Sunday, April 27, 2008

Cherry blossom festival close-out

A view of the Smithsonian building from across the mall.
The weekend of April 11 was the official final week of the the cherry blossom season in Washington. Nearly all the petals had fallen from the trees, but there was still a parade. I was in DC the year before and missed both the cherry blossoms and the parade. As I'd gotten so much from the blossoms, I thought it only fair to take in the parade. I arrived fairly early on Sunday to discover they had closed off the roads surrounding the mall. This had an interesting effect. Where normally there would be scores of runners and walkers on the paths, there were only a few people there at 8AM. This provided unprecedented views of the area.

8AM and no one to be seen!
The Freer Gallery of Art.
Toward the Capital, I noticed a large gathering of people. As I moved toward them, large shapes took form; balloons for the parade.

Japanese lanterns and cherry blossoms float overhead.
Waiting for the parade to make it to my position, I wandered over to the Organization of American States (OAS). As a kid, my best friend's dad worked here but I never visited the building. When it started to rain, I made a dash inside. The interior is quite nice, but the covered atrium in the center was really impressive.

Interior of the Organization of American States.
The rain dampened the ground, but not the spirits of the participants. The shower lasted only fifteen minutes and the parade carried on. The wet pavement made for interesting reflections.
The parade was led by a police motorcade.
I'm not really a big fan of parades, too much waiting around for my liking, but it provides one of the rare occasions when you'll find a fife and drum corps performing. It's also the only time you get to hear a marching band without having to go to a college football game.
In the afternoon, I made my way to the Japanese fair (Sakura Matsuri) on Pennsylvania Avenue. The street was packed with people and vendors.

I spent several minutes watching this team of sushi chefs at work. I've tried making sushi and appreciate that it's a skill requiring mastery. These guys were whipping out sushi rolls like a well tuned machine. The fellow in the middle starts the roll and hands the unfinished ones to his colleague to his right. The next guy puts in the necessary ingredients and then hands it across to the knife-wielding gentleman. I didn't understand why they didn't have everything flowing in one direction, but I'm sure there was method to their work flow.
The sushi machine at work.
At the other end of the road, a stage had been set up. A large troupe of Japanese university students performed traditional music, drumming and dance. I couldn't get close enough to photograph the show, but it was quite entertaining. The performers were having a terrific time showing off for the audience. When they left the stage area, they would pose for pictures with the crowd before dashing back to complete the elaborate dance.
Dancers line up as they wait their turn to perform.
The drummers' costume included an elaborate knot at the back.

The drums are a mix of ancient workmanship and modern technology.

Awesome Gothic Lolita outfit from a designer destined for greater things
The performers were not the only ones dressing up. The day's events included a costume competition. There were Gothic Lolita costumes, characters from anime cartoons, Japanese games, and outrageous street fashion. As the participants showed off on stage, I was surprised to find this girl and her friend not on stage. She told me she arrived too late to enter the contest and was rather bummed out. I can see why, it was a serious entrant. She designed her own costume and that of her friend.

Another outstanding participant told me her costume was not from a computer game or anime show, as I expected, but Japanese street fashion - the category in which she took first place. Her outfit, including the demon mask tipped on her head, derives from Japanese history and legends. It wasn't the outfit that was impressive, however, it was her stage presence. When it was her time to be judged, she bounced on to the stage and made this dramatic pose with umbrella and fan.

The part of the day that I found most surprisingly enjoyable was the J-Pop stage. A four-piece pop band called Mitsumassyu performed to a very excited crowd. The music wasn't too loud so it was necessary to get in close. The two guys and two girls on the stage were having a blast performing their high energy Japanese pop music. I couldn't understand a word of it, but found myself grinning and tapping my feet. These folks weren't fooling around, they were really rocking! I was so impressed that I bought their CD (and even got the band to sign it).
Interestingly enough, when I listened to the music later, it didn't have the same impact at all. Their energy on stage made their music so much more enjoyable. Their music, which is very fun, is better and more up-tempo when they react to a live audience. They're authentic though, and I really appreciate that. I can't imagine this group every performing a show from a recording track as far too many "artists" do today. 
The lead singer of Mitsumassyu was obviously enjoying herself.
 Over the course of four weekends, I saw as much spring as Washington DC has to offer. Given the opportunity, I'd definitely return for next year's cherry blossom festival.