Cherry Blossoms in the Plum Wine:
a story of love, friendship, and farewells
There are said to be two perfect seasons in Japan's famous Kyoto area- the fall, when the red leaves of the Japanese Maples perfectly set off the temple landscapes, and the spring, when the soft pink of Cherry blossoms make the temples and parks places of ethereal and temporal beauty. In the almost two years we'd been here, we had somehow missed the opportunity to see Kyoto in either one of its best seasons. Last year we visited Kyoto during Spring Break when Justin's parents came to visit us- but those stubborn and fickle blossoms were still only buds waiting to bloom. This year, we hadn't managed to see the fall colors of Kyoto, which deepened our determination to take our last opportunity to see Kyoto in Sakura (cherry blossom) season. Our friend Aaron, a proud resident of Kansai Japan (as opposed to Kanto, the name for the Tokyo area), invited us down to stay with him, not only to see the cherry blossoms, but also to meet his new girlfriend, Masumi. This girl had captured our imaginations immediately when he, clearly smitten, described her as "painfully pretty." Anyone who could so enrapture our complex Aquarian friend was sure to be well worth meeting… It was an invitation we couldn't resist.
The week before, during Spring break, we had gone to Hawaii, meeting my Dad Mike there at the midway point between Japan and the mainland United States. It had been a wonderful vacation, but on the plane ride back, on the less than luxurious China Airline flight, I felt both sunburned and suspiciously like I was coming down with a cold. The next week, I snuffled through a vile cold, but refused to let it keep me from our proposed adventure. Somewhat rebelliously we spurned the usual preparatory trip to the travel agent, and figured we'd show up at the Tokyo shinkansen station and buy tickets on the spot. That way we wouldn't have to worry about missing our train, which had become something of a pre-occupation with us after we'd actually missed one train and found ourselves agonizing over others. Though some affluent businessmen actually commute by shinkansen or plane daily, I had my doubts that we would actually be able to just hop a train to Kyoto. Nevertheless, that Friday we showed up at the Tokyo station thirty-five minutes after catching a train at our local station, and headed to the ticket window. There was an electronic schedule board above our heads with names of departing trains, their destination, and a complex collection of red and green x-es, circles, and triangles. After eying it skeptically we braved the ticket window, explained where we wanted to go, and hoped for the best. The ticket lady seemed to calmly accept our request, which was a relief, but then asked us a series of complicated questions about the type of seat we wanted. We gaped at her, and then I said rather stupidly, "The cheapest seats?"
Moments later, she was handing us non-reserve tickets for any train we cared to catch for Kyoto, and we were stumbling away in a daze. Elation filled me. Had we just managed to pop into Tokyo and catch a bullet train to Kyoto on a whim? I felt very international and sophisticated suddenly. On the spur of the moment, there I was flitting across Japan. Suddenly Japan seemed much smaller and more accessible. I could go anywhere! Of course, the catch was be the price- shinkansen tickets are not exactly cheap. But if we had the money, think of where we could go! There were no limits.
Justin guided us to a platform with a train with non-reserve seats. On a shinkansen, you can either get reserved seats, or non-reserve seats. With reserved seats, you know where you're sitting because you have a guaranteed seat. With a non reserve seat ticket, you can get on a train with non-reserve cars, and hope to find a seat in that section. The catch is, some trains don't have non-reserve seats, or they may be full, which could mean you could be standing for hours. We walked down the long, modern platform towards the three non-reserve cars. The platform was very crowded in this section- lots of businessmen and businesswomen. The first non-reserve section was smoking, so hordes of frantically puffing men in dark suits plugged the walkway. We got in something resembling a line, or at least a faintly angled block of people, and hoped we were waiting for a non-smoking seat. The sleek nose of the train slid into view, with the rest of the train stretching our behind it like a very long and modern worm.
A small army of ladies in unappealing green-blue cleaning uniforms swooshed efficiently through the train, cleaning it for its next passengers. One nice thing about catching a shinkansen at Tokyo station is that the trains starts and ends its trip there, so when you get on the train it is empty and sleekly clean. Once the cleaning elves have finished their magic, the doors slide open and passengers surge inside. We happily followed our moving line, until we realized it was heading into the heart of no-man's Cancer-inducing land- the enclosed smoking car. Justin said, "Don't worry, just follow me," and we loaded onto the train. Just as we should have turned left inside the train, he turned right and we merged into the next car in front- thankfully, a non-smoking car. We found seats and collapsed into them as the car filled up and overflowed around us. "The trick is not to be picky," said Justin, somewhat smugly, and I squeezed his hand. Our adventure was beginning!
