As the world's hearts and minds are turned towards Japan, a reminder of the country's beauty and strength has bloomed in our own nation's capital. The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival is underway in Washington, DC, and this year the festival is perfectly poised to bring awareness to Japan Relief Efforts through donation collection and fundraising events.
I took advantage of the Cherry Blossom Festival to make my fragrant escape to DC this past weekend. The peak bloom for these delicately blooming flowers is notoriously short, and luckily I made it in time to see the district dressed in its gorgeous flora. The cherry trees, known as sakura in Japan, have come to symbolize many things. Often the short budding period of the cherry blossoms has been used as a metaphor for the brief life of the samurai. The first cherry blossom trees planted in Washington, DC, were gifts from Japan in 1912.
This being my first time in DC, I wanted to check out all the government landmarks in addition to the flowers. Naively believing I could book a few free tours the day before I left, a quick internet search revealed that several of the DC tours, including the White House, Washington Monument and Capitol Building need to be booked weeks or even months in advance.
My lack of planning, of course, didn't stop me from viewing these buildings from the outside. DC is a great city for walking. The close proximity of the landmark buildings makes it possible to walk around and see just about everything, which can indeed be exhausting!
Seeing all of the structures I was already familiar with from text books and television, such as the Lincoln Memorial and the White House, made me wonder why I hadn't visited this city sooner. Everything was crowded, but many of these structures are so big that getting a good view wasn't a problem. The cherry blossoms presented a fun challenge: trying to snap photos that frame the well-known buildings with the fresh buds of spring.
The majority of the cherry blossoms are planted around the Tidal Basin. It's not until I reached this area that I experienced the full impact of the flowers. Here their sweet fragrance and striking beauty canopied visitors as they took photographs, picnicked and strolled hand-in-hand around the reservoir. There were so many heavy-duty cameras around the basin that the place could have passed for a photographer's convention.
The flowers were whiter than I had anticipated, but it was easy to see why the rose-tinted flowers are so popular in art. Their colors and abundance are inspiring, and although people were everywhere I couldn't help but imagine what it would be like to sit below the blushing petals in privacy or share the quiet beauty of these flowers with a loved one. That would be a truly indulgent experience.
One of the only few buildings I actually went inside was the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, one of the Smithsonian's two museums of Asian art. In the exhibit "Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan" there were several Chinese sculptures of Buddha and bodhisattvas as well as videos of the caves. Parallels could easily be drawn between the contemplative space artfully created inside the Chinese caves and nature's own serenity shaped by the sakura. The beautiful Haupt Garden outside the gallery, directly in front of the Smithsonian Castle, has some flowering trees of its own along with other bright flowers that were in colorful bloom.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival ends with the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, which will take place April 9. The Japanese festival will feature food, entertainment and shopping that showcase Japanese culture. The blooming period for the cherry blossoms is expected to last through April 7, while the festival runs through April 10, which means there is still some time to see the cherry blossoms' brilliance before all those delicate white petals float to the ground.
Amy Hamblen grew up in the Midwest, but found a good fit in New York. Although her cuisine has changed from bluegill to bibimbap, she's still up to her old tricks: trekking to concerts, watching low-budget films, and finding new places to get lost. She writes for www.shortandsweetnyc.com.