D.C.’s Cherry Blossoms turn 100

cherry blossom festival tidal basinWashington, D.C. is a city of posers. Especially during the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival when camera-toting tourists and locals descend like locusts to D.C.’s Tidal Basin to bask in the ethereal beauty of these Japanese trees in bloom. 100 years ago Monday, 3,020 cherry blossom trees arrived in Washington as a gift from Japan, largely thanks to the efforts of a journalist and traveler named Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who was also the first female member of the National Geographic Society.

Aside from an incident in 1941 when four of the trees were chopped down in retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s been a century-long love affair ever since. If you visit the Tidal Basin on a warm sunny day, as I did on Thursday, good luck trying to find a place to stand, let alone somewhere to park. Everywhere you walk, you’re intruding on someone’s photo opportunity.

According to the April 2012 issue of National Geographic, Americans took 80 billion digital photos in 2011. By my own calculation, approximately 43 billion of those were taken at the Cherry Blossom Festival. If you think the commuter trains in Mumbai are snug at rush hour, you haven’t tried to see the cherry blossoms in bloom on a sunny day.

Every year, I vow that next year I’ll go see the cherry blossoms on a rainy day, in the middle of the night or, even better, during a lightning storm to avoid the crowds, but somehow that never happens. Still, there’s a magnetic pull that keeps me coming back. When the trees are in bloom, you’ve got to go take a look. It’s kind of like a nude beach — you know it’s just going to be fat guys from Dusseldorf, but you need to see it for yourself.

The Japanese have a special bond to the trees, which they call sakura. The Canadian writer Will Ferguson once hitchhiked through the length of the country, south to north, following the trail of the sakuras blooming and his book, “Hokkaido Highway Blues,” is a hilarious account of his attempt to penetrate the soul of the country.

%Gallery-151319%For me, the best part of the festival is watching people pose for their cherry blossom glamour shots. You see women trying to look seductive, stoic Asian men who pose solemnly, as though they were being booked into a state penitentiary, guys in suits holding their tablets awkwardly to frame photos, and me, taking about 300 photos of my sons for no good reason. Imagine how much that would’ve cost in 1912.

Photos by Dave Seminara