Some two and a half hours or three hours later, we arrived at the Kyoto station and stumbled out to find our connecting train. Several connections later, I would have been happy to never ride a train again, but we were finally at Aaron's station. It was late, and dark out. The small local station was almost deserted. We began the hike to Aaron's well-worn duplex. I found myself practically on top of it, and Justin laughed at me for being lost, and we pounded on Aaron's door. Light flickered inside, and he was opening his door to us. We collapsed inside in a mass of backpacks and bags and tiredness. He had picked up some things for breakfast tomorrow, and earned my undying adoration by having picked up some orange juice. I think he was a little surprised by the fervor of my enthusiasm for that juice, but as we had been hiking in the dark, through the quiet village surrounding his place, I had been longing for just that beverage.
There were some quiet improvements to the place- furniture moved to more auspicious locations, a more friendly kitchen for cooking. It wasn't until I closed myself into the small, coffin like toilet room (with lonely Hawaiian shells hanging from the wood paneled wall, and a lock that doesn't quite catch) and wedged the door almost shut behind me, that I felt the true presence of a woman's touch. There, carpeting the formerly frigid and unfriendly toilet seat, was a soft and furry tan and brown seat cover, with matching toilet slippers in front of the door. I tried to imagine Aaron picking out such domestic items and my imagination failed me. True enough, it turned out to be the work of Masumi, who apparently had opinions about frigid toilets in the night. As I remembered that bone chilling seat, I felt a warm glow of approval for his sensible new girlfriend. That approval didn't extend to shoving my feet into the slippers, but I was nevertheless quite unaccustomedly comfortable.
Bathroom absolutions complete, we sat around Aaron's low kotatsu table and watched videotapes of Star Trek Voyager (that we'd recorded and sent to him from our Skyperfect Satellite television). The guys drank ume shu, alcoholic plum wine on ice- which Aaron has apparently acquired quite a taste for. It's not hard to do- it's like drinking delicate fruit flower liqueur, and ordinarily something I enjoy myself. However, given the wretched state of my throat, I confined myself to orange juice with bouts of powdered raspberry Emergen-C mixed in water. As always, it was lovely seeing Aaron, and like no time had passed since we last saw him. I just wish I had been feeling more energetic and talkative. Aaron had decided to give us his double bed in the main television and kotatsu room, largely because it was the only room that could be closed off with hurricane windows, to be dark. We guiltily accepted, while he laid out a futon for himself in the office. He'd gotten Yahoo BB DSL for his computer just the day before, so he was pretty happy about that. It had just become available in his area, so the office had become a more interesting place to be. He also showed me a very cool web site for studying Japanese vocabulary- www.kantango.com- a site where you can enter Japanese vocabulary words into wordlists, save them as your lists, and then test yourself with online flash-cards. I was hooked almost immediately. Justin shook his head a little at his obsessed companions, and we all went to sleep.
The next morning we all gradually convened in the kitchen. I persuaded Justin to make me breakfast, which he was only to happy to do, and we discussed the plans of the day. Aaron knew of some places around his school in Nara that were nice for flower viewing. Justin was quite excited about going to Kyoto, and while I wasn't looking forward to another long train ride, I was looking forward to seeing it in Sakura season as well. Masumi was supposed to come late that morning. Justin had talked to her when Aaron was in the shower- shocking her (although she recovered quickly) by picking up the cell phone when it rang. We giggled juvenilely at the prospect of teasing Aaron. We heard that her train was approaching the station, so we all went out into the pleasant spring day to meet her. We waited outside the gate, peering at each disembarking passenger to see if it looked like someone who could be Aaron's girlfriend. Then, she was there- a slim woman in a black top and white jeans and tennis shoes. Her face lit up when she saw Aaron. She really was cute, with a sweet lilting voice and big eyes. She chattered pleasantly in mostly Japanese until Aaron encouraged her to use her fluent English. We set back to the duplex in pairs, me with Justin, and Aaron walking ahead with his hand in Masumi's. They were a sweet couple, we thought, stealing a few pictures of them with our digital camera.
