The flowering trees that symbolize friendship between the United States and Japan are blooming for the 99th time in Washington in the wake of one of the world's worst natural disasters.
Before the two-week National Cherry Blossom Festival opens Saturday, organizers will hold a fundraising walk and vigil Thursday evening among the trees for victims of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami. An estimated 18,000 people have been killed in the disaster.
"It's important that we're taking time to reflect," said festival director Diana Mayhew. The celebration is a symbol of spring each year and now of the rebirth and rebuilding for Japan, she said.
"Our relationship with Japan is at the heart," she said.
The tradition began with a gift of trees from Japan in 1912. Then-first lady Helen Taft and the wife of Japan's ambassador planted the first two trees. About 100 of the original 3,000 trees are still growing, while thousands of others have been replaced or grown from the original trees' genetic line.
During World War II, the festival was suspended. Some trees were vandalized in those years, according to National Park Service records. After the war, the festival grew as Japan rebuilt and a Washington group was formed to stage the festival each year.
The festival draws about 1 million visitors and has become big business for Washington's tourism industry. Nearly half the visitors travel from out of town, according to the city's tourism bureau. A study of last year's festival shows it generated about $126 million in hotel stays and other revenue.
The Stand with Japan vigil begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday on the Washington Monument grounds. Money raised will go to American Red Cross relief efforts. Festival sponsors Safeway and Macy's each announced $100,000 donations to the fund Wednesday.
Many of Washington's 3,000 Yoshino cherry trees that circle the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial were beginning to bloom Thursday morning. The National Park Service has predicted they'll be in peak bloom next Tuesday through Friday.
"Nothing is in full bloom yet," said Park Service spokesman Bill Line, who noted that cold overnight temperatures in recent days would preserve the flowers longer — unless any storms bring strong winds that can blow them away.