It is that time of year again, when every corner of the city looks gorgeous; when the large, famous parks draw the crowds but single trees tucked away down side streets are equally as appreciated and likely to be immortalised by the smartphone cameras of passing commuters.
There is something about the heady mix of sunshine, sakura and a huge pile of food and drink to be shared with friends under the boughs that acts like a shot of something pure delivered right to the brain after the chills of winter. I don’t think I could ever get cynical about this season and all it brings. New term, new jobs, new projects: January may be the start of the year, but April is when everything begins again in Japan.
So hard to believe that by next week it will all be gone. With the sakura, as with all the good things of life, be sure to enjoy it while you can!
What is the correct response when a student offers you potentially radioactive peach sponge cake?
Despite warnings of an 80% drop in tourist numbers this year, one of my students, a lovely and very generous lady, drove for hours and sat in huge traffic jams to visit the famous 1,000 year old cherry trees of Miharu. They are located just 30 kilometres away from the damaged nuclear power plant. When asked if she felt afraid, she laughed and said not at all, instead she felt it was her duty to support the people of Fukushima. She had brought us all cake as a gift from her trip.
As the Golden Week holiday approached, there was much soul-searching as to whether to holiday or not to holiday. People are torn between wanting to support the tourism industry and the Japanese economy, and the sensitivities of enjoying holidays when others in the country are living in emergency shelters. One way to resolve these competing urges has been to arrange travel in order to help in Tohoku, with large numbers of volunteers heading north this week. I am hoping to do the same later in the year, but for now, will be doing my duty in the tourism sites and retail outlets of Kyoto.
So what do you do when a student offers you cake from 30 kilometres south of Fukushima?
I ate it and can report that it was delicious!
ten minutes hate wishes you a happy Golden Week, however you decide to spend it.
The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time. . . I think that only we Japanese understand that, don’t you?
– David Mitchell, Ghostwritten
Thanks are due to Sam for reminding me of the David Mitchell quote. One day I hope to get closer to understanding the fleeting beauty of the sakura. These pictures were taken a week ago and already it has gone, mushed underfoot as the trees blaze green and the hayfever has Tokyoites sneezing into their face masks. This year more than others, understandably, we have longed for the release of the hanami, the joy that the sakura brings, the feeling that, like the trees, we can begin again.
And even as we begin, know that it must come to an end. We are, after all, like petals on the wind.
Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive
– Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Be sure to enjoy as many perfect moments as you can before the fall.
Hanami season has arrived, stirring feelings of joy at the onset of spring and the start of a new financial and academic year, tempered with melancholy at the knowledge that, as with the sakura, all beauty is mortal. A finality which doesn’t need to be underscored too heavily at a time when there are still many thousands dead and missing in the North, most recently the three killed by last night’s large aftershock.
Last week Tokyo’s government asked for restraint at this time of national mourning, while an association of Tohoku sake brewers countered by trying to encourage Tokyo’s drinkers to indulge, enjoy life and by doing so, support the remains of their industry. It is understandable that people feel torn. There is perhaps a reluctance to hold the raucous parties for which the season is renowned while their compatriots are struggling with everyday living. Set against that, is of course, the near-impossible-to-resist joy that sakura season brings:
As I wrote in autumn, the Japanese love their trees and this regard was very much in evidence today in Ueno Park. Everyone from teetering and bundled-up toddlers to almost bent-double grandparents walked beneath the boughs, loaded and heavy with blossoms close to their mankai, or full bloom, best. The trees were truly gorgeous. A heartbreakingly beautiful sight, the gentle pink at times hardly showing against the grey sky, but still strong enough to give the soul a lift and herald the end of winter.
The view was made all the more beautiful by its fleeting nature, the delicate blossom taking a battering from the wind, falling across the paths and walkers below the trees, as well as into my palm as I took these pictures.
So hard to believe that by next week they will be gone.
All pictures by me, happy for them to be used if you like them, a credit would be lovely.
Sitting waiting for something that never shows up.
It is a way to learn patience, I am sure that the Zen masters would approve as I sit exercising my patience like one would a muscle, testing its tolerance for ever greater and greater feats of endurance.
A girl and her boy throw a ball between mitts. It runs past her a couple of times and she apologises profusely as I put down my book and throw it back to her, laughing to try to show it is no inconvenience even though I don’t have the words to reassure her properly.