We got back to Aaron's place and Masumi began pulling out things for Aaron's apartment from a shopping bag- she'd been to the $3 store 'Three Minutes of Happiness', and bought him several useful things for the house, like little area throw rugs, and a manly striped apron which she draped over Aaron's head. Justin and I smirked slightly at this new, domesticated Aaron, but we were charmed. After getting re-settled, we were all ready to go out. We went out in the sunshine, following the happy couple, and smiling at them together. We caught a train to a station near a Daie store where the guys hoped to pick up some short-sleeved shirts to replace the winter shirts they were wearing. We browsed through the men's section of clothing, briefly tempted by the amusingly inaccurate English phrase shirts. Aaron was ultimately wooed by an army green t-shirt with a nonsensical exhortation about champions, while I was able to persuade Justin (with Masumi's help) that what he most needed in the world was a slightly retro yellow t-shirt with white and black stripes. He wanted something a little different than his usual style, but he was uncertain at first, though it looked great on him.
After buying them we found a men's room off the stairwell and the guys changed into their new seasonally appropriate clothing. I was already wearing a soft blue Chinese cotton shirt (from the three minutes of happiness store, coincidentally), and Japanese style gray jeans with embroidered white flowers/ copper glitter. We went up to the 100 yen shop on the top floor for essential picnic items, such as plastic cups, and a plastic cover for the ground. While there we were enticed by a Pricura (Print Club) photo booth where you can pose with your friends to take pictures, edit them on a screen, and print them out on stickers. We went in and had fun making silly and kissy faces for the camera. Then, Masumi helped us edit them on the screen (a process which can go sadly awry when your Japanese skill evades you and you accidentally end your editing prematurely, losing half the pictures in the process… to name one potential problem, not that I'm saying we, ahem, ever experienced such a snafu).
While checking out, we noticed a disturbing young male, wearing a women's wig, clearly suffering from anorexia, wearing a indecently short school girl skirt and uniform. The back of his thighs were like a starved horse's hindquarters- with strange sinews and protruding muscles in unnatural places. We shuddered, and I was reminded of a… man in Boulder, Colorado, who attires himself in a woman's bobbed wig, bright red lipstick, and heinous office skirt and jacket and high heels to go bicycling around the city. These lost soul cross-dressing twins both had the same look in their eyes, a look that makes you wonder what's going on behind their heavily mascara painted eyes and what they are seeing through the haze of eye shadow.
We went down to the food basement and went crazy picking out things for a hanami (flower viewing) picnic. The boys picked out peach wine, and ume shu for the drinking so essential to the Japanese flower viewing experience. Meanwhile, we also got pretz sticks, fresh strawberries, simmered deep fried tofu stuffed with rice, apples and cheese, strawberry chocolates, and all kinds of unnecessary but tasty things. Masumi found a very tasty looking noodle salad at a konbini later, while Aaron picked up a bento prepared lunch at a bento shop, with fried chicken and other delights. We moved on, to the park and castle near Aaron's school. As we walked it became more scenic, and cherry trees increasingly surrounded us. On one stretch of park, a small festival was happening, and booths were set up selling typical festival food, toys, and small goldfish. We eyed the whole grilled fish on a stick, the French fries and buttered corn, but eventually I was weakened at the sight of lightly fried and sugared thick sweet potato slices in a cup. I called for a halt to the procession and bought some, carrying it on. We walked and walked until we got to a beautiful park area with thick canopies of blossoming cherry trees. The entire walkway had been crowded, though nothing like the crammed madhouse I had feared, but here many people had stopped and set up picnic spots along the ground with their friends and were enjoying the view. We wandered on until we found a spot we could all be happy with, and set up a big plastic tarp on the ground, laying out our foods and snacks all around us. We ate our little meals, and watched the cherry blossoms fluttering to the ground all around us. We poured out decanters of ume shu wine and drank it in plastic cups, snuggling and flirting with our respective partners, and chatting about American marriage, the future, and the present. All around us groups of friends were doing the same thing. It was nice to feel a part of something. I looked up into the tree branches and saw the petals, white and pink falling, seemingly endlessly, but I knew that the trees would be left bare again. It felt like we were grasping on to time, trying to capture the ultimate spring moment. After our meal, we debated about what to do.
