We are experiencing the end of the time of year that Washington, DC loves to hate: when tourists stand on the left of escalators and pollen saturates the air. But do we really hate the Cherry Blossom Festival? Can we truly hate it when the Tidal Basin is wreathed by pink bouquets, and cultural events, many of them free, abound?
I have taken children on field trips to see the cherry trees, and I have volunteered at the Kite Festival. I have one friend who volunteers at the Street Festival every year, and another friend, a koto player, who has performed in CBF events several times. We Washingtonians grudgingly accept the annoyances, and many of us happily join the celebration. But what exactly are we celebrating?
Are we celebrating nature? The festival, after all, is named after a plant. It is not the only plant associated with an annual celebration (think evergreen tree, shamrock, pumpkin). Celebrating the cherry blossoms can involve seeing the trees themselves, whether at the Tidal Basin or the United States National Arboretum. There are trees near the Capitol and Library of Congress as well, and visitors to the LOC can learn more and see art that celebrates nature at Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship, an exhibit which runs through tomorrow.
Are we celebrating spring? The weather has been warm this year – too warm, in fact, for the CBF dates to coincide nicely with peak bloom dates. (The CBF officially ends tomorrow, but the blossoms themselves, having peaked in late March, are long gone.) Spring revelers have been able to enjoy outdoor activities during and after the blossoming of the blossoms themselves. Among these outdoor events are the Blossom Kite Festival, as well as various performances and sporting events. Once known as the Smithsonian Kite Festival, the Blossom Kite Festival continues to be supported in part by the Smithsonian, and takes place on the Washington Monument grounds in view of the Capitol and the many Mall museums.
Are we celebrating Japan and its friendship with the United States? The cherry trees were a gift from Japan 100 years ago, and many museums in the area have taken advantage of links between Japanese culture and their own collections. Just a few examples:
- The Freer/Sackler Galleries are showing two exhibits, “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” and “Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji”, while the National Gallery of Art’s “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800),” runs through Sunday. Together, the three exhibits comprise Japan Spring.
- The American University Museum has Japanese art on exhibit in Floating World: 19th Century Japanese Woodblock Prints and Tomokazu Matsuyama: Thousand Regards.
- At the National Geographic Museum, visitors can learn about Samurai: The Warrior Transformed. National Geographic is not new to participating in the CBF. A Washington Herald article from March 28, 1912 announces that the author Miss E. R. Scidmore would address the National Geographic Society on the topic of Japanese gardens, to include “pictures of fifty different varieties of Japanese cherry blossoms.”
When I asked friends what they think the CBF celebrates, the answers I received were cerebral: “transience of life,” “powerful diplomatic gift,” “divinity of nature.” The cherry blossoms are indeed fleeting. Their peak bloom lasts a few days, and if those few days do not coincide with the human-made events that attract tourists, people fret. At the same time that we celebrate the transience of the blossoms, however, we are also celebrating the permanence of the trees. The first trees were planted 100 years ago, and they bloom annually; the festival recurs every year.
Museums are in the business of preserving memories, transient or otherwise. In making a few days of peak bloom into a month-long festival, and displaying woodcuts and screens that immortalize the blossoms, we might be stretching out a brief natural phenomenon. Or perhaps we are just trying to make the celebration last long enough that the peak bloom – which we can predict, but not control – will fall sometime during the festival.