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Cherry blossom festivals a rite of spring

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
updated 11:00 AM EST, Mon March 5, 2012
Flower lovers will know spring has arrived in the nation's capital when cherry blossoms adorn the Tidal Basin and surrounding sites such as the Washington Monument. Flower lovers will know spring has arrived in the nation's capital when cherry blossoms adorn the Tidal Basin and surrounding sites such as the Washington Monument.
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Washington
Washington
Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn, New York
Vancouver, British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia
Vancouver, British Columbia
Fukuoka, Japan
Fukuoka, Japan
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. capital celebrates 100 years of cherry blossoms
  • San Francisco will choose a Cherry Blossom Queen
  • Vancouver, British Columbia, will have a dance party to honor the blossom

(CNN) -- It was a simple ceremony on the northern bank of Washington's Tidal Basin, attended by only a few people.

First lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador to the United States, planted two Yoshino cherry trees, part of a gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Japan to the United States.

One hundred years later, those two trees -- still standing -- and thousands more will be at the center of Washington's annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, starting March 20 and continuing through April 27.

Diplomats still honor the friendship symbolized by the gift of the cherry trees. At press conference Thursday, Kazuhide Ishikawa, the charge d'affaires of the Embassy of Japan, emphasized his country's commitment to "deepening our bond and friendship for another 100 years."

Nature may cooperate with the festival schedule this year: A National Park Service official predicted the peak of the blossoming will be between March 24 and 31, when 70% of the buds will open. The buds usually last 10 to 14 days.

The Japanese traditionally celebrate the spring blossoming of the flowering cherry trees, and the Japanese government and citizens have made many gifts of cherry trees to welcoming cities around the world. Wherever cherry trees thrive and are beloved, look for cherry blossom festivals as an annual rite of spring. (Whether or not nature's calendar will coincide with the festivals is always an unknown.)

Washington

The U.S. capital's first festival was held in 1927 and lasted three days, featuring schoolchildren doing a tree-planting re-enactment. The event became two weeks long in 1994, and this year there will be five weeks of food, arts, cultural and outdoors events in honor of the 100th anniversary of the gift of the trees.

The Liaison Capitol Hill is offering room rates starting at $199 that include a commemorative cherry blossom branch (legally supplied by the hotel), a box of chocolates, picnic goodies and Metro passes. The hotel's restaurant, Art and Soul, is owned by renowned chef Art Smith, known as personal chef to Oprah Winfrey and "Top Chef Masters"contestant. Other hotels around Washington and suburban Virginia and Maryland are offering cherry blossom and springtime package deals. Call (877) 44BLOOM (887-442-5666) or go online to book a reservation.

Brooklyn, New York

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which claims a more diverse collection of Japanese flowering cherries in one place than anywhere in the world outside Japan, celebrates cherry blossom season April 1-29. The four weeks of Hanami, the Japanese tradition of experiencing every moment of the cherry blossoming process, include weekend tours of the garden's Japanese plant collections and specialty gardens, and a packed weekend of celebrations April 28-29.

San Francisco

San Francisco's Japantown will host the 45th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, including food, culture, martial arts and music, on April 14-15 and April 21-22. The pageant to choose the Cherry Blossom Queen and her court will be held April 14. The festival will recognize the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Festival organizers will also pay tribute to the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service, comprised mostly of Japanese Americans who fought in World War II. The 442nd (which absorbed the 100th in 1944) became the most highly decorated unit for its size and length of service.

Vancouver, British Columbia

Leave it to Vancouver to organize a Cherry Blossom Umbrella Flash Mob Dance on April 14, complete with a pink festival umbrella (if you register for the umbrella and a gift bundle costing $10). Details about the in-person rehearsal and an instructional video are online. The dance is but one part of the city's annual Cherry Blossom Festival, to be held April 5-28.

Vancouver, which has more than 40,000 cherry trees gracing its streets, officially welcomes spring with this month-long celebration of the cherry blossom. The festival includes dance, demonstrations by Japanese chefs, haiku, painting and outdoor events. The city began planting cherry trees in significant numbers in the early 1930s after the mayors of Kobe and Yokohama presented Vancouver with 500 Japanese cherry trees to honor Japanese Canadians who served in World War I.

Fukuoka, Japan

The most dedicated of cherry blossom lovers will head to Japan to celebrate the blossom as the Japanese do. Japan travel expert Duff Trimble lived in Fukuoka for three years and spent a lot of time running and biking in Maizuru Park and Ohori Park, where cherry trees blossom.

"The ruins of Fukuoka Castle had the more typical concentration of cherry trees on top of the ruins and was one of the most popular cherry blossom-viewing areas in Fukuoka," says Trimble, whose Toronto-based Wabi-Sabi Japan runs custom-guided Japan adventures. "During the hanami (flower viewing) season, it was full of revelers celebrating the onset of spring. These hanami parties are always quite boisterous."

Trimble would often continue from Maizuru Park into Ohori Park, which also had a number of cherry blossom trees in the spring. For lodging, Trimble recommends the Grand Hyatt Fukuoka, the traditional Hotel Okura and With the Style, a boutique hotel.

CNN's Stacey Samuel contributed to this report.

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