Justin was eager to continue our adventure. We'd discussed going to Tokyo tomorrow, and satisfying ourselves with Nara sakura… but somehow Kyoto beckoned with the promise of the ultimate cherry blossom experience. Somehow seeing local parks decorated with the shapes of spring just couldn't compare to the thought of those legendary Kyoto temples, previously only hinting at their possibilities in their Cherry tree groves, but now perhaps in perfect bloom… After some discussion, we ended up boarding a train for Kyoto. When we could sit, we sat as couples facing sitting each other, occasionally leaning over to talk across the wide train. We caught some glances, some stares, as we usually do- especially the two tall men. Aaron with his shocking red hair and fair complexion, and Justin with his blond hair and straight European nose- they stand out. I wondered if Masumi minded the stares, or if she's as oblivious as I've tried to become. Aaron and Masumi were engrossed in a lover's conversation, teasing and joking with each other- playing a sort of Gin Rummy with the future. I was happy to see them so clearly comfortable with each other. How fun, I thought, to have the whole future and world open to you as a couple- you could choose virtually any place, any life together. Justin and I squeezed hands and eavesdropped shamelessly, trying to pass the long train ride.
We got to Kyoto and tried to decide where to go first. We ended up in one of the most charming neighborhoods, created by the constant pilgrimages of the devout and tourists to Kyoto's most famous temple areas. The road becomes steep and crowded on both sides with shops, all competing to seem the most charming. There are coffee shops, and tea shops, and sweet biscuit or sweet bean paste filled pastry shops… There are elegant, supremely traditional Japanese restaurants behind recessed and deliberately unassuming entrances, a density of offerings that defies the eye and minds capability to absorb, process, and select. You can buy any Japanese trinket it ever occurred to you to want there, and some that would have never crossed your mind in the realms of possibilities- from the garish and ostentatious, cheaply painted or mass produced, to the subtlest and most exquisite examples of Japanese artistic crafts. Japanese tourists mix with foreigners in a confusing and crowded jumble of people all around.
There is a distinct shortage of both places to sit, as well as a profound shortage of trash cans in this popular tourist area. Though you may be unaware of this, Japan is a country at war with its own refuge. In the most discreet of solutions, it largely chooses to pretend that trash is simply not produced by its citizens or visitors. The problem with admitting that garbage exists, you see, is that someone has to take it away. Rather than putting up convenient trash cans, in large tourist areas you must walk, on an endless quest, clutching your empty soda bottle, rice ball wrapper, or other assorted cumbersome containers, seeking the moment when you can find a trash receptacle. This trash receptacle doesn't have to be strictly intended for you, you decide after the first hour, but must have at least the ability to accept your leavings. (Preferably with the least possibility of incurring the not inconsiderable wrath of an elderly grandmother, who watches the trash can in her tea shop with the eagle eye of a determined and frugal entrepreneur.) This lack of trash cans, and the general complications of trash pickup, are what convinces many people to spend a great deal of effort to burn their garbage in their yards or fields- often including a great amount of plastic or manufactured materials that then release huge amounts of stinking carcinogenic black smoke into the environment. However, without a handy incinerator (also known as big metal barrel) waiting in the back of your white flatbed truck, many urban travelers are simply doomed to wander for hours on the quest for that longed for "gomi bako."
Back in Kyoto, some cherry trees were proudly blooming from their captive location in the neighborhood, surrounded by store walls and cement. They stood out like rare, fresh things of beauty. We passed one of our old friends- the maneki neko themed shop with a large collection of ceramic cats inside and outside the store, some of the cats gazing longingly inside at their friends inside. (An earlier photograph of this shop became part of our "GoodKittens" headline logo.) We saw some young women dressed as Maiko, apprentice geisha, toddling in their high wooden geta (platform sandals), their bright and surreal makeup an exclamation point on their face. From their slightly ungainly gait, we thought they were probably young women who had paid for the privilege of being dressed and made up, as well as for the privilege of leaving the studio in a kimono for a 30 minute or hour stroll around the temple area. Nevertheless, like all the other tourists, we rushed to photograph these beautifully composed feminine flowers evoking an idealized traditional Japan.
