The tale of a cruise to Washington, D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Festival, with a small serving of haiku for dessert.
by Jody Argo Schroath
Photography by Tamzin B. Smith
Barefooted on deck/I watch the coal dark channel/And feel cold’s farewell.
It was nearly midnight, and I was standing on the foredeck of my boat, a 36-foot EndeavourCat named Moment of Zen, staring into the pitch black East Potomac Park shoreline and listening to last of the day’s military helicopters huffle low and loud down the Washington Channel. That’s when the wind clocked south and spring arrived, soft and sweet—and late to the party, as is not uncommon. I could almost hear the buds on a thousand cherry trees across the channel shiver with pleasure and anticipation. Up on H Street, at the headquarters of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, there might have shivers of relief. After all, here it was, two weeks into the three-week festival and the honored guests had yet to put in an appearance. Thousands of visitors were in town, and every day, a fair portion of them had been strolling along the chilly shores of the Tidal Basin or East Potomac Park or around the grounds of the Washington Monument, where the trees stood bare-armed and still in bud. It’s a precarious business, I thought, basing a festival on the arrival of spring, that most fickle of all seasons. It’s no wonder the Cherry Blossom Festival has expanded into a three-week window of opportunity.
Over the previous week—the second of the festival—I had been to the Tidal Basin too. I’d attach able-bodied seadog Skipper to his leash and leave Gangplank Marina, down Maine Avenue and across East Basin Drive to join fellow blossom-seekers. We would follow the path along the basin as far as the Jefferson Memorial before turning back toward the Washington Monument and then down the Mall as far as L’Enfant Plaza or 7th or 9th streets, where we’d turn south toward the marina. Back on the boat, we’d put up our tired feet and paws and watch the channel traffic until, once again, we’d feel the pull of the city and the buds that had yet to blossom. But the winter would not die and the buds would not burst, and each evening, back on the boat, I’d wrap myself up and watch the day’s color bleed to gray, and the cherry trees’ bare budded branches turn to black against the moon.
Happily, on this particular cruise I had the unusual luxury of time; I would be staying at Gangplank two entire weeks! My trip up the Potomac at the tail-end of March had been raw and rainy, with the clouds parting only long enough to let a cold north wind howl through. Coming down from Annapolis, I had stopped at Solomons, then headed up the empty Potomac to Coles Point, took a stormy refuge in Colonial Beach, and weathered a long and choppy sprint up to Belmont Bay. The final leg from Belmont Bay, under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and past Alexandria to the Washington Channel, had been blessedly brief, with only roving fog banks to make the trip more of a chore than a pleasure. Once at Gangplank, the weather cleared, but the chill remained. Still, it made for fine walking weather, and Skipper and I made the most of it, taking advantage of the marina’s downtown location. In addition to trips to the Tidal Basin and the Mall, we explored the adjacent Southwest neighborhoods and, at night, walked Gangplank’s docks to marvel over the apparently infinite number of ways there are to bedeck a boat in pink lights. Gangplank residents throw themselves so enthusiastically into the boat-decorating business—which they call Pink Palooza—that the marina this time of year is a delirium of fuchsia.
If you go to sea,/Beware swashbuckling fishes/and pink
Aside from visiting the cherry trees themselves, there were plenty of festival-related events as well—the Cherry Blossom organization, after all, has dealt with reluctant springs and April snowstorms before and has created enough non-bloom-dependent activities to distract even the keenest blossom seeker. There is the festival rugby tournament, the festival fashion show and festival saki tasting, to name but a few. Unfortunately, I had missed one of the biggest of these events, the National Kite Festival on the grounds of Washington Monument, the weekend before my arrival. People bring their own kites, or make kites; they stage kite battles; and they hold precision kite-flying displays. But having arrived too late for that, I had no intention of missing the next big event, the following weekend’s Southwest Waterfront Fireworks Festival, a deluxe buffet of activities staged in and around Gangplank Marina and the Washington Channel. And I even had company coming for the occasion. My husband Rick was driving over from Ohio (where he was still teaching) and a friend, Sonya, who works in the area, was taking the Metro over for the day.
