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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Chasing cherry blossoms

“KUMUSTA na?”

That straightforward, spur-of-the moment greeting sent over Messenger to a friend in the US, whom I hadn’t seen for over a decade, exploded into tiny shards of piquant memories of high school summers and teenage dreams.

Sooner than we realized, we volleyed messages back and forth—me expressing my desire to explore the US, rattling off a list of cities to see, ending with, “Can we meet?” She, virtually nodding in agreement, spontaneously coming up with an itinerary, concluding with, “Come during cherry blossom season.”

And so the idea of chasing cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C. was formed, less than a month from their predicted appearance.

I first came face to face with these pretty, yet delicate, flowers four years ago, during a short visit to Paris at springtime. Behind the oft-visited Notre Dame Cathedral, my travel companion and I fortuitously stumbled upon a tiny park awash in rich pink, bustling with visitors. Although the blooms there are of a different variety—those of the multi-petalled Kwanzan, not the famous five-petalled, pale pink Yoshino—I left with a silent oath to visit Japan or any other country where cherry trees are aplenty. Thanks to that fateful conversation, one item was ticked off my bucket list.

In the run-up to my trip, I conscientiously trawled the internet for blooming forecasts (read: I needed to time my visit), barraged my friend with sad-face emojis upon learning that an unexpected snowstorm “killed” some of the flowers, and was beyond thrilled when the peak bloom date was finally announced.

Obsessed over by many

Cherry blossoms have been adored all over the world for centuries because, aside from their magnificent charm, they create a vibe that is as peaceful as is intensely magical. Thus they are the subject of many an artwork, poem, and love song, as well as the inspiration behind festivals, gourmet menus, and varied merchandise.

Literature says that cherry blossoms do not only herald the arrival of spring, but are also a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings.

In D.C., as in Japan, bloom time is sort of a national affair, sending citizens and tourists into a wild frenzy. As soon as the capital dons a shade of pink, people from all walks of life switch to flower viewing mode.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival also kicks in, complete with fireworks, parade, kite festival, parties, and the works. It pays tribute to the friendship between the US and Japan, which gifted the trees to the city.

Journey to D.C.

One might think that the seven-hour drive from Willoughby, Ohio (where my pal and her family are based) to Alexandria, Virginia (where we were staying the night before proceeding to New York) would leave us knackered, denying us the chance to explore Washington. It didn’t dampen our spirits a bit. But the weather nearly did.

It was drizzling when we arrived in Alexandria, and gloomy on the way to D.C., which was less than half an hour away. We travelled in silence, fear (imploring “Please don’t rain,”) and excitement etched on our faces.

We reached our destination when the vehicle moved at a turtle’s pace. With overcast skies, I was not prepared to see hordes of people on the streets – some pushing baby prams, others toting selfie sticks sticking out at odd angles. But I was completely unprepared when rows upon rows of Yoshino cherry trees gradually came into view. We were passing by the Tidal Basin, our target viewing spot.

“Wow!” my friend’s nine-year-old daughter and I chorused. It was an understatement. The sight of the flowers literally takes your breath away. And we had not alighted from the vehicle yet.

We parked near the Capitol and agreed to walk our way back to the Tidal Basin in haste, in freezing temperature, before the sun would totally fade into the night. It was a bit of a walk, made longer with a toddler in tow and endless crowds blocking the paths, so we made several blossom-viewing stops along the way.

Where to watch

Lower Senate Park. Our first stop. Situated north of the Capitol, this verdant lawn is not only peppered with benches and fountains, but also cherry trees. Without the usual mob, this makes for a perfect venue to capture Instagram-worthy pictures. Plus: squirrels darting from one tree to another.

Constitution Gardens. This huge open space within the vicinity of the Washington Monument is another cherry blossom gem. Obviously a crowd-drawer, given its location along the highway, we needed to elbow our way into the pack to shoot the best angle/s. However, this is a more sedate option to the Tidal Basin.

Tidal Basin. The best spot to get up close and personal with the floral beauties. At springtime, the cherry trees lining the basin metamorphose into a riot of colors. And year after year, the place is thronged with visitors of epic proportions. We knew we came at an ungodly hour, when the area was densely populated. Tip: Get on a paddle boat or visit early in the morning for unparalleled viewing pleasure.

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Our last stop. Since the rain barred us from exploring the whole stretch of blooms along the Tidal Basin the previous day, we made a quick stop at this locale before travelling to New York. Here, cherry trees huddle along the parking lot and the church entrance. No crowds. Just you and the flowers.
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