We wandered through the maze of shops and people, stopping to admire the occasional cherry tree which managed to bloom out of the cement. I was fading faster than the fallen Cherry blossoms, thanks to my wretched cold, and began seeking coffee or some other rejuvenating caffeinated beverage. While there were plenty of tea shops and Japanese confectioneries, as soon as I started looking for them there seemed to be a distinct shortage of coffee shops. I dizzily muddled through confection shops seeking coffee among the maccha and ocha… We stopped at one brightly lit mecca of pounded rice mochi paradise when we were waved in by a cotton kimono clad man holding a tray of free green tea. We took our tea, me to gulp it down hoping to suck the caffeine out like a hummingbird sucks nectar and look longingly for more. People were crowded around the impossibly long display counters, and still more were sitting along the wall on stools, drinking tea or munching sweet snacks. We wove through the people to get closer to the counters, seeing the reason for the thronging was a generous spread of samples. My favorite snack, yatsuhashi, thin uncooked pounded rice pastry sheets with delicate fillings, was represented in an unbelievable variety of flavor. There was the more traditional varieties, with the sheets dusted in nutty, golden soybean flour filled with sweet red bean paste- seasonal specialties stuffed with exquisitely floral cherry blossom jams, as well as more creative culinary endeavors with unconventional ingredients like banana, chocolate, strawberry.
I tried the round pounded rice snacks generously encrusted in lightly toasted sesame seeds, and enjoyed the nutty crunch and simplicity of it- but something about the yatsuhashi, the decadence of consuming a pasty raw pastry (when pastry is generally forbidden to me) has captured my heart irrevocably. Mr. Ando first introduced me to it when he brought it back as a Kyoto souvenir for the first year teacher's room, and after that first bite, I have to hold myself back from buying it in bulk quantity and closeting myself off by the heater and gobbling it down. Actually, I never buy it for myself, as omiyage (gift souvenirs) are wrapped as a present and intended to share with others one delicate piece at a time. Instead I keep my eyes out for its appearance among the stack of souvenir presents in the snack pantry. Another seemingly more popular treat, and one that has been around for longer, are jelly like cakes made from sugar, water, and sweet bean paste- sometimes flavored with maccha or coffee (for the sophisticated consumer)- but while I appreciate its lack of wheat ingredients- it's that special rice pastry that I obsess over. Anyway, after availing myself of a few novel flavors under the indifferent eyes of my friends, who were not as enchanted with Japanese confections as I am, we moved on, still searching for that elusive cup of energizing coffee or tea.
Finally we were enticed by the possibility of a café/ tea shop sign above a shop, and went up the steps to a richly luxurious tea shop. We sat down, surrounded by elegant and older couples escaping from the crowded Kyoto streets. We were the youngest people there, aside from the serving staff, and we were certainly the only foreigners. We felt a little out of place, but also like we wished we could visit places like that all the time. Think of all the time we wasted at blank, generic, plastic and linoleum coffee shops, because they were cheap and efficient. We could be perpetually luxuriating, surrounded by rich woods and red velvets, and Japanese fabrics, instead. Alas, not on a teacher's salary.
We enviously sat down, collapsed really, at a table against the window, and looked down at the little street below, full of shops and shoppers, culture playing out under our very eyes. Paper lanterns illuminated the ceramic tiled roofs, and men and women in kimono served customers below. I was so glad to watch everyone else scurry about, from the vantage point of my comfortable seat. We perused the menu, and washed our hands with disposable hand wipes, smelling slightly of sour yogurt disinfectant. Actually, Justin and I, being boring old married types, washed our own hands, while Masumi and Aaron teasingly washed each others hands. I was reminded of the Last Supper, but it was undeniably cute. I ordered a creamy maccha (powdered green tea) latte- figuring the cultural experience was more valuable than a quick and dirty cappuccino would have been. Justin ordered a sexy green tea ice cream dessert, with sweet bean paste, dark green tea syrup, mint and whipped cream garnish. I stirred my frothy green tea with cream and sipped it, enjoying the gentle and green flavor. But Justin's dessert had us fighting for spoons- it was so creamy and rich, and to me, the sweet bean topping was the perfect accompaniment as it melted in the mouth and brought out the crispness of the green tea flavor. Aaron and Masumi, the resident locals, ordered less ornate (and less expensive) beverages- iced tea or soda… Too soon, the last swirl of ice cream had been scraped off into my spoon, and despite the temptation to stick my head in and lick the bowl, we preserved our dignity and got ready to move on.