The Saturday of the festival dawned overcast and chilly, but cleared bit by bit as the day went on. With the weather looking promising, I proposed that we take Zen down the Washington Channel and out on the Potomac to see the cherry trees along the west side of East Potomac Park and, while we were at it, admire the view of the city to be had only from the water. So about noon we cast off our lines and idled along the channel, staying close to the East Potomac peninsula. At Hains Point, where the Washington Channel, Anacostia River and the Potomac intersect, we turned up the Potomac to see whether spring had made any inroads along the park’s western shore. No. There were plenty of cherry trees, plenty of visitors, plenty of buds, but no blooms. Still, it was lovely in a marrow-chilling kind of way, and we cruised and sipped hot tea as far as the first set of bridges (I-395/U.S. 1 and the Southwest Freeway), where we had to turn back because of their low clearance. As we turned up the Washington Channel once more, we could hear the sounds of the Southwest Festival already under way. When we reached our slip on F Dock, however, we pulled up short—because there was a koi in our slip. Yes, a koi, as in a colorful Japanese carp. Not a real fish, of course, but rather a koi-shaped construction of translucent pink paper, stretched over a frame and attached to an outboard skiff. What to do? We dithered around the fairway for a few minutes while we tried to reach the marina to sort it out. But, having a major festival going on in their front yard, they were a little hard to reach. Eventually they replied, apologetically explaining that it was one of the boats for that night’s parade of lighted koi boats. “How about a nice face dock instead?” they suggested.
A few minutes later, tied up to the perfectly nice face dock, we bustled ashore for a look around before night fell and the koi took the stage in the channel. In one of the little parks adjacent to the marina, we came across dozens of children making Japanese lanterns and sock monkeys. Elsewhere, bands played and food vendors did a brisk business in hamburgers, hotdogs and sushi. Periodically, out in the channel, a long canoe full of energetically paddling adults would glide past. Just as often, little fleets of sailing dinghies full of youngsters headed out into the same busy strip of water. It turned out these were boats from, respectively, Washington Dragon Boat Association and D.C. Sail. Both groups, based on Washington Channel, were busy recruiting new members. We finished our tour just as the sun set and the temperature dropped. Rick, Sonya and I headed back to the boat and the relative warmth of the enclosed cockpit.
Meanwhile, the evening’s entertainment was getting under way, and the koi were being revved up for their big night. At a signal, about six of them emerged from several points in the marina (including our slip) and then cruised magisterially around the fairway, to the delight and amazement of the audience. Each koi had a driver, who sat inside at the tail end and saw by peering out of the fish’s open mouth. The driver’s visibility was further restricted by a bright lantern, which gave the fish its ethereal glow. On the whole, it was remarkable that there were no multi-koi pile-ups. Meanwhile, stationed along the bulkhead above, the Nen Daiko Japanese Drummers beat out a bone-rattling kumi-daiko (ensemble drumming). The kumi-daiko, in fact, accompanied everything that happened during the remainder of the evening, including a magical flotilla of illuminated paper lantern lanterns, set afloat after the koi had left the field, and then the splendid fireworks display. The whole affair was undeniably beautiful and exciting and well-worth the cold trip up the Potomac, whether the cherry trees ever bloomed or not. After the last crash and boom of the fireworks, the crowd applauded wildly then dispersed to their cars and Metro trains. Sonya followed suit, and Rick, Skipper and I pulled the cabin door closed and turned on the heater. We were sound asleep in a drum beat (so to speak).
In the new hot sun,/Crowds burst like cherry blossoms./The party is on!
It was during the following night—with the festival concluded, Rick back in Ohio and Zen back in her slip—that spring had crept softly up the channel at last. On Monday, the sun warmed to its task. The temperatures shot up, and the cherry buds burst into bloom. And just like that, every cherry tree in the city became a remarkable, giddy confection of pink. “So this was what all the fuss was about!” I said to Skipper as we walked along the Tidal Basin path that morning. “This is why thousands of people come. Now I get it.”
All during the week that followed, Skip and I walked along the Tidal Basin and through the Washington Monument groves, and each day the crowds grew. As we wandered through the trees, I’d look up, mesmerized by the clouds of color above me, while Skipper, less given to nature-inspired flights of fancy, would keep his nose to the ground, where the number of lost hot dogs and other discarded edible treasures was increasing with the crowds. In our separate ways, we were both tickled . . . um . . . pink.
On one particularly warm day, about midweek, we paused to share a bottle of water (he carries his own collapsible cup), when an elderly Japanese couple settled next to me on the bench. We nodded hello and then the woman dug deep into her bag and pulled out a yogurt cup and plastic spoon. “For the dog,” she said, handing it to me. So I pulled open the top and, while she looked on approvingly, I spoon-fed Skipper vanilla-banana yogurt. He was very pleased with the cordial Japanese-American relationship represented by the cherry trees, and I was reminded of the haiku by 19th-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa: “In the cherry blossom’s shade/There’s no such thing/As a stranger.”
“We need cherry trees!”/Oh, the years of fruitless pleas./Patience, Miss Scidmore.
