The centennial celebration of the National Cherry Blossom Festival was ushered in with much fanfare at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Sunday. Nearly 6,000 attendees, awash in hues of pink, were greeted by real-life Ents (for the uninitiated: Tolkien's tree people), with women on stilts sprouting elaborately arranged cherry blossoms and neon-lit flashing butterflies that rose above the crowd on poles.
Renowned opera singer and DC native Denyce Graves-Montgomery followed the Children's Chorus of Washington with her larger-than-life voice imbuing new power to the US national anthem.
Speakers, including Japanese ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, Mayor Vincent Gray, and Susan E.S. Norton, the board chair of the festival, expressed gratitude for the enduring friendship between the US and Japan that the cherry blossoms symbolize, as well as the extraordinary efforts of the National Parks Service in helping to preserve 100 of the original 3,000 cherry blossom trees over a century.
Japan's leading violinist, Iwao Furusawa, performed alongside Hideki Togi, a former imperial court musician, while aerialists from New York-based Cirque-tacular Entertainment wowed the crowd with their gravity-defying acrobatics. Before launching into an instrumental version of John Lennon's classic "Imagine" using traditional Japanese instruments, Togi said, "Last year when Japan was hit by a devastating earthquake, the U.S. was the first one to immediately give us aid. It's nice to have such a wonderful friend."
The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and pianist Sara Bareilles headlined the event, performing her catchy hit "Love Song" and others. But perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser was Japan's popular R&B singer Misia, whose five-octave range had most out of their seats cheering loudly. For her first performance in the States, she ended her set with an uptempo version of Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," which showcased her incredible voice.
There were also performances by the Washington Ballet with an excerpt from their upcoming show, Alice, as well as a carefully choreographed swordfight by Samurai Sword Soul to the traditional drumming of Taiko Project, who have performed at both the Grammys and the Academy Awards.
The sheer variety and excellence of the entertainment provided at this ceremony truly exemplified Ambassador Fujisaki's notion that the National Cherry Blossom Festival goes beyond a diplomatic friendship between the leaders of the two nations, instead serving to bring together "all of Japan with all of America."
For more about the history of the cherry blossoms and upcoming festival events, visit our Guide to the National Cherry Blossom Festival.