We found ourselves in a shop filled with treasures of Kyoto- the special painted fabric purses, white faced dolls, decorated wooden mirrors and combs, silken cloths. It was a good place to find special gifts. Justin and Aaron thumbed through the men's cotton yukatas, and then I found the most precious cotton yukata for a terribly small girl child. I immediately thought of my friend Amber's new infant girl- and how lovely it would be for her to have a special garment from Japan, to take pictures in and treasure years later, remembering her small chubby limbs in the cloth far after she'd outgrown it. I was wracked with guilt anyway, because of the trouble my cats had caused poor Amber- and finally decided to just go for it.
We passed by a ceramics shop, filled with delicate but earthy pottery from the area, and I had to stop. I found my eyes drawn to a silver gray wine goblet, shaped like a tea cup but more slender at the base, widening towards its full height. Tiny pink blossoms imbedded in the clay outside and in the cup caught my eye. I needed a special souvenir of the evening, didn't I? I showed it to Justin, and Masumi, thinking that the sole other woman in our group would be sympathetic to my cause. It was determined that it was indeed a nice cup. The cup on display had a disagreeable mark on one of the flowers. If we could find one that was more perfect, I decided, I would buy it. With Masumi's help, we determined that they had others- I picked one out, and it was wrapped for me, in the asymmetrical triangular fashion that has been perfected by shopkeepers throughout the country.
Our next stop was at the Kiyomizu temple. This temple is ridiculously famous, for good reason. It's got amazing architecture, a lovely position against a mountain side, a spectacular view of Kyoto framed in precious Japanese Maple and Cherry trees, and a striking waterfall that flows from the mountain. People line up in droves to dip a long wooden handled scoop into the waterfall, drinking it for purification and good health. We approached the temple as night was settling. Was it too late, I wondered? But no, there were people all around us, mostly in couples, walking hand in hand or just occupying the same space together. The air was cool but the scent of flowers was lingering, lending romance to the night. Everywhere was the soft murmur of voices, exclamations of delight as each new landscape was revealed. Lanterns lit along the sides of the stairs added to the ambiance, and as we approached the main platform of the temple, people were clustered around the fences looking at the surrounding cherry blossoms, illuminated by strategically placed electric lights. There were cries from the crowd, as though they were watching fireworks or some festival performance- Kirei! sugoi kirei!
Cameras came out and people posed in front of the ethereal pink blossoms, glowing ghostly in the black night. They would be indifferent photographs at best- failing utterly to capture the spirit of the blossom before it fell to the ground- but we felt the urge to freeze the moment in a grainy photograph ourselves, and took pictures of each other in front of the trees, at the edges of the platform. We wound around the platform, down the hill, seeing the same statues and buildings transformed into an unearthly presence in the night. All around us, people were engaged in the romantic adoration of the Japanese Cherry blossom, the dreamer's sport of hanami, or flower viewing- with their lovers or children. Young couples walked, with their arms tucked away in each other, the women in springy cotton skirts or slim pants. Older couples, the men in stifling suits and women clad in stuffy skirts and confining blouses and jackets walked as if half asleep, sharing the sights as if they were young lovers again. With each turn of the path, another view was revealed- Somehow, unseasonably, orange leaves cast their silhouette amongst the cherry blossoms.
We passed an eating pavilion, where families gathered around low tables in the amber light cast by lanterns, eating regional Kansai specialties. The delicate aroma of Japanese flavors warmed the air around them, and I felt a sharp longing to be there, nestled in a table myself. There was a terrible line around the waterfall- surely it was a intensely propitious time to drink the waters. The light perfume of the flowers lingered over us like a soft, ephemeral cloud as we passed through the fox stone statues. I felt as though I'd feasted on flowers, my eyes and chest was full of contentment. The intense beauty of the night, the contentment of people all around, had soaked in and permeated my eyes and ears. I couldn't imagine anything more perfect.
We wandered away from the temple, towards a park- we were greeted by huge metal basket torches with flames stretching into the dark night, and a giant Cherry tree in the middle of the cement square, with soft billowing gray smoke swirling in the fluorescent spotlights around it. The visitors here tended to be younger- but still, the odd older businessman and long-time wife wandered through, all brought together by an admiration for that most delicate of flowering trees, the sakura. I saw a young teenage boy on crutches, hobbling through accompanied by his mother- apparently nothing was getting between him and his flower viewing. As we moved further into the park we saw lanterns set up on small bridges and along the path, glowing iron and gold in the night. All the available grassy areas had been claimed by groups of friends engaged in passionate hanami admiration- flirting tipsily, stumbling dizzily around on their plastic picnic mats after the last piece of takoyaki, giggling and joking together.
