Listening In

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Scatter, a thousand cherry trees

9th April 2007

Three things will make me wake up at 4 am: an early flight, a bladder about to explode and sakura.

I set the alarm for 4 am the night before because I want to catch the cherry blossoms in town before the crowds swarm onto them or the flowers fall, whichever happens first.

It is 7-something in soft light when I reach Gion, possibly the most famous geisha quarter in Japan. But the geisha being night-shift workers, they are nowhere in sight and I share the streets with only a few photographers.

I stand beside a little canal that runs beside wooden houses, watching sakura drift into the water from the trees hanging over it. I’m not sure how long I stand there, tuning out the crows and the conversations that come and go.

“Nee-chan!” An elderly photographer has appeared beside me. He is clearly expecting a response but what sort?

I hastily replay the last words I tuned out. They turn out to be: “Nee-chan, warui kedo doite kureru?” (“Miss, you mind moving?”)

I don’t and let him take the shot. When he is done, he nods at me. I return to my spot and space out again to Planet Sakura.

Still on a different planet, I float to the other side of Gion. But my bladder is turning into a pressing matter and my back makes it clear that it wants a break from floating.

So I find a cafĂ© where I can take care of my bladder and my back – and have a second breakfast.

I set out again with a vague plan to see the famed cherry trees of Maruyama Park but before I can cross the bridge over the Kamogawa, I spot a white-pink stream running down a narrow street beside it.

So I dive in. It is a working street with shops and restaurants so I have to watch out for motorbikes and delivery trucks. There’s also a place called Pink Office. I don’t know what kind of business it is but I’m fairly sure it has nothing to do with flowers.

But the sakura of Kiyamachi-dori are mentioned in no guidebook I’ve seen, which means I’m spared the masses that flock to Kyoto at this time of the year.

There are a few people there for the flowers, though, including a woman wearing an orange skirt cut in the style I call, unhelpfully, “ethnic fashion”.

I note her bony, masculine features in passing then go back to the sakura. It is only when someone else strikes up a conversation with Ethnic Skirt that I realise that the reason she looks masculine is because she is a man.

I think I need to pay more attention to these things. They could be helpful when dealing with other human beings.

But who needs skirt-wearers of dubious gender when you have sakura in full bloom?

The trees line one side of a canal, the water so shallow it will cover nothing higher than my ankles.

And I was right not to put the outing off for another day because the petals are falling – a false, gentle snow. So many land in the canal that they look no different from the sunlight freckling the water.

But more than flowers are in the air; voices ghost in from the past and hover on the edge of hearing like words from another room. I catch the thought of a man long dead: “Another year’s sakura… Another year’s passed.”

None of the joy I see so often with the cherry blossoms, only a mind worn down by time. But his voice slips away and I do not hear it again.

I finally make it to Maruyama Park and if there are ghosts there, they are drowned out by the din of the crowds. I’m happy that the picknickers are happy but, within minutes, I decide to go because I can’t hear myself think, let alone the ghosts.

Besides, if I’m going to take photos of sakura, I’d rather not do it where the population of Greater Tokyo and a yakisoba stall will also get into the frame.

As I head for the bus stop, I recall the hanami party I went to the previous day. Organised by the manager of the rooming house I’ve moved into, it was held under a cherry tree beside the Kamogawa.

But between the food and the banter, it was hard to remember that hanami means “flower viewing”.

The afternoon really was fun and any picnic that comes with a portable barbecue pit used to produce grilled meat and veg as well as yakisoba is a serious contender in the picnic leagues.

Still, it is not the party I will revisit when the season ends, not even the salami with breath-defying garlic, but a narrow street of wooden houses where flowers have gone adrift.

Because this is the way I prefer to meet sakura: with a high wind to shake them, running water to take them and voices that fade with the falling till next year’s flowers come – once again – to wake them.

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