While the cherry trees have become the symbol of Japanese and American friendship, they were, more precisely, the brainchild of journalist and travel writer Eliza Scidmore (pronounced Sidmore), who came up with the idea in 1885 after a trip to Japan. What Washington, D.C. needed, she argued, were cherry trees. While in Japan, she had been struck by the beauty of the cherry blossoms and the happy crowds they attracted. So she approached the U.S. Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds with the idea of planting cherry trees along the Potomac waterfront. She got nowhere. But Scidmore, the first woman photographer for National Geographic magazine and later the first female member of the National Geographic Society’s board of directors—as well as a collector of Asian art and an activist for international peace—was nothing if not persistent. For the two decades that followed, she presented her idea to every Public Buildings and Grounds superintendent to hold the post. She still got nowhere. Finally, in 1909, Scidmore decided she would just raise the money for the trees herself and donate them to the city. So she wrote newly minted First Lady Helen Taft about the idea. Two weeks later, Taft wrote back that she had spoken with the Japanese Ambassador and was promised a donation of 3,000 cherry trees from Tokyo. When the trees arrived, however, they were all diseased and so had to be destroyed, except a few that were kept for study. But by then the idea had gained traction and a new set of trees soon arrived, followed by several more shipments. Since then, the composition and condition of the cherry trees has waxed and waned, but these days, each tree is tended carefully by a National Park Service arborist. There are now about 3,750 of them in the Tidal Basin alone.
Batons like blackbirds,/Old men gathering to drink;/Good-bye to all that.
During that marvelously colorful week, I watched the boat traffic along the Washington Channel go from busy to crazy. The tour boats based on the channel, which had already been going out daily, rain or shine, blossoms or no blossoms, were now joined by tour boats out of Alexandria and Georgetown Landing, as well as legions of recreational boats, kayaks, canoes, inflatables, fishing boats, the Coast Guard and the D.C. police.
And then it was time for the festival’s grand finale, the Cherry Blossom Parade and the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival. It was also time for Zen to get more company. Near the end of the week, my daughter Kristen and her dog Echo arrived from Ohio; on the Saturday morning of the parade, my daughter Colby and her dog Lacey arrived from Maryland, as did my friends Kathy and Hal, who do not have a dog. Leaving Hal and the dogs to amuse themselves on the boat, the rest of us set out down 7th Street to Constitution Avenue, where we found a spot along the sidewalk. As parades go, it was a doozy—really, any parade that features both a giant floating Scooby Doo and 700 tap dancers can’t go wrong. There were marching bands from schools as far away as Idaho and bands so big you couldn’t see the beginning and end of them at the same time.
When it was all over, we headed for the street fair, which was on Pennsylvania Avenue between 9th and 14th streets. It was a crazy, noisy, exciting, jam-packed chaos of music, food, shops, Japanese anime characters and entertainment, from a Tokyo punk rock group to a kimono fashion show. The queues of hungry people at the food stalls looked very long, so, after an hour or so of crowd-surfing, Colby and Kathy and I made for the exit. Ten minutes later we were seated at a nice quiet table in a Japanese fusion restaurant, studying the menu. Kristen, whose sense of adventure and desire to try everything at the festival was much stronger than ours, opted to stay on and meet us later.
When we had finished our lunch, we found a happy and well-fed Kristen just outside the street festival entrance on 10th Street. The lines had not been as bad as they looked, she said, and she’d managed to eat grilled octopus, shrimp tempura rice balls, grilled pork belly skewers, grilled squid, udon noodles with fish cakes, and a few red bean cakes to polish it all off. I then suggested that we return to the boat by way of the Tidal Basin, so everyone could admire the cherry blossoms, as I had done so many times in the past week. Bad idea! Let me put it this way: For every person who had crowded into the street festival, there were four crowded onto the path around the Tidal Basin. It was nuts! We quickly abandoned the mission, fighting our way through the throngs to Maine Avenue and the refuge of the marina. There we found Hal and the dogs dozing peacefully in sunny cockpit. Kathy and Colby decided it was time for the ultimate serenity of the suburbs, so they rousted Hal and Lacey and set off for home. On Sunday, Kristen and Echo did the same, leaving Skipper and me to the sweet quiet and awkward emptiness that follows the departure of guests.
It was nearly time for Zen to head home as well. Skipper and I returned several more times to the Tidal Basin, but both the crowds and the cherry blossoms were petering out. And that, I finally saw, was the point of it all. The blossoms, in all their astonishing beauty, last only a few days, and it is precisely the transitory nature of that beauty—all beauty—that the National Cherry Blossom Festival, even with all its folderol, encourages us to celebrate. The Japanese have understood that for centuries. Eliza Scidmore understood it in 1885. And now, so did I.
On Tuesday, I walked over to see the Japanese exhibits at the Freer and Sackler galleries, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art. When I reached the 18th century hand scroll by Ike Taiga entitled “One hundred old men gathering for a drinking party,” I stopped short. For some peculiar reason, it made me think of Annapolis. It was definitely time to go home. Early the next morning, Skipper and I left Gangplank Marina and the Washington Channel to begin the trip down the Potomac and back up the Bay. My two weeks at the Cherry Blossom Festival had been one of my favorite cruises of all time.
[March 2014 issue]