I was so tired that I couldn't walk any further, so we found a curb along the side of the path, and collapsed on it, looking around and breathing in the night. We watched a girl stumble up from her picnicking group in her kitten heels, weaving towards the path and laughing at something only she could hear. "Next year I want to be here for hanami," said Aaron. Justin sighed and looked wistful. "We'll be back in the States," he said. We sat their in silence, realizing that our time here was slipping away as surely as the cherry blossoms were falling to the ground.
Not long after, we pulled ourselves up from our rest spot, and began the long walk back to the train station. We passed the shops and restaurants again, a background we'd become accustomed to by now- pausing to see a large cluster of lanterns gleaming yellow and black in a teahouse courtyard. "We always take photographs here," said Justin wryly, but he pulled out the camera and took more. We could never have too many photographs, to remember our times in Japan. Sometimes we take photos for our web site, sometimes we take them for us- to cement a memory in photo paper so we never lose it, sometimes we take them for others- so that things that seem unbelievable to us, beyond the grasp of the imagination, will somehow become real for them… but as we look at them later, they all become part of our memory of the experience. Maybe that's why we took photographs right along with the other tourists and seasonal visitors- it is at least a chance to keep it alive forever, even in a faded, inadequate form.
The next day we all woke up rather slowly- I was still suffering from my wretched cold. Masumi was wearing cute flannel pajamas with big brown bears with them, and after her shower she began an elaborate and impressive beauty regimen, involving amazing single curlers that plugged directly into the outlets to heat up, and a curling iron for producing perfect waves. I began to realize how much effort it takes to create the impeccable and glamorous image that many Japanese women project. Of course being naturally beautiful helps, but the skillful application of subtle makeup and hair styling produces women that look like they would be as comfortable on the cover of a young women's fashion magazine as they would be sipping white wine at a gourmet French restaurant. I sighed with envy, and thought that I should really look into getting some cute, Japanese pajamas myself. After Masumi was ready, wearing the same sophisticated but simple white and black outfit as yesterday, we all, with rather less care taken over our appearance, piled out of Aaron's duplex and got ready to explore the area a bit more.
We headed out to Osaka on the trains to seek out more cherry blossoms. Justin had carefully sought Japanese web sites documenting the state of cherry blossom blooms across Japan, with darling little pink graphics of blossoms in various stages, so armed with this knowledge we headed for the more promising sections of Osaka. We stopped on our way at one of Aaron's favorite 100 yen kaiten zushi (revolving sushi) restaurants in the downtown pedestrian shopping area. We were led around to a corner table set at the end of the revolving belt, with a table on the other side of the belt, so that two lanes of sushi passed by with only an occasional screen between them. The selection tended to be rather limited by the time it got to us, so we'd occasionally pick up the ordering phone and call to request our favorites, like maguro (tuna), and salmon. We emptied one plate after another and drank green tea cheerfully, chatting and enjoying the food. Masumi in particular turned out to be passionate about the ikura, rice topped by large red fish eggs, while Aaron, Justin and I ate more of the salmon.
After this pleasant episode, we wandered over to a big modern mall in the heart of the pedestrian downtown, HEP-5, which contains endless floors of glass encased young women's clothing shops joined by a glass escalator. To keep it from being tedious, it was decorated with huge plaster whale statues- and the roof is indented by a vertigo inducing enormous glass and red metal ferris wheel that stretches into the sky. We ascended to the top floor and went into the endlessly busy Starbucks for some rejuvenating coffee. We stood around waiting for a table, finally getting one, and people watched. After a while we were ready to move on and we wandered off. We took the train to an area that was supposed to have some lovely cherry blossoms, but we found that the web site had been slightly out of date, so the blossoms were falling apart before our eyes. We walked around a bit before heading on.
We found ourselves at the famous Osaka government building, the Umeda Sky Building, an amazing metal and glass construct. It was getting windy and cold- my blue floral skirt and three quarter sleeves on my cotton top didn't keep me warm. We stood in the huge cement courtyard and looked up at the shining spherical ball above. Justin had been there before on the Semester at Sea program, but the rest of us hadn't been there before. We walked into the sleek, shiny lobby, passing a movie theatre- we were excited to see movie posters for a coming movie, "Lost in Translation." This movie had been out for ages in the States (and everyone had been telling us we should see it), but it hadn't come to Japan yet. We thought it would be pretty cool to see a movie about two people confronting the strangeness of Tokyo without speaking the language, while we ourselves were living in Japan. We bought tickets for the observation tower, and began the strange journey up to the top, a combination of elevator which culminated in a long, terrifying, glass encased escalator ride to the very top. It seemed to go up into infinity. The silver globe in the center was amazing- I couldn't decide if I was in a cool sci-fi movie or in a Jetsons cartoon.
We stumbled off dizzily, and found ourselves in a courtyard of, confusingly enough, vietnamese culture. Women in traditional vietnamese dress wandered around the hallways, and souvenirs, including some darling and very tempting beaded purses, beckoned. There was a small eatery/ coffee shop, and people everywhere circled around, looking out at the view and shopping. We wandered out on the overlook, to see the city below. It was alarmingly open to the air, but the sun was out, shining brightly on us, and the city stretched out, clear and industrial below. The couples naturally separated, Aaron and Masumi to canoodle in the corner, speaking in low voices to each other. Justin and I walked around arm in arm, feeling free, away from work, away from our worries, sharing one more memorable day in Japan. As we were taking the long escalator down, surrounded by shiny metal and glass and modern architecture, I suddenly thought it might make a great picture, so we rushed our camera to Aaron and he took some of us as we floated, Jetsons style, down to the elevator floor. We took some of him and his girl looking quizzical and appropriately amused.
We walked the long way back to the train station, Justin putting a flower he'd stolen from a nearby bush in my hair. We said our goodbyes and got on the train, ultimately, the shinkansen, out of there, feeling sorry to say goodbye to our friends. Over the two days, we'd gotten accustomed to the luxury of having another couple around to chat with- enjoyed getting to know Masumi and get her perspective on things- as well as enjoyed seeing Aaron's more romantic side come out as they spent time together. We were a little lonely as we got back on the shinkansen- we're always glad to have each other, but sometimes we wish we had more people around to enjoy Japan with.
I remember when we first arrived in Shinjuku with our friend Aaron, and were put up at the gorgeous Keio Plaza hotel by the JET program. One of our first night there, we went up to the skylit lounge and sat in the bar and had a drink together, looking out at the lights of the big city. We all felt like we'd been shaken upside down, and thrown out into a whole different world- and were still reeling from shock and excitement. "How will we be able to explain this to anyone?" Aaron asked, sipping his gin and tonic. "I don't know," Justin said, "we can't really." The lights were bright off of the Tokyo tower, our bartender was smooth and unobtrusive, and we were there, feeling our way into Japan. How would our ideas of what it would be like, what it should be like, meld with the reality facing us? Everyone back home seemed so far away, struggling 19 hours behind us- in a whole other place and existence. We raised our glasses in a toast, and were all fervently glad to be there together, to at least have this friendship as a touchstone in this strange land.
Over the time we've been here, we've always had a piece of home here with us, a connection to our past and memories of times in college, our wedding, our life in America, because our friend Aaron was here. We've celebrated Thanksgivings together, sharing two turkeys of legend and many hours of star trek videos (a secret vice), making periodic trips to be in the same place at the same time. And now, as our time in Japan is drawing to a close, we took our last chance to see the cherry blossoms in Kyoto with Aaron and the woman in his life. Hanami is a magical time in Japan for old friends to reconnect, for groups to take time out of busy work and school schedules to meet together, somewhere, in a grove of cherry trees. Time slows, for just a brief while, so that you can actually watch each blossom flutter to the ground below. The clinking of ume plum wine glasses together rings in a celebration of friendship, youthful experiences (regardless of one's age), and the beauty of nature. The flavors of alcohol enhance the taste of salty Japanese noodles or rice balls or other snacks, as the branches sway increasingly dizzily overhead. Flower viewing is real time, distinct from the time of schedules and routine. It is time spent in the enjoyment of place and company. We weren't sorry to have waited to enjoy hanami (flower viewing) with Aaron- we were only sorry to have missed it last year, and even sadder at the thought that we won't be here to enjoy it in Japan next year. But maybe next year, when the sakura blooms once again in Kyoto, even though we can't be there, we will raise a glass of ume shu in a toast, and think of our friends left behind in Japan, and hope that as they watch those petals falling, they think of us, and smile.