New Plaza in DC to Honor Origin of Cherry Blossoms

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A young woman in a kimono lights the Japanese stone lantern along the Tidal Basin in Washington on April 3, 2011. The lantern was carved 360 years ago and was first lit in 1651 to honor the third shogun of the Tokugawa period and was given to the City of Washington as a gift in 1954, as a symbol of friendship and peace between Japan and the United States. It is lit only once each year during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. (Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

A young woman in a kimono lights the Japanese stone lantern along the Tidal Basin in Washington on April 3, 2011. The lantern was carved 360 years ago and was first lit in 1651 to honor the third shogun of the Tokugawa period and was given to the City of Washington as a gift in 1954, as a symbol of friendship and peace between Japan and the United States. It is lit only once each year during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. (Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — A 360-year-old Japanese stone lantern that is lit each year at the National Cherry Blossom Festival to commemorate the relationship between the United States and Japan will soon have a more prominent place on the National Mall.

A nonprofit group working to improve the mall is holding a ceremonial groundbreaking Sunday for a new granite plaza and walking paths to display the historic lantern. The lantern sits among some of the original flowering cherry trees that were a gift from Japan 101 years ago.

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Construction of the new $400,000 plaza with the lantern as a centerpiece will begin after the cherry blossom festival concludes, officials said. The plaza surface will evoke the “raked” sand surface of a traditional Zen garden, along with natural stone boulders, according to plans from the National Park Service. The project also will include walking paths to reach the plaza and help protect the nearby cherry trees from soil erosion and compaction that can damage their roots.

About 1 million people visit the cherry blossoms each year. They are expected to reach full bloom soon.

Caroline Cunningham, president of the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall, said organizers wanted to honor Washington’s relationship with Japan among the cherry blossoms, following the 100th anniversary last year of the gift of the trees from Japan.

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“The idea is to give it some context, to create a place of reflection,” Cunningham said. “Japanese Ambassador (Ichiro) Fujisaki wanted a signature element that honored and reinforced the relationship between the U.S. and Japan.”

The Japanese government is sponsoring the project, along with the Japan Commerce Association of Washington.

A plaque commemorating the 1912 gift of cherry trees will be moved to the new plaza.

The lantern and a grove of cherry trees are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service has been shepherding the project as a way to draw more visitors and attention to the historic lantern and plaque among the trees.

“When the project is finished, people will be able to learn of the site’s historical significance,” said Masato Otaka, minister of public affairs at the Japanese embassy.

(TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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