Visiting Washington DC Cherry Blossom Festival

(updated 23 March 2018)

I'm a big fan of 花見 (hanami), the Japanese custom of viewing sakura cherry blossoms. It's a great way to enjoy the beginning of spring, shake off winter, eat some sakura mochi, and (if you're doing it according to custom) reflect upon the ephemeral and fleeting nature of life – the "peak" blossoms only last about a week. 

In 1912 the mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 cherry trees to the city of Washington DC as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. With 100+ years of sakura history, it's no surprise that DC has the USA's largest cherry blossom festival. Given their location and climate, their blossoms come in a full month before New York's. 
The cool weather this week and last has moved the prediction out yet a third time, to:
🌸 8–12 April, 2018 🌸
ℹ️ TIP: here's a little decoding chart for the Park Service's various bloom stages

Given the fickle nature of the actual bloom date, the festival itself is nearly a month long. Many of the events are fun even without the flowers. The events calendar is here. There are countless official guides for this beautiful event, but I'm not here to re-invent the wheel, just to give a few of my personal tips.

I'll take SWORDS for $600, Alex
J-pop fans everywhere!
JR model train exhibit

The trees are planted across the city, concentrated on the tidal basin near the Jefferson Memorial. The park service map of the trees is here. Once the date gets closer, the park service makes daily updates showing the current status of the trees.

If you can swing it, try to do your viewing midweek! Ideally on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Last year we went down on Thursday morning, had plenty of space to chill and enjoy the blossoms, and then spent Friday going to museums and generally avoiding the millions of people who appeared overnight. You can do it as a day trip if you don't mind getting up early and can easily sleep on the train.

Amtrak's Acela Express is the quickest way there from most of the east coast.  The Northeast Regional is slower but is usually less than half the price (from NYC: 2h 50m and $153 versus 3h 25m and $52). Sadly, Chase Sapphire ended their points transfer a couple of years ago, so you'll have to earn your points by riding Amtrak, using their credit card, or shopping through their shopping portal. Amtrak changed their mileage plan over to a fixed value plan in 2015 so the best you can expect to get 2.5¢ per point on Acela and 2.9¢ on certain fares on other routes... Not great but not terrible, either.

On the topic of value, I've taken the Acela in First Class and it's not worth the extra dollars or points. It still has no reserved seating, the seats are almost identical to the normal ones, and while the staff really do try, they're still serving you high school cafeteria food on cute china. Free liquor, though... Sidenote: DC's Union Station is gorgeous – a world away from the hell hole that is Penn Station.

The BoltBus/MegaBus situation here in NYC has gotten a bit nicer as well. The new 7 train station at Hudson Yards opened up and the discount buses operate a well-organized chaos right outside of it, across from the Javits center.

Acela express is faster and fancier, but 4x the price of the Regional.
Hotel-wise I really like the Kimpton Monaco and the Kimpton Rouge. It's reasonably priced, next to the metro, great amenities, free wine at happy hour, close to a bunch of good restaurants, and is across the street from the National Portrait Gallery. If you want to stay closer to DuPont circle, the Kimpton Rouge is good.

Check out a Capital Bikeshare bike. There are tons of bike paths in DC and on the weekends it might help you escape to a less crowded viewing location. Also, with DC's general layout and metro grid you end up frequently walking fairly long distances. The bikeshare is an ideal way to traverse the city without killing your feet.

Use the City Mapper app and website. It's an amazing tool for finding your way around big cities (including DC) by foot, bike, metro, or taxi. If you're doing bikeshare, it'll even show you docks with bikes near your origin and empty slots near your destination!

DC has a bunch of great Japanese restaurants (I'm a big fan of Daikaya) but I couldn't find any that had a proper sakura bento box. You might want to try Hana Japanese Market, they might have something that fits the bill for picnicking... (The larger DC Japanese grocery place, Maruichi, involves schlepping out to Rockville, MD)

Other great places to eat: Founding Farmers, Graffiato, The Source, Minibar, Zaytinya. Try to get reservations before going to any of these places. For Casual/Family places: Lincoln's Waffle Shop, Good Stuff, Carmine's.

In years past, we've got tasty salmon bentos to go from Kaz sushi and biked over to the river to eat, enjoy the trees, and to do another favorite thing: plane-spot! Washington DC's National Airport is right near the city center and the flight path goes right along the Potomac. Hopefully the weather will cooperate this year!

Great planespotting on the approach to National (DCA) airport
Salmon bento!

There are often Japan/Hanami-related art exhibits at the various museums in DC in addition to all of the other amazing permanent collections. Some of my favorites: Smithsonian Air and Space (both the one on the mall and the one out by Dulles airport), National Portrait Gallery, American History Museum,  Library of Congress. If you want to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, make sure you read up on their timed-entry ticket lottery.

Japan-themed art exhibits

The Udvar Hazy Air and Space museum is a must-see!

Other Cities

If you can't make it to DC, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens has an awesome grove of sakura and a website that shows the bloom state of each individual tree. Sadly you can't eat anywhere on the grounds, so you'll have to picnic elsewhere. Minamoto Kitchoan in midtown has great sakura mochi (pick them up the day you're going to eat them – they don't keep!). 

Philadelphia has a festival as well. So does Boston. And apparently Newark's Branch Brook Park (50 minutes from Manhattan by PATH/NLR) has more cherry blossoms than any other park in the US!

Brooklyn Botanical Garden

Sakura mochi from Minamoto Kichoan


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