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Washington's Annual Cherry Blossom Fest Marks Goodwill - 2004-04-12


The annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., commemorates the goodwill gift of cherry trees from Japan to the United States nearly a century ago. It's timed to coincide with the blossoming of the trees a colorful spring spectacular that draws millions of visitors to the city. But there's a lot more to the celebration than flowers.

American high school marching bands, Japanese drummers, a fife and drum corps, pretty and petite Cherry Blossom princesses passing by on moving platforms, natives carrying spears and dressed in centuries' old costumes - and a giant balloon that looks like Elmo, a puppet from the children's show Sesame Street. Some spectators lining historic Constitution Avenue wonder what Elmo was doing there. "Elmo? Elmo has nothing to do with cherry blossoms," said one watcher. "Elmo is the puppet on the popular children's show Sesame Street. There was a big float of Elmo. And you're objecting to Elmo?" "I'm not objecting to it. I'm just pointing out it has nothing to do with cherry blossoms."

Most of the parade watchers weren't bothered by Elmo. "The marching bands are fantastic. I love the drill teams. I like the princesses on the floats,? said another spectator. ?And I don't know what they were. They had pom poms on sticks that looked like fire and they were dancing around with them.?

"It's a nice way to commemorate U.S.-Japanese friendship. Sometimes people dwell on the negative points of the relationships. It's nice to see something positive and does a little education at the same time. It's also grown to be more than U.S., Japan. There's people from the Philippines, Korea. It's becoming like an Asian American celebration."

Joe Lopez is a native of Guam, not just an idle spectator. His teenage son is taking part in an academic competition that's part of the festival, known as "the Japan Bowl."

"My son won the Japan Bowl competition in Guam. So he's representing Guam in the national competition here in D.C.,? Mr. Lopez said.

"What's the Japan Bowl?" "It's a competition between students about Japan, all about culture. It's all done in Japanese."

Baroch: "What did he have to do to prepare?"
Lopez: "He's in Japanese language class. It's [the Japan Bowl] kind of like Jeopardy but it's only pertaining to Japan."

Japanese food vendors were standing under tents in the middle of the street.

Baroch: "Excuse me, do you speak English? What are you yelling?"
Vendor: "I yellowed dumpling.. and red bean fish cake."
Baroch: "So you were yelling 'dumpling!' and "red bean fishcake'"?
Vendor: "That's correct!"

Yelling of another kind at a nearby martial arts demonstration, Japanese and Americans dressed in crisp white uniforms, barking out at every punch and kick.

Sumo wrestlers also displayed their grappling skills, giant men with bellies like boulders. A spectator from Japan explained why they're so big.

Spectator: "They eat too much and take a nap."
Baroch: "So they eat and sleep."
Spectator: "That's right. Eating and sleeping is part of their exercise."

Attending the sumo demonstration, the U.S. Congressman from American Samoa, Eni Faleomavaega, who took a more reverent approach to the sport. "I would strongly suggest these people are not fat,? Eni Faleomavaega said. ?They train for six, seven hours a day. They are very, very strong. They can put a hand thrust like through a tank. The fat-looking appearance is very deceiving."

Contrasting images at this 92 Cherry Blossom festival in Washington, D.C., giant sumo wrestlers putting on a show in the middle of the city, and the 400 Japanese cherry trees showing off their fragile, feather-like cherry blossoms in a quieter place along the Potomac River.

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