The five-week National Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off today, and Washington D.C. is in full bloom. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Tokyo’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the U.S. capital, and the festival will be bigger and better to celebrate the centennial in style, featuring scores of events and activities that highlight Japanese culture. Susan O’Keefe, editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine, cherry-picked a few of her favorite things to do during the festivities to help you make the most of your visit. Follow Susan on Twitter @sokeefetrav.
Tidal Basin Time
Get up early, pack a breakfast picnic, and visit the more than 3,700 cherry blossom trees — mostly Yoshino — along the Tidal Basin without the crowds (don’t forget a blanket and your camera!). Rangers conduct free tours throughout the day and lantern tours at night.
If the Tidal Basin is too crowded for your taste, locals know to head to Dumbarton Oaks where they can get up close to the pale pink and white blossoms that line the walkways of the 10-acre Georgetown garden.
Georgetown Cupcake (of DC Cupcakes fame) gets into the festival spirit with their Cherry Blossom cupcake made with fresh cherries and cream cheese frosting, and decorated with a pretty pink fondant cherry blossoms. It’s sure to put the icing on a fun-filled spring day.
Berry Nice Dining
Area restaurants feature cherries in many of their dishes and drinks during the festival. Sample cherry-chocolate bread pudding and sour cherry smash cocktails at Founding Farmers; Gazpacho de Cerezas (tomato and cherry soup) at Jaleo; cherry-walnut-cheddar fondue at the Melting Pot, chicken “cherriyaki” at Old Ebbitt Grill, and sour cherry and coconut bubble tea at Ping Pong in Chinatown.
What do hara, ko, and nawa all have in common? They’re all parts of a Japanese taiko drum. Catch a thunderous performance by Taikoza, an internationally acclaimed group that also plays the shakuhachi and the fue (both bamboo flutes) and dances in traditional costumes. Check them out on Saturday, March 31 at 4:00 p.m. on the National Mall (West Building Mall Entrance, 6th Street and Madison Drive, NW).
My Cup of Tea
Listen to the sounds of the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed harp-like instrument while you sip tea and sample cherry desserts and Japanese savories during the Cherry Blossom Afternoon Tea ($39 per person) in the Peacock Alley at the Willard Hotel. Afterward, view elaborate ikebana displays in the lobby. The special tea is offered from 1:00-4:00 p.m. every day until April 29th.
After a day of sightseeing, indulge yourself with a spa treatment at the Jefferson Hotel, which features a wild cherry blossom poultice massage. Once you’ve had a chance to unwind, stop in at the hotel’s bar, Quill, for a cherry-infused cocktail — or come see us at the National Geographic Society, located just steps away. Check out our Samurai exhibit and learn more about Eliza Scidmore (the Society’s first female board member), whose will and determination brought the now-famous cherry trees to D.C. a century ago.
Art on Tap
Head over to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (one of the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art) to see the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” and 35 more woodblock prints of Mount Fuji depicted in different seasons by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (March 24-June 17). Afterward, take a stroll around the corner and refresh yourself with a scoop of cherry-pomegranate gelato or a Disaronno cherry sour cocktail at the Garden Café Italia at the National Gallery of Art.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Watch colorful Japanese characters battle evildoers all day on Sunday, April 15 at the Anime Marathon in the Meyer Auditorium at the Freer Gallery of Art (the other Smithsonian museum dedicated to Asian art, located at Jefferson Drive at 12th Street, SW). Films include Ponyo, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke.
Go Fly A Kite
Let your inner kid run free and don’t miss the Blossom Kite Festival on Saturday, March 31 (beginning at 10:30 a.m. near the Washington Monument). You’ll see fanciful kites of all shapes and sizes during this day of windy fun. Highlights include a Rokkaku battle where teams and individuals compete with hexagonal-shaped fighter kites and try to “ground” and “cut” opposing teams’ kites.
Ooh and aah at the fireworks show at the Southwest Waterfront, the culmination of a daylong festival that includes dragon boat races and Japanese candy-making. The unique firework display is provided by the city of Nagaoka and was created especially for the centennial celebration. (April 7; fireworks begin at 8:30)
Plum cherry blossom-inspired souvenirs include renowned pop artist Peter Max’s Cherry Blossom print, pink blossom broaches by Rebecca Worth, silk ties dotted with Capitol rotundas and cherry blossoms from Vineyard Vines, and the book Eliza’s Cherry Trees: Japan’s Gift to America ($16.95).