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Cherry Blossom Festival: Something for Everyone, Literally

One hundred and fifty years after Commodore Matthew Perry first arrived in Japan to open relations with the land of the Rising Sun, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is offering visitors an amenity unimaginable to an American sailor in 1853: state-of-the art, portable toilets.

“We have 27 port-a-potty stalls provided by Charmin. … There’s wooden floors and aromatherapy, paper towels, sinks [and] televisions in each one,” said Diana Mayhew, the festival’s executive director. “Plus, there’s attendants so everytime you use one someone goes in, straightens it all up and makes it ready for the next customer.”

For attendees who manage to tear themselves away from the luxury lavatories, the festival — which runs through April 7 — hasn’t let concerns over terrorism and war in Iraq diminish the available offerings. From sushi tastings and tall ships to Japanese art exhibits and cultural performances, this year’s events feature a veritable salmagundi of activities to suit nearly every persuasion.

“This year we actually expanded the festival throughout the neighborhoods of the city as well as through downtown,” Mayhew said.

Among the additions are a smattering of art exhibits around town, including a showing of Japanese prints at the Pepco building’s Edison Place Gallery; the opening of the National Cherry Blossom Shop at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; expanded performances and hands-on arts and crafts activities at the Jefferson Memorial daily from noon to 2 p.m.; and a charity golf tournament at the Army Navy Country Club, which is expected to draw Japanese-American Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Robert Matsui (D-Calif).

Also for the first time, an information center — located along Independence Avenue Southwest, just west of the Sylvan Theatre — will assist visitors and media with inquiries between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily.

In addition to the events on the Mall and downtown, the festival will expand cherry tree planting efforts begun last year in honor of the event’s 90th anniversary into all of the District’s eight wards. Sponsored by Comcast Cares and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and carried out in conjunction with the Mayor’s D.C. Main Streets program and a variety of neighborhood groups, the tree plantings will feature three signature Yoshino cherry trees planted in each ward over the course of the next two weeks. “Some of those tree plantings have turned into little festivals of their own,” observed Mayhew, adding that the event had served as a unifying force for some neighborhoods undergoing revitalization.

But if terra firma isn’t quite your scene, the festival is hosting public tours of historic tall ships such as the HMS Bounty and Kalmar Nyckel at the Southwest Waterfront through April 4 and a parade of lighted boats on April 5, as well as a gala dinner cruise down the Potomac on April 3.

As for the stars of the show, it looks like they’ll make it out before the curtain falls after all. The National Park Service has estimated that the cherry blossoms will peak — meaning 70 percent of the blossoms will be open — between April 5 and 12, exceeding earlier expectations.

Of course, no cherry blossom festival would be complete without the annual parade down Constitution Avenue and the selection of the cherry blossom queen at the grand ball sponsored by the National Conference of State Societies. Regardless of the “cloud” hanging over this year’s activities, rest assured the half-century old tradition will continue, said Paul Sweet, the society’s president.

And while the U.S. Park Police presence has been stepped up given the war in Iraq and the Code Orange alert, organizers say they have faith in law enforcement officials to ensure the safety of event.

“We know that the security is tighter here than in any place in the country. I pretty much have got my faith in the agencies that are protecting us and doing their job,” said Mayhew, adding that in the last 50 years the event has never been canceled.

Indeed, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the festival saw its numbers grow to nearly 1 million — the largest draw in its history — despite worries that terrorism concerns would drive visitors away.

Still, Sgt. Scott Fear, spokesman for the U.S. Park Police, emphasized that attendees should remain vigilant.

“We’re asking visitors, if they see some folks out of place — who look suspicious — to call us,” he said.

However, a spokesman for the National Park Service stressed the importance of attending the festival during a time of widespread national uncertainty.

“We believe that this provides a sense of solace, a sense of relief, a sense of alternative to the seriousness of what’s going on in the rest of the world,” said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line.

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