The National Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off tomorrow, commemorating Japan’s gift of 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees to the city 99 years ago. The Festival is a grand two-week affair that draws over a million people annually, with a diverse range of events all across the District.
Key to the success of this yearly event for the last decade has been NCBF President Diana Mayhew, who took over the helm in 2000 as Executive Director and then in 2007 as President. When she arrived, the Festival was an all-volunteer organization (begun in 1927) and its vision was to ensure that there was year-round, consistent staffing to ensure the growth, quality, and consistency of events. “We also help show the world that Washington, DC is synonymous with spring,” Mayhew told me. “There was a need to provide consistent services to residents and visitors interested in attending Festival events and there was no central communication.” The Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID) donated the salary of an Executive Director for three years until the Festival got up on its feet, implementing fundraising and sponsorships to support itself and the cost of programming, which is offered free to the public.
This year, a very poignant tone underlies the usual springtime fun as Japan struggles to overcome the recent string of disasters. The NCBF quickly recognized this and added the touching “Stand With Japan” event last night, with all donations going towards the American Red Cross relief efforts in the beleaguered country. Over 1,000 people walked from the Sylvan Theater and around the Tidal Basin in a moving and heartfelt tribute to the victims of the disasters.
Visitors will have opportunities to donate to disaster relief throughout the Festival, as well as online through the NCBF website. All donations received at NCBF tents will go to the American Red Cross efforts in Japan.
Mayhew is a long-time resident of the DC area, having been here almost 40 years. “Washington DC has everything a person could ever want! It has culture, history, and the feeling of a small town in such a prominent city,” she said. “We are also close enough for great weekend trips to the mountains and beach – it’s a wonderful location.” Not to mention that during the spring, it’s one of the most beautiful spots on the East Coast, thanks to the millions of blooms that grace the area’s cherry trees.
The NCBF holds a number of events every year, with so many to choose from that practically anyone can find something that appeals. Putting all of this together with a small staff and a short amount of time is a challenge, but one that Mayhew and her team relish. “We have, and are approached with, so many amazing ideas, but there is only so much time to capture and execute all that could be implemented,” she explained. “There are many opportunities for events and expansion, we would love to be able to implement them all but funding and human resources are limited.
One of the key things the Festival relies on every year is the body of volunteers that give up their time to help make it happen. Mayhew was quick to point out how important their help really is. “There are so many people who help us participate by volunteering and we move so quickly that it is a challenge to pause and thank the hundreds who make this Festival happen,” she said. And it’s never too late to volunteer, even for this year’s events. “We can always use volunteers during the Parade and our other 16 days of events. It’s a great way to form bonds and friendships, and get a behind-the-scenes-look at the Festival.”
Mayhew works hard to bring the Festival to the city every year, but also manages to take time to enjoy it as well. “There have been times I have been able to sneak away, take off my hat as President of the Festival, and just be an attendee, enjoying the events and blossoms with my family,” she remarked. Two of their favorite spots to sit and enjoy the people and the blooms? “One is sitting at the foot of the Washington Monument in front of the Sylvan Stage, viewing the beautiful blooms, listening to wonderful music and watching the people. The other is at the steps of the Jefferson Memorial taking in the entire view of the Tidal Basin.”
And there are great memories from each one, too: “The Parade and Fireworks are all-time favorites as those are usually on dates that my entire family can enjoy all together,” she said. But one memory in particular will always stand out to the Mayhew family. “In 2009 under the fireworks, my son-in-law asked my daughter to marry him, so that will always be a treasured memory.”
Making the blossoms a memory for tourists and residents alike every year is the NCBF’s specialty. “The Festival provides so many experiences, whether you’re a visitor, student group performing, participating in the neighborhood tree plantings – they all create lifetime memories,” said Mayhew. “We have had so many spectacular performances over the years. One of my favorites was the collaboration between ‘Swing Girls’ Tateshina high school jazz club (located in the Nagano prefecture) and the Howard University Jazz Band.”
Looking over the website alone, there’s a ton of great events all through the two-week celebration – not counting those going on outside the Festival but still sporting the blossom theme. This year, there are some new events and features that Mayhew wanted to point out. “For the first time, you can plant your own tree in conjunction with the Festival and Arbor Day Foundation and literally bring the beauty of the Tidal Basin to your home,” said Mayhew. “We also have a new event with the American Diabetes Association this year called the Cherry Blossom Bike Rally & Ride – families will learn about bike safety and healthy lifestyles, but it’s also a day filled with family entertainment including a moon bounce, face painting, origami, and so much more.”
The Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival is also being expanded. This year, it will include over 7 hours of performances and family-friendly entertainment before the Fireworks Festival Show at 8:30 pm on April 2. The NCBF is also holding their first-ever photo contest in conjunction with FotoDC, with entries going through the NCBF website. And finally, Capital Bikeshare is placing a special location at 12th Street and Independence during the Festival’s weekend dates. And Mayhew confirmed that the bike valets will be back in conjunction with goDCgo.
With everything going on, the District can seem overwhelmed with people – especially during the peak bloom period around the Tidal Basin. Ask most locals and they’ll share their “sweet spots” to enjoy the blooms without the crushing press of humanity, and Mayhew is no different. So what does the Festival President suggest to locals? “Visit at sunrise and sunset. It is truly a beautiful time to come and see the blossoms,” she said. “For everyone, I would say to take your time and really enjoy them. It will definitely be crowded, but the blossoms are fleeting, a symbol of spring and friendship between the US and Japan – and the best time of year here in DC.” And if the Basin just isn’t for you, she recommended enjoying the blossoms at the National Arboretum, with their 600 cherry trees, or hit Fairfax County for a self-guided tour of one of the area’s spring gardens.
Next year is the centennial celebration of the cherry blossoms, and it’s going to be doubly busy for the NCBF. Already, plans are underway for a truly magnificent festival. Mayhew told us there’s going to be a 5 week celebration next year, from the first day of spring through Arbor Day. “The whole city will be in concert, with exceptional art installations, world-class performances, and a tribute to the history and Japan with a historical tree-planting re-enactment,” she said. “It will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that everyone should be a part of.”
Thanks to the efforts of people and organizations like Diana Mayhew and the NCBF, locals and visitors alike are able to truly enjoy the culture, pageantry, and magnificence of Japan and its people. Consider that the cherry blossom is oft seen as a symbol of the evanescence of human life. And here, it is celebrated year after year through a simple act of nature.
The bloom of the cherry blossom.