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Festival Ready to Blossom

National Cherry Blossom Festival Kicks Off Saturday

The National Cherry Blossom Festival will feature the return this year of a popular attraction from years past — sumo wrestling.

But beware: You may get summoned into the sumo ring by one of the wrestlers, who usually tip the scales at several hundred pounds.

The sumo wrestling is just one facet of the festival, which runs Saturday through April 11 and features a street festival, parade and dozens of other events all timed to coincide with the rebirth of Washington’s famed cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin.

“I am most excited about the groups we have coming from Japan,” said Laurel Lukaszewski, executive director of the Japan-America Society. “Many are interested in interacting with the audience, giving people the opportunity to pound on drums. Some sumo wrestlers may wrestle with the kids.”

In 1999, the last time the festival featured sumo, the wrestlers came from New Jersey. This year’s participants will include members of the California Sumo Association as well as the 67th sumo grand champion, Musashimaru, a Hawaiian who has Japanese citizenship.

The sumo wrestling is scheduled for April 3 at the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival. The festival will be held on Pennsylvania Avenue between 11th and 13th streets Northwest, on 12th Street between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues and on Freedom Plaza.

The grand champion will perform at noon in the Martial Arts Arena. Other wrestlers will offer demonstrations and exhibitions that day between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. at Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street Northwest.

Diana Mayhew, executive director of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, said about 1 million people are expected to attend the festival. Last year, the event drew about 800,000 people, with 50,000 to 60,000 attending the street festival and 70,000 to 80,000 watching the parade.

“We’re expecting more people because tourism is up in general and we have a huge attendance from the local and regional audience,” Mayhew said. “Our Web site is up 25 percent from this time last year.”

The cherry blossoms are expected to begin blooming shortly and will peak between April 2 and April 4, in the middle of the festival.

The festival’s opening ceremony will be held at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the grand ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental, a new hotel at 1330 Maryland Ave. SW. Tickets to the opening ceremony are already sold out.

The festival will culminate with a fireworks display beginning about 8 p.m. April 10. Good locations to view the show include the Southwest Waterfront and East Potomac Park. A boat ride on the Potomac also provides a great vantage point, and the Spirit of Washington II is offering a full dinner buffet, entertainment and DJ.

New to the festival this year are the Taiko drummers. The Ryujin Daiko drum troupe from Zentsuji City in Kagawa prefecture will perform and offer hands-on workshops at the festival.

The annual parade, presented this year by Southwest Airlines, is scheduled for 10 a.m. April 3 on Constitution Avenue Northwest.

Mayhew said Target is sponsoring cultural events, performances, and arts and crafts at the Jefferson Memorial every day during the festival.

The “Taste of Japan” will feature more than 30 of Japan’s top sushi chefs. It will begin at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Mandarin hotel; tickets are $79.

Lukaszewski said she is excited about the mood during the preparations for the festival, which was overshadowed last year by uncertainty surrounding the war in Iraq.

“I’ve gotten a sense of enthusiasm,” she said. “It’s the 150th anniversary of U.S./Japan relations this year. There’s a lot of enthusiasm about the relationship between these two countries. I think overall there’s a very optimistic outlook about the festival this year.”

In celebration of the 150th anniversary, the Japanese Embassy is sponsoring Japanese performers at the Kennedy Center on April 2.

The mayor of Tokyo presented the original cherry trees to Washington in 1912. There are now about 3,700 trees.

Other events scheduled during the festival include the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10-mile Run at 8 a.m. April 4 in West Potomac Park, and the National Cherry Blossom Princesses program, sponsored by the National Conference of State Societies, which will be held from Saturday through April 3.

In the princess program, the society selects a young woman from each of the 50 states to represent her state in the nation’s capital. The randomly selected queen wins a trip to Japan. This year, 10 of the princesses are Hill staffers.

They are Anne Pizzato, representing Alabama; Evan Miller of California; Laurie Lynn Barton of Georgia; Katy Dale Morrison of Idaho; Shannon Eagan of Nevada; Catherine Peterson of North Dakota; Sarah Wagner of Oregon; Laurin Manning of South Carolina; and Alison McGuire of Wyoming. Emily Taylor, who will represent Mississippi, is Rep. Gene Taylor’s (D-Miss.) daughter.

In addition, Senators and Representatives will be involved in a variety of events surrounding the Cherry Blossom Princesses program.

Paul Sweet, president of the National Conference of State Societies, said a Congressional reception will be held March 31 in the Dirksen Building. At this event, Members of Congress will escort their states’ princesses.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) will participate in the lantern-lighting ceremony at the Tidal Basin on Sunday, kicking off the week’s events for the Cherry Blossom Princesses. This event is free and open to the public.

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