And then, arriving in bloom.
As the train in the enveloping evening pulls through greater Kansai, I catch the blossoms peeping out form apartment blocks, the sudden bouquets that manage to even make the concrete sprawl of Osaka beautiful. Getting there, post-HK bender, not so much burned out as burned through—the fizzled sparkplug still smoking. Passing through fitful naps on the bargain airline, the train Kyoto bound, the hostel bed (sleep? you kidding? I’m beyond sleep).
I come in the evening when the skies are full of rain. Petals scattering down the pavement, piling on the roof of my umbrella. Standing out over the bridge, the bars are all lit and there’s a faint clinking of glasses just behind the patter of the rain. But no one’s here. And the wind picks up along the trees, and the pink is caught in the wet light of the pavement.
And then, standing under a tree on the corner of Ginza, a taxi pulls up. Two Geisha inside, and while the one is helped out by the suited driver, the other stares up at the blossoms with a concerted longing like she’s trying to envision a Kyoto as fragile as those blossoms, no concrete sprawl, no conbinis. Never looking at me. Getting out and unfurling her red parasol, a ruffle of her purple and pink kimono.
“And, well, yup, that’s the most Japan thing that’ll ever happen to me!”
Impossible not to feel that moment running as an undercurrent, a refrain, to everything I came across the next two days. Even when the rest of hanami isn’t quiet and gentle like that at all—it’s a fucking party, a dancing in the street and getting trashed on-the-hour-every-hour. The rain goes, and Kyoto becomes the parade ground refuting every damn stereotype about Japanese reservedness on every corner there’s a musician or street performer, every riverbend there’s another circle of college students making their frat-bro hoots.
The city I always knew was there but could never quite pinpoint. These feelings bubbling from somewhere deep—lost but somehow not quite lost enough. Here I thought I’d drowned them out with the alcohol and that push to keep going. I don’t tire: did 4 straight all nighters in HK and still managed to make it here. And yet somehow there’s still this feeling that it’s all gonna eventually cave in. The limit to this love—of people, of the New, of dancing in the streets to this disco. Here I’m reminded why.
I’m revived with them. Revived just by watching them. It’s them I remember.
The Chinese girl with the voice prone to shrieking to the teetering registers, long braided hair and the designer leather jacket; though usually staring into her I Phone 6 like it’s her child at the beach (or maybe she’s the child and it’s her liferaft), she reached out to me looking for a friend. Gave me sakura tea, asked my stories. Just two loners in a hostel, finding enough in common to share a bowl of ramen in the steamshop around the corner.
The artist at the top of Kiyomizudera: inside the steel Buddha rides a horse looking all vengeful and lightning strike as he lunges towards you, but her pieces stand to the right, as if blocking his angry stride. Felt triangle collages pulled together to depict the tree of life and soul rivers flowing around it. Her first black and white, she tells me with a smile verging on the nervous. And her long flower dress, the emeralds in her earrings—never seen an artist like her in a place like this (and why was it already so late in the day, why was I worrying about leaving my bike at the foot of the ground as my head gets dizzy from the fly’n solo liquor run; and so not stay for her story, and not pull into her to understand just how she moves, breathes, how she gets this remarkably hippy work in Kyoto’s temple #2?).
The girl sitting by the canal while her grandmother threads flowers through her hair, the wide-palmed lilies and golden canola threads. The stealth photographers—the hundreds of them—across the city with cameras the size of elephant trunks, zooