. Because the festival must be planned long in advance, it sometimes fails to be celebrated during the peak of the cherry blooms. See also Japanese festivals.
In 2009, the National Cherry Blossom Festival introduced an alternative event to its lineup, with the debut of Cherry Blast, an underground-ish mix of projected art, dance performances, live music, fashion and DJs that took place in an empty (but festively decorated) Anacostia warehouse. (Most of the crowd was shuttle-bussed in from Dupont Circle.) In 2010, Cherry Blast II—the creation of artist Philippa P. Hughes of the Pink Line Project—moved to a storage warehouse in Adams Morgan, but still featured an eclectic group of local artists and musicians. Cherry Blast III took place indoors near the Southwest Waterfront in the evening of the 2011 festival's second Saturday, during and after the festival's nearby fireworks show.
Of the initial gift of 12 varieties of 3,020 trees, two—the Yoshino and Kwanzan—now dominate.
The Yoshino produces single white blossoms that create an effect of white clouds around the Tidal Basin and north onto the grounds of the Washington Monument. Intermingled with the Yoshino are a small number of Akebono cherry trees, which bloom at the same time as the Yoshino and produce single, pale-pink blossoms.
The Kwanzan grows primarily in East Potomac Park and comes into bloom two weeks after the Yoshino. It produces clusters of clear pink double blossoms. East Potomac Park also has Fugenzo, which produces rosy pink double blossoms, and Shirofugen, which produces white double blossoms that age to pink.
Interspersed among all the trees are the Weeping Cherry, which produces a variety of single and double blossoms of colors ranging from dark pink to white about a week before the Yoshino. Other cultivars that can be found are the Autumn Cherry (semi-double, pink), Sargent Cherry (single, deep pink), Usuzumi (white-grey), and Takesimensis.
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Hanami in Japanese means Cherry Blossom Viewing.