Snow Falling on Sakura

Yesterday was the beginning of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, described as the country’s greatest celebration of spring.

But today, the District woke up to snow falling on sakura.

Cherry Blossoms - March 27, 2011
Cherry blossoms framing the Jefferson Memorial. (Photo: Robert Yule)

The cognitive dissonance of it all inspired a haiku from me this morning:

 Snow gently falling

Mingling with white petals

Winter meeting spring

Okay, so I’m no Basho, but I felt this rare snowfall in late March was worthy of commemoration.

I had to dust the ice from my car windshield as I reluctantly drove to Virginia to meet a tour group. Organizers even canceled today’s scheduled Blossom Kite Festival because of the weather.

Yet spring seemed to win out as the clouds quickly passed and the sun emerged. I had a great and friendly tour group comprised of fellow bloggers and digital media professionals from around the world. And more importantly – we had the cherry blossoms all to ourselves.

We stopped at the Jefferson Memorial, and there were only a couple dozen other people there. It was a rare privilege to stroll around the Tidal Basin in relative solitude, with the blossoms at near peak. Usually at this time there are hundreds of people jostling through the narrow pathways to get a glimpse of the famous flowers.

I explained to my group how the cherry trees came to the District as a gift from Japan almost a century ago. There was a nice piece on NPR this morning about how they almost didn’t make it at all (I swear they slipped in their own haiku on the radio, but it passed by too quickly for me to count the syllables).

The first gift of 2,000 trees were officially offered from the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, in 1910 as a sign of friendship between Japan and the U.S. Unfortunately, they arrived diseased and infested with bugs, and instead of being planted, they had to be destroyed in a great bonfire.

Burning Cherry Trees - U.S. National Arboretum
The original gift of cherry trees arrived in the U.S. diseased and had to be destroyed. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Arboretum)

A potential diplomatic incident was luckily averted, and a new shipment of trees arrived in Washington in 1912.

On March 27, 1912 – ninety-nine years ago today – the first two cherry trees were planted by First Lady Helen Herron Taft and the Japanese Ambassador’s wife. These two original Yoshino cherry trees are still there on the northern side of the Tidal Basin, with a plaque commemorating the ceremony.

The rest of the trees were planted surrounding the Tidal Basin, at the White House, and in East Potomac Park (a little known but equally good place for cherry blossom viewing).

The first cherry blossom festival was held in 1935, and has become an annual occasion to reflect on the historical ties and friendship between the U.S. and Japan (with the notable exception of 1942-1945).

Red Cross Donations at Stand With Japan Ceremony - 3.24.11
The Red Cross was accepting donations for relief efforts at the Stand With Japan ceremony. (Photo: Robert Yule)

Earlier this week, I attended a ceremony to show solidarity with Japan during its current, three-fold crisis of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency. It was sponsored by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C. and the National Cherry Blossom Festival, and included speeches by the Japanese Ambassador and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s delegate to Congress. There was also a Red Cross booth accepting donations for recovery efforts.

A large group gathered near the Washington Monument, and took a ceremonial walk together to those original trees on the Tidal Basin. It was a chance for D.C.’s Japanese community – and friends of Japan –to meet and reflect on the recent tragic events.

I ran into several old reporter friends from the D.C. Bureau of Asahi Shimbun – the newspaper where I worked for five years – as well as fellow alumni from the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program.

Ironically, this tragedy has helped me renew my own ties to Japan and rekindle old friendships – a fitting way to bring

US-Japan Flags - Stand With Japan - 3.24.11 060
(Photo: Robert Yule)

together two of the places I’ve loved calling home.

One of the reasons Japanese love cherry blossoms is because they are both fleeting and eternal – lasting only a few weeks, but returning every year.

This year’s blossoms are tinged with sadness, almost making the snow and unusually cold weather seem appropriate.

But they also hold the promise of a better spring to come, particularly for the country that made this symbolic gift so long ago.

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