Why does it still seem so improbable to me that a giant aircraft can lift off from the ground and carry me at speeds I cannot feel across vast oceans, then deposit me back to earth in another land? Each time I fly, the experience seems remarkable, particularly if it is a trip of several hours, traversing invisible timelines, geography, climates, seasons and cultures!
I noticed this trip to Japan and back that there is a short window after I first land in which my experience of otherness is strongly heightened before it becomes familiar again. It’s like seeing a place through new eyes when at first everything seems foreign.
The city of Kyoto, while thriving and contemporary, contains the wisdom and legacy of hundreds and hundreds of years within it. You brush up against it daily in the traditions, the food, in the politeness of interpersonal transactions as well as in the more obvious gardens and architecture. For me, visiting Kyoto is like entering an ongoing river of time. I am always altered by it in some way during each visit. For the better! Continue reading “Back to Earth”→
Is this what getting old is going to be about? I had an all day/almost all night coughing jag yesterday that wore me and my poor husband out. You’re going to have to do something about that, he told me grumpily. No dah, I replied with irritation.
I stopped taking a prescribed cortisone inhaler today which I decided was triggering the coughing fits, so today I am coughing less. But before I became too frisky, the pain from my hip bursitis turned back on this afternoon as I was starting out for a walk in my Kyoto neighborhood. Needless to say, my stroll was curtailed.
Time to get out the advil before my walk and stop talking about my complaints. What smarty pants said to me “You can’t afford a negative thought”? I had a few too many these the last two days. I’m here to celebrate spring and beauty in the city that has made an art out of it!
This afternoon we rolled smoothly into Kyoto on the bullet train after spending two nights in Tokyo. I am always struck by the contrast between the new capital and the ancient one of Kyoto. There’s the obvious difference of size, but more than that, it’s about scale. Tokyo is reaching for the sky these days, covered with new high rises being built just about everywhere you look. In Kyoto, (almost) the entire environment seems integrated and grounded.
Earthquake concerns are somhow overcome by state of the art engineering. The huge buildings are impersonal, mostly office space, sometimes housing hotels as well, but with no distinctiveness that I could identify or admire. Tokyo can be slick, cutting edge and fun, but after a few days I am generally relieved to pull out of it and head south to Kyoto. The big city doesn’t feed my spirit except for it’s preoccupation with good design. Flash is fun and youthful but grows easily tiresome.
I know Kyoto quite well now, so there’s no element of surprise when I arrive here as there used to be. Rather, it’s a sense of comfort I feel upon entering. The small pots of seasonal flowers placed carefully at the doorways remind me that time is taken to appreciate nature here. Once again, I am sure that scale plays a large role. The city is mostly built of two story buildings with a few buildings, like errant toddlers, escaping those boundaries, but not very many and not by dozens of stories.
There’s a strong sense of place here with temples and shrines appearing around every corner. Their significance plays a constant role in the events of the city. They are power centers, no doubt, reminding me immediately that I’m no longer in the USA. Japanese are said not to be religious but when you enter a shrine it’s easy to see that the ancient gods are respected and play a role in their contemporary life.
The Japanese people have a strong sense of purpose. There’s not a lot of lolling about or screwing around. They all seem devoted to their jobs and determined to do the best they can in them. They walk quickly. They listen intently when you speak to them. They are considerate and kind. They do seem to embody a kinder, gentler strain of humanity, at least in this time and place! It’s a welcome change from the nastiness rampant on the home front.
As always, our dear Japanese friend has prepared seasonal welcome flowers to greet us when we open the door of our apartment. It’s these moments that mean the most to me and speak stronger than any words.
What better time or place to throw a party than in the spring at our apartment in Kyoto? We had friends CA friends visiting Kyoto for a few days, my more-than-able-son-in-law visiting and several Kyoto friends we were eager to see again. At the suggestion of a friend, we easily decided on a party. We even have a ceramic party dog whose always ready for the next shindig.
My husband and I have a pretty good division of labor for this kind of event. Basically, he prepares the food, and I prepare the decor. We’ve worked this arrangement out over 50 years of marriage and it’s still working, although the days when everything my husband cooked was made from scratch have shifted slightly towards the ready-made as long as the quality meets his high standards! Kyoto makes this sort of entertaining easy and fun.
For several days before we host a party, we both discuss the food plan and arrive at a mutual agreement on where we’re headed. Finger food? Drinks? etc. On the day of, or one day before, we begin to really concentrate and gather our non perishables. Here in Kyoto, the land of small dishes, we needed small plates. After a brief search in department stores, we located the perfect ones to serve a crowd at the local 100Y store. We’d gotten some wonderful serving platters and dishes of Shigaraki ceramics when we initially moved in a few years ago. We ended using every dish we had. Dollar store plates mingles easily with the plates of a contemporary Japanese ceramicist.
We (The trees and I) peaked today. My insatiable appetite for cherry blossoms is seemingly satiated. Cherrymania was at its most intense today when we traveled a bit out of town to visit the World Heritage Site Daigoji Temple, on everyone’s best-dressed list. The weeping cherries at this temple are mostly an irresisible delicate pink. They cover acres of vast temple grounds. Many are over 700 years old. Their dazzling presence casts a spell, leading you on as if in a hypnotic trance, from one tree to the next. They’re all beautiful. Each has its own identity, just different enough so that you don’t know when to call it a day. Our steps were light in the morning when we arrived, but hours later, after taking in so much springtime effervescence, the air went out of the tires! I diagnosed Hanami overload! At one point, I uttered the unthinkable: I don’t think I can look at another tree!
What did people do before the use of cell phone cameras? Hanami is a centuries old custom here, dating back to the 8th century. Did the earlier observers make drawings, paintings, or just commit the dreamy visions before them to memory?
Our way of viewing special moments now leaves little to memory alone. We crave evidence. Cell phone cameras make it all possible. Each of us has become an amateur photographer, getting instant gratification with one little click. Amusingly, we like the camera focused on ourselves almost as much as on the setting. I watched with fascination as pretty young Japanese women would automatically assume a wistful, sweet, dreamy, gentle expression when getting ready for a photo. I imagine this is a specific genetic expression assumed when posing in front of sakura, that has been transferred for centuries from one generation to the next. The women would position themselves so they could tenderly touch a blossom or two, or peak out from behind a lacy branch. Their expression would be impossible for a foreigner to emulate! NO, I didn’t even try.
Below, pink souvenirs of the season.
As usual, the children steal the show!
This group of little girls, all dressed beautifully for the occasion, taking delight in what must have been a photograph of themselves.
This young man won my award for “Knowing What to Wear.”
We followed the crowds, took our pictures,. At some junction the procession became tiresome and yet I was reluctant to leave. We started to feel like the old Alka Seltzer ad from the late 60’s, I can’t believe ate the whole thing.
Before we departed I had to take one last photo of an ancient tree. It seemed to signify the strength,endurance, yet fragility of this world of ours.
It’s not an exaggeration to state that cherry blossom season in Japan is a Big Deal. A VERY BIG DEAL! The Japanese celebrate their beauty in every conceivable way. Hundreds of trees are illuminated in temples and shrines in the evenings. Lively picnics are held with friends and family under the flowering trees. Copious amounts of sake are consumed. Food is adorned with cherry blossoms, special foods and drinks are made, and pink is the color of the day. Very old trees, hundreds of years old, become revered and famous. Their branches are supported and they even have their own cherry tree “doctors.”
The first time I viewed the weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park, I wept. Its presence was overwhelming.
Forecast maps put out by the weather service and others are eagerly awaited. They project the dates of the first blooms of sakura in each part of the country. It’s undeniably the dream of every international tourist to be in Japan for cherry blossom viewing (hanami). Myself included. Sites tend to be very crowded, but everyone is in very good spirits and its relatively easy to go off the beaten path.
My two previous visits to Japan in April missed their target. We were too late. Unusually warm weather in mid March encouraged the flowers to bloom early. At their peak, a strong wind shattered the flowers. There’s a message there too, Life is fleeting.
This year I’m taking no chances. I’m arriving a full week earlier than I did for the previous Aprils when I disappointedly arrived at the tail end of the season. Many years ago, when my visits did coincide with the blossoms, the experience was transcendent. After a visual high like that, it’s a short step to wanting to repeat it again and again.
The first bloom in Kyoto, ascertained by looking at a particular tree each year, showed its color yesterday. I’ll be arriving in Kyoto in 3 more days. That means, if we’re lucky, we’ll have at least a week of unfolding blossoms across the city, some early, some late, all splendid. Factoid: The number of petals on a cherry blossom range from 5 to over 100.
This year, I’m ready to inhale their delicate fragrance, nibble pink sweets, wear petal pink nail polish and wrap myself in a generous light wool shawl that was dyed with cherry blossoms an absolutely exquisite pink.