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Playing Blossom: Meeting the Princesses

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And so last night to the residence of the Japanese ambassador, Ichiro Fujisaki, for a Cherry Blossom Festival party. I have to admit I've never been much involved with things festivular in Washington. I don't think I'm alone in that. How many natives trek to the blossoms every year? How many line up for the parade? Do you?

But, hey, a free dinner's a free dinner and I'd never been to the Japanese ambassador's residence. I've been to similar events at the French and Swiss embassies and the protocol is much the same: They don't lift the lids off the chafing dishes until the ambassador has spoken. Fair enough. While I waited, I spoke to some of the Cherry Blossom Princesses.

There's one for each state, plus the District, plus the U.S. territories. (Guam was there! And Puerto Rico!) Many of them already live in the Washington area (Guam and Puerto Rico, for example. College students.) They're chosen by their respective state societies, with help from their Congressional delegation. They must be between the ages of 18 and 24 and, I was told, have "no visible tattoos." Here's the District's Cherry Blossom Princess, Alexis Johnson:

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The way they choose the Cherry Blossom Queen is interesting: The princesses are all put into a steel cage armed only with sharpened chop sticks. No, actually, they spin a wheel. If it lands on your name, you're queen and you get a little crown and a free two-week trip to Japan. As outgoing queen Emily Little told me, "I don't have any talent, I'm just lucky."

I'm sure she was being modest. Queen Emily is finishing her nursing degree at the University of Maine. She teared up when she described the two weeks she spent in the Land of the Rising Sun, traveling with her "second mother" and meeting the Japanese people. The Japanese in the crowd were delighted. We all want our countries to be loved.

Here's Emily with me and Erisa Kazui, who is the Japanese Cherry Blossom Queen. I imagine that's a pretty big deal. They take their cherry blossoms seriously over there.

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When they left, attendees got a little gift bag that included a DVD about Japan, some publications, a Jero wall hanging (!) and a pair of Japantravelinfo.com chopsticks:

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How come we don't include a fork with goodie bags for the people who visit the U.S. embassy in Tokyo? Or maybe we do. (I'm going to go out on a limb here and state that more people on the planet don't eat their food with a fork than do.)

By the way, if you want to escape the cherry blossom crowds while still soaking up a bit of Nipponia, visit the Japan Information and Culture Center, over on 21st Street NW. They currently have a display of netsuke, the fasteners the Japanese would use to hold a little purse on their belts. (No pockets in a kimono, you see.)

Netsuke are highly decorative and come in all sorts of designs: intricate gold and lacquer work, detailed carving. There's one netsuke in the shape of a basket that supposedly took the artisan more than a year to carve. Can you imagine showing up at work every day to whittle down a kimono purse fastener about the size of a walnut?

Turning Japanese
Well, not really. But we can talk about the blossoms during my online chat, today at noon. I also thought college admission letters and D.C.'s segregated restaurant scene would be good topics for discussion. Post a comment now or join me at noon.

By John Kelly  |  April 3, 2009; 8:50 AM ET
 
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Comments

I don't know why exactly, but many people who consider themselves long-term or native Washingtonians seem to accept the myth that the cherry blossom festival is only for tourists. Sure, many tourists come and that is great. But many events are dominated by locals such as the Lantern Ceremony, the parade, and the Sakura Matsuri street festival. By local I don't mean just the city limits of DC, but within a 50 mile radius of the Washington monument. Some DC area natives will skip a few years and then wait for that perfect Saturday or Sunday to brave the crowds at the Tidal Basin. On average, over the last 97 years since Mrs. Taft and Vicountess Chinda planted the first two trees, the peak bloom time has been April 4 but that can be off by as much as three weeks in either direction. So trying to schedule festival events for the days when the blossoms really bloom is very hard to predict. This year, everyone, both visitors and blossoms, were on time. If you are a local and stay away from the blossoms for snobbish reasons, don't. Come down and see and you will have just as much fun as the tourists do.

Mark Rhoads, Historian for the National Conference of State Societies (NCSS). NCSS has sponsored the cherry blossom princesses and Queen since 1948 and the Lantern Ceremony with the National Park Service since 1954.

Posted by: MarkRhoads2 | April 5, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

I have seen these young women all over DC. from Ft. McNair to the Kennedy Institute and going into the Swedish Embassy. They look as if they are really enjoying town and have been quite engaging. States/territories have a lot to be proud of in these women. And their chaperones as well!

Posted by: noodleparents | April 5, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

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