Japan is presenting to the United States highlights of its culture both old and new, with a rare exhibition of elaborate centuries-old nature scrolls and performances by a top-selling pop band.
Japan is seeking to make the most of the 100th anniversary of Washington's cherry blossom trees, which were initially a gift from Tokyo and have turned into one of the US capital's most popular tourist draws.
As thousands strolled through central Washington to enjoy the fleeting beauty of the cherry bloom, the National Gallery of Art unveiled an exhibition from Japanese master Ito Jakuchu and pop sensations AKB48 flew in for two free shows.
The Imperial Household lent Jakuchu's 30 bird and flower paintings on silk scrolls, marking the first time the meditative masterpiece has been shown in its entirety out of Japan.
Earl Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, said Monday that the exhibition was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the public to see "the most important and remarkable collection of flower painting ever in the history of Japan."
The collection -- known as "Colorful Realm of Living Beings" and paired with three Jakuchu paintings of Buddhist deities -- opens to the public Friday for only one month after a six-year restoration effort.
Ito Jakuchu, who was born to a wealthy merchant family in 1716, decided in 1755 to devote himself exclusively to Zen meditation and painting. He spent nearly a decade producing the scrolls through painstaking pigmentation.
Jakuchu once said he did not intend his work to be understood for 200 years. The first of the scrolls depicted peonies and butterflies, two symbols in Japanese and Chinese thought associated respectively with beauty and freedom.
Other scrolls showed a magnificent rooster in a blooming garden, an octopus and fish descending through the water, a peacock in a dark forest and of birds perched on snowy branches.
The paintings were initially not for public viewing and instead assisted meditation at the Buddhist temple of Shokoku-ji in Kyoto.
"The paintings were never intended to be displayed more than a day," said Yukio Lippit, an expert on Japanese art at Harvard University.
The temple donated the scrolls to the Imperial Household in 1889 in gratitude for restoration of the building.
Japan said it was making the major cultural exchange in part to show gratitude for assistance by the United States, its main ally, following the March 11, 2011 tsunami tragedy.
"We have beautiful paintings in the National Gallery now of Ito Jakuchu and we have top stars from Japan. This is because Japan-US relations are very special," said Japan's ambassador to Washington, Ichiro Fujisaki.
AKB48 -- a girls band clad in school uniforms named after Tokyo's mecca of geek culture, Akihabara -- is one of the world's highest-grossing acts with more than $200 million in CD and DVD sales last year.
AKB48 is also one of the largest musical acts, with a total of about 90 girls divided into teams who put on daily shows of bubble gum pop and synchronized dancing.
On the eve of two shows at a Washington theater, three of the AKB48 girls visited a local school where they told wide-eyed seven-year-olds about Japan and their success across the Pacific.
"I like to dance because we all have feelings. Sometimes we're happy and sometimes we're sad. Normally we just show it on our face or with words, but through dancing we can show it with our bodies, too," AKB48 member Sae Miyazawa, 21, told the children.
Despite AKB48's success in Japan, few of the American children were familiar with the band until a teacher likened the group to Justin Bieber.
But the children grew most excited and giggled with delight when the visitors informed them what else comes from Japan -- Hello Kitty, PlayStation and Nintendo.