WASHINGTON, DC – It is arguably one of the most powerful and historic places in the world. In a city driven by influence, protocol, and the business of government, the pink and white blossoms add life and a soft beauty to a place known for striking and iconic monuments of granite and marble. Millions of beautiful and fragile flowering petals enhance those monuments, permanent reminders of triumph and loss.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the gift of sakura, or flowering trees. This gift to a still-young nation from Japan has thrived, like the city itself, through the years. Thousands of people will begin flocking to Washington, DC, this week to take in the beautiful trees and attend the centennial celebration of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, running from March 24 to April 15.
On March 27, 1912, First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, planted two flowering cherry trees, a gift from Japan, around the Tidal Basin near the National Mall in Washington, DC. Shortly after, another 3,020 trees of 12 varieties were planted. Today, the National Park Service cares for 3,750 cherry trees.
A century later, their beauty is breathtaking. It is an annual reinvigoration of a city that is known for tradition, protocol and posture. The cherry blossoms are a reminder that all things can begin anew again. The pink and white trees, magnificent in beauty and scope, remind us that every year the nation itself can blossom anew.
National Park Service rangers and volunteers — some on foot, some on bicycle, and some with lanterns after the sun has set — mingle with thousands of visitors that gather around the Tidal Basin near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. That the Tidal Basin in front of the Jefferson Memorial was selected as the site for the first two flowering cherry trees is most appropriate. The sakura as a symbol of transformation and renewal compliments Jefferson’s sheer genius, foresight, and ideals in shaping the nation. His faith and optimism are enhanced by the sea of white and pink that visitors pass through on the way to the monument that holds his permanent legacy. Jefferson’s own words on renewal can be found engraved on the southeast wall of his memorial:
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
The cherry blossoms are visible throughout the city, including from the steps of the Capitol building looking out towards the National Mall. They bring life and provide comfort to the already beautiful, yet somber, war memorials. They bring striking, yet soft, color to the city built more than two centuries ago by a new nation — a city created as a powerful statement by people with the foresight to know that this was a nation of unlimited potential to renew itself through the ages. They serve as a vibrant reflection of the city itself.
During the first week of the centennial celebration of the gift of the flowering trees, the mood is joyous in the nation’s capitol. Thousands of visitors, young and old, walk around the peaceful basin, stand in silent awe at the Jefferson Memorial, take his words etched on the walls to heart, and relax on the steps of the monument. In this place and in these moments, the city is at peace. It’s a place where things begin anew and all things are possible.
If you go: The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 24 to April 15. Washington, DC is not an inexpensive city, but the rates for lodging are generally based on proximity to the city — the farther out you go, the less expensive it can be. During the festival, the relatively few hotels in the city proper tend to run $300 per night and higher. Hotels in nearby Arlington are less expensive, and Alexandria or the suburban areas towards Baltimore provide more options for the budget-minded. The city’s metro system is excellent and a car is not needed within the District (and is also not recommended as parking is extremely limited and can be difficult to find). On the other side of that coin, nearly all of the attractions — from the monuments to the Smithsonian — are free of charge.
For our trip, Michelle and I found a private apartment offered on the lodging website AirBnB.com. The one bedroom apartment was much less expensive than a hotel and was located in a beautiful old neighborhood of brick town homes and row houses just two blocks from the Capitol building.