The 2012 Washington, DC Cherry Blossom Festival takes place from March 20 to April 27.
One hundred years ago, First Lady Helen Herron Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first two cherry trees from Japan along the north bank of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.'s West Potomac Park to celebrate the lasting friendship between the two nations.
The occasion should have occurred two years earlier, but the first batch of 2,000 trees arrived diseased in 1910. Thus a century later, 2012 marks the centennial anniversary of the ceremonious event. The festival itself is slightly younger with its origins in 1927 with the first reenactment of the gift ceremony. In 1990 the Cherry Blossom Festival was expanded to a two-week-long celebration and for the centennial year officials organized an epic five-week-long calendar of events (though a cherry tree's blooming period is no longer than 14 days).
Washington is already awash in pink, prompting fears that the blossoms will die out long before the festival ends.
However, Kate Gibbs of Destination DC, the capital's official tourism and marketing office, says that's beside the point.
Not all activities are dependent on the blossoms.
Indeed there is an impressive lineup of free indoor events that highlight the cross-cultural importance of the festival.
The National Mall has brought several notable fine art exhibits to the United States including Colorful Realm: The Bird-and-Flower Paintings of It? Jakuch?. The series of 30 scrolls from the private collection of the imperial family is on display in the U.S. for the first time in history.
It's like lending us the Mona Lisa, Gibbs gushed. And if Jakuch?'s scrolls are Mona Lisa, then Hokusai's views of Mount Fuji are Monet's Water Lilies.
The Freer Gallery of Art will showcase Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji while the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will highlight Kano Kazunobu's Masters of Mercy: Buddha's Amazing Disciples.
Of course the main events take place on the streets of Washington. This year the nation received a generous gift of fireworks from Nagaoka, a Japanese city long associated with the tradition of fireworks. They'll light up the sky over Washington on April 7 during a free evening of music and cherry-flavored fun and are just one of the many special gifts of renewed friendship from the people of Japan.
The main event is the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade on April 14, featuring giant cherry blossom balloons, floats, marching bands, and performances by the likes of The Voice winner Javier Colon. The parade will be broadcast on TV nationwide for the first time with hosts Katie Couric and Alex Trebek and celebrity marshals like Marie Osmond and Olympians Kristi Yamaguchi and Benita Fitzgerald Mosley.
Save inauguration years, the Cherry Blossom Festival is Washington, D.C.'s biggest annual event and the nation's largest springtime celebration. Gibbs said there's no telling how many people will come for the centennial celebration, but in previous years, the festival has attracted over a million visitors to the nation's capital bringing in $126 million in direct and indirect economic impact.
The 55 official hotel partners for the event are up 24% over last year, but Gibbs said organizers will have to wait and see if people are coming to enjoy the fireworks, parade, and special events this year, or just the trees.
Today, roughly 4,000 cherry trees line the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, East Potomac Park, and the grounds of the Washington Monument - and 2012 is extra special because an additional 160 decorative trees were planted around the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, extending the ring of pink.
The pink will be all but gone by the festival's end, but Gibbs said the progression from pink to green is really what it's all about. It's the transition into spring.
The flowering season of powdery pink and creamy white cherry petals is famously short-lived. As Japan's ambassador to the United States put it: the cherry blossoms' draw is their brightness, beauty, and brevity.
For Washingtonians they're a symbol of the advent of spring and a time of rebirth, but they're also a reminder of the softer side of cultural diplomacy.
For a complete look at the National Cherry Blossom Festival events, visit www.nationalcherryblossomfestival.org/