Written by Various AALEAD Staff Members; Organized by Diana Tran
Photos by Various Sources
Did you know that 110 years ago, Yukio Ozaki (尾崎 行雄, Ozaki Yukio), the then-mayor of Tokyo, Japan gifted 3,020 cherry trees from the banks of the Arakawa River to the United States? Today, the cherry blossom trees in Washington D.C. are a sight and spectacle that thousands of people come to see each spring. Throughout March and April, AALEAD staff and students were able to celebrate the beautiful cherry blossoms at various festivals and exhibits throughout the nation’s capital.
The cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. have a rich history and highlight the strong diplomatic relationship that the US shares with Japan:
“The tradition of celebrating the blooming of cherry trees in Japan is centuries old. The planting of cherry trees in Washington DC originated in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan. In Japan, the flowering cherry tree, or “Sakura,” (桜) is an important flowering plant. The beauty of the cherry blossom is a symbol with rich meaning in Japanese culture. For more than a hundred years, we have celebrated cherry trees blooming in solidarity.” (National Park Services)
Few know that the first batch of 2,000 cherry trees was sent to the United States in 1909, but was burned upon inspection due to the discovery of an insect infestation. In 1912, the second batch was sent over and contained 12 varietals of cherry trees. The most common trees included were the Somei-Yoshino and the Kwan-zan cherry trees. The Yoshino trees account for roughly 70% of the cherry blossom trees seen in Washington DC today, while the Kwan-zan trees make up about roughly 13%. Which of the 12 varieties have you seen around Washington D.C.? Click here to read more about each type and where you can find them.
Over the last 110 years, the United States and Japan have exchanged a number of gifts including dogwood trees, a Japanese stone lantern, a stone pagoda, and even cherry trees. During times of hardship and in an effort to preserve the genetic heritage of the cherry trees, the United States would send cuttings back to Japan to repopulate the cherry trees.
As the cherry blossoms continued to flourish in Washington D.C., they became a national favorite and by 1935, the US held its very first “Cherry Blossom Festival.” What was once a three-day festival now spans over four weeks and welcomes 1.5 million patrons to a multitude of different events and activities. Whether it be a parade, a kite-flying competition, a fireworks show, art displays, or even a bustling street festival like the annual “Sakura Matsuri,” the National Cherry Blossom Festival has something for everyone to enjoy each year from mid-March to April.
This year, the cherry blossoms peaked on March 22, 2022. AALEADers were able to celebrate the blooms in a multitude of ways. On March 19, 2022 students from DC and Virginia came together to experience ARTECHOUSE’s Pixelbloom Exhibit, an interactive digital art experience:
Students and staff were able to enjoy this unique art exhibit and take wonderful photos with their friends, family, and AALEAD staff members. But the day couldn’t end without seeing the beautiful Japanese Sakura up close and personal! Following the visit to ARTECHOUSE, we headed over to the Washington Monument to fly kites, play games, and see the beautiful cherry trees that line the grounds of the unmistakable obelisk. Here, the youth were able to meet students from other schools, spend some quality time together, and enjoy the breezy spring weather while live music played on the stage of the Sylvan Theater. It is a tradition for Japanese people to have picnics underneath the cherry trees, or even parties, and marvel at the beautiful pink and white blossoms each spring. This tradition is called “hanami” (花見), or flower viewing. It was fun to share an experience of the like with our students! It was a day filled with lots of laughter, smiles, tons of scenic views, and a handful of picture-perfect moments. We couldn’t have asked for more!
Throughout the remainder of the Cherry Blossom season, some AALEADers were also able to visit the beautiful blooms during their free time and attend the Sakura Matsuri. Take a look at these wonderful snapshots and memories from our staff throughout the last few weeks!
The Sakura Matsuri celebrated its 60th anniversary with its very first two-day event where over 40,000 people came to celebrate Japanese culture, art, and food. Here’s what coordinators had to say about their festival experience:
“This was my first time at Sakura Matsuri! I went with my fellow co-workers, Catherine (VA Middle School Program Coordinator) and Diana (DC Middle School Program Coordinator). It was super exciting! I was so surprised to see that the line to enter the festival went around the block! Once I was in, I was amazed to see the wide array of activities, and even free prizes that I could take home from different organizations that served and supported Asians and Asian Americans in DC.” – Kathy, VA High School Program Coordinator
“At Sakura Matsuri, I got to do and see so much. Some of the activities I participated in included doing trivia and receiving some Japanese candy, going origami “fishing”, and even learning different Japanese games! One game in particular called Pin, Pon, Pan (ピン！ポン！パン！). I have utilized it in programs, and it was a blast to play with youth and see students play with each other! At the event, I also heard some of my favorite songs being played such as the Pokemon theme song and the intro to Demon Slayer. Overall, it was a fun event to go to and see so many people come out to celebrate Japanese culture!” – Catherine, VA Middle School Program Coordinator
“Wow. I honestly just love street festivals. While I was not expecting the flocks and herds of people attending the event, it was great to see a cultural experience bring so many people together. Having lived in Japan, the Sakura Matsuri was something reminiscent of a festival that you might see around Japan. I enjoyed speaking Japanese with some of the vendors and learning even more about a culture that I hold very dear to me. Before moving back to DC, I attended a different Japanese Festival on an annual basis in Arizona. I look forward to volunteering and attending these events once again, even in a different city.” – Diana, DC Middle School Program Coordinator
Cherry blossom season is never complete without a trip to DC’s Tidal Basin, where the first cherry trees were planted in 1912. So glad that our teammates, Ari and Abdul, were able to visit with their friends and family members to regale at the sight of these gifts from Japan.
“I am grateful to have visited the Cherry Blossoms two times this year. One of my favorite visits of all time was this year with my mom and sister. This picture captures a big moment! My mom finally checked off one of her bucket list items after 35+ years of living in the DC area: Visiting the Cherry Blossoms! An added bonus is that we were able to see the blossoms in peak bloom while the Kite Festival took place at the Washington Monument (yet another bucket list item in the bag!). Standing behind the camera is my sister, Alexis, who we can always count on to catch the perfect shot.” – Ari, Program Director
Abdul was able to visit the Tidal Basin with his wife and their friend, Emma. He shares a quote to close us out in our celebration of DC’s Cherry Blossom Season: “Flowers are like friends; they bring color to your world.” – Unknown
Thank you to all those that were able to celebrate with us. We look forward to seeing the cherry blossoms again and sharing just one small piece of AAPI history with our staff, students, and community members. We hope this season has been fruitful for you all. Like the cherry blossoms did, may we all bloom with bursts of color.
More Cherry Blossom Resources