There are people doing the Brazilian dance thing I never remember the name of, it is a club or a lesson so they are warming up in unison. Games of badminton, baseball and football are circling as the joggers flow past. Parents and grandparents throwing balls, kids really are climbing trees. This should have been a great day in the park for us to share, all of you sitting here with me, instead some of you had fled while others queued for anti-radiation pills I remain irrationally convinced we won’t need.
So you missed out on the sun’s glow and the first hints of a warm breeze, supporting the kites lazily bobbing overhead. I whispered grateful thanks to those who first gave me their love of this place, handing it over like a baton or a flame that I will run with or shelter now that they have gone. A dog walked past wearing a jumper and those of us that had stayed sat waiting for the spring and the sakura.
I have spent quite a bit of time over the last three weeks reassuring friends and family and readers of ten minutes hate that all was well in Japan, so much so that it now seems slightly perverse to be taking the alternative tack.
However, while things are safe and returning to a semblance of normality here in Kanto, the region of Japan that includes Tokyo and Chiba, it is a very different matter in the north of the country. Voices from the ground is the excellent blog of the Peace Boat charity relief effort in Tohoku, the area most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Their photographers Dee and Trace have written of a recent visit to the region:
In the midst of a landscape now defined by trucks wrapped around traffic lights, fishing boats spectacularly moored into main street buildings, cars elegantly dangling upside down in trees or unceremoniously stuffed in houses, we find ourselves so small and shockingly helpless. There is utter despair combined with the scent of lingering death, bodies not yet found. The local cemetery so defiled, ancestors now shack-up with delivery vans, roofs and dingys.
The toxic fumes waft our way from the port and industrial area. It was here on the bridges connecting Ishinomaki with the once picturesque Nakaze island, by the now tranquil flowing Kitakami River, that we understood. All we can do is make a difference on a human level. Try and help, assist, listen to one person. Touch one. If we could all affect this, volunteer even for a day, reach out to just one person then collectively tides of survival give way to those of recovery and life beyond
In the north of Japan people cannot begin to speak of recovery and rebuilding as they are still trying to survive. Many people are living in shelters, or in the ruins of buildings, in weather which is far colder than the balmy spring temperatures that are bringing the cherry blossoms to Tokyo. They need our help urgently.
Quakebook is one way for you to help, with all proceeds from the sale of the book going to the Japanese Red Cross. Second Harvest Japan are committed to sending food and other supplies as part of a long-term relief programme. The Peace Boat group is also accepting donations. As one of my students remarked this week, ‘I hope that Japan will recover soon’.
I am sure that Japan will, but please, do all that you can to help!
Photo from Voices from the ground, 37 frames here
An evening spent writing, with the Stones on the stereo and a glass of whisky close at hand.
That was my plan for last Friday evening, mulled over as I headed into Tokyo for a little light shopping on a beautiful spring day off work that luckily coincided with payday. Nature had other ideas though and once they were unleashed, it would be close to 30 hours before I saw my own front door again after walking through it that morning.
Now, a week later, we sit in a basement bar with the rumble of trains above our heads, swapping tales of where we were and what we saw, things we have read and can still barely believe. We don’t have any words to castigate those who made the alternative call, knowing that their reasons were as sound as the ones that kept us here, but knowing equally that we have made the right one for us. We are glad we stayed.
Colleagues, compatriots and strangers, all have become friends. We have hugged each other, soothed ragged nerves with laughter and together we have survived. We are no longer worried or fearful for ourselves, but for those in Northern Japan who have lost everything as the snow falls, the brave-beyond-words technicians in the power plant and loved ones at home who read the papers or watch the news and believe what they show.
The picture of a terrified Japan displayed in the UK media is not one I recognise. In the last seven days I have come to love the people of this city and country more than I believed possible. Today we were in Ueno, where the Zoo has been anticipating the unveiling of two giant pandas. The event has been delayed by the earthquake but the station is all set for their debut, as well as being a blaze of sakura blooms for this weekend’s hanami (flower viewing) holiday:
There is a long road ahead to heal the people and places left so devastated by last Friday’s earthquake, but from what I have seen in the last seven days, I know it can be done. Whatever my own small part in that will be, I am ready to play it.