WASHINGTON – It's that time of year again, when a swath of the US capital becomes awash in a sea of pink.
The National Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off March 28 and runs through April 12, with more than a million visitors expected to stroll through the 3,700 cherry trees that circle Washington's Tidal Basin and participate in a slew of festival events.
Highlights of the celebration include a chance to explore a floating tea house and design your own kirigami structure — which is made of cut paper — as well as see a performance by Japanese sensation and Pittsburgh native Jerome White Jr., both on March 28.
White, known as Jero in Japan, sings "enka," which he has likened to traditional Japanese blues, says Maryssa Miller, assistant to the cultural attache at the Embassy of Japan. White, who is Japan's first black enka crooner, grew up not only dancing hip-hop, but also singing enka with his Japanese grandmother. The 27-year-old was named best new artist last year at the Japan Record Awards.
"He's brought a new breath of fresh air into the enka because it's been a kind of dying art," Miller says.
A week into the festivities on April 4, chefs from Washington and Maryland will roll their way through the first-ever SushiMasters competition on the East Coast. Founded by the California Rice Commission, contestants will create a sushi combination plate and then design their own signature roll. They'll have 22 minutes to do so in each category and judges will score them on style, technical skills and originality. The winner will compete in the SushiMasters finals this fall.
During the festival, visitors may also enjoy boat rides on the Potomac River, photo safaris among the blossoms and cherry-inspired cocktails and dishes at area restaurants. If you're planning your Cherry Blossom Festival trip around the peak bloom period, April 1 to 4 are your dates. And if you grow weary of crowds at the Tidal Basin, you may want to visit some blossoms elsewhere in the city, such as at the National Arboretum. Its 446 acres carry 2,000 cherry tree species, most of which were created by arboretum researchers and aren't found at the Tidal Basin. The arboretum offers a self-guided tour of the blossoms, which may be done on foot or by car.
While you're in town, or if you're done enjoying the festival, you may want to do some other sightseeing. One option is to follow in the footsteps of the city's newest residents, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, with a self-guided tour of places they've visited or that have connections to the first family.
For instance, take a gander at Abraham Lincoln's Bible — the one President Obama used during his oath of office — at the Library of Congress. It's on display through May 9 as part of the library's Lincoln bicentennial exhibition.
Or you could slip into the historic Hay-Adams Hotel, where the Obamas stayed before moving into the White House and the site of Mrs. Obama's recent Vogue cover shoot.
If culinary pleasure is your thing, grab some Southern flavor at Georgia Brown's restaurant in downtown Washington, where Mrs. Obama had her first lunch outing (she ordered fried catfish, fried green tomatoes and peach cobbler)in D.C. Or sip on Belgian beer at Marvin bistro and lounge, located in the heart of the city's U Street corridor. Named for D.C.'s own Marvin Gaye, Marvin is at the epicenter of the street celebration that erupted the night of President Obama's election.
"We've really had such an interest in the Obamas and the energy and excitement that they've brought to D.C. They've really embraced the city, from date night at the Kennedy Center to half smokes at Ben's Chili Bowl," said Victoria Isley, senior vice president of marketing for Destination D.C., the city's tourism organization, which designed the Obama tour. "It's a fun way to show off the new first family and the heart of the city."
For more information on the Obama itinerary, visit the Destination D.C. Web site at www.washington.org.
The city has also opened a number of new or newly renovated attractions in the past year. Here are some highlights for you to consider exploring while in town for the Cherry Blossom Festival:
• The National Museum of American History, which recently reopened after a two-year renovation, features a dramatic display of the flag that inspired the national anthem. The museum also features exhibits on the presidency and first ladies, and costumed historic characters wander through the halls every weekend. Free. Details at americanhistory.si.edu.
• The new Capitol Visitor Center, an underground museum that's now the first stop for people touring Congress. It features documents from milestones such as President John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech calling for the nation to send a man to the moon. Admission is free. Tours of the Capitol are limited to free timed-entry tickets that should be reserved in advance online at www.visitthecapitol.gov or through a congressional office.
• A wax figure of first lady Michelle Obama will be unveiled on April 7 at Madame Tussauds wax museum. Her figure will stand behind President Obama's in the museum's replica of the Oval Office, and will feature a special, custom sleeveless dress. Admission: $18 for adults, $12 for children. The museum also will hold special cherry blossom-related events. Details at www.madametussauds.com.
• The story of a Japanese monster, samurai and a sake potion is told through brightly illustrated scrolls, screens and fans in "The Tale of Shuten Doji" exhibition at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery March 21 through Sept. 20. Visitors can also check out the Freer Gallery of Art, which features an exhibit by Japanese artists from the ninth to 19th centuries who specialized in using gold and silver in painting, calligraphy and metalwork. In nearby galleries, see ceramics from China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan that were once broken, but mended with plant resin lacquer, transforming their appearance. Both exhibitions are through Nov. 8. Free. For details: www.asia.si.edu
• The Lincoln Bicentennial Commission will pay tribute to Marian Anderson's landmark rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where she sang in 1939 after a nearby concert hall turned her away because she was black. The tribute concert will take place at 3 p.m. on April 12 — Easter Sunday — at the Lincoln Memorial Plaza. It will feature world-renowned mezzo-soprano and D.C. native, Denyce Graves, the women's a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Chicago Children's Choir and the U.S. Marine Band. Free. For details: www.abrahamlincoln200.org
• The Ford's Theatre — where Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 — reopened in February after an extensive renovation. The Tony-nominated production "The Civil War" — a musical tribute to people affected by that war — runs March 27 through May 24 at the theater. Meanwhile, visitors can take part in timed tours of the theater from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Across the street, The Peterson House, where Lincoln died, is also open daily for tours. For ticket information, visit: www.fords.org.
If You Go...
• NATIONAL CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL: March 28 to April 12. Family day and opening ceremony March 28 at the National Building Museum. Annual cherry blossom parade starts at 10 a.m. April 4, followed by the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, nationalcherryblossomfestival.org.
• U.S. NATIONAL ARBORETUM: Arboretum grounds open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., www.usna.usda.gov.
• GEORGIA BROWN'S: 950 K St. N.W., 202-393-4499. Entrees $18-$31, www.gbrowns.com
• MARVIN: 2007 14th St. N.W., 202-797-7171. Entrees $14-$27, www.marvindc.com.
• HAY-ADAMS HOTEL: Sixteenth and H streets northwest, 202-638-6600, www.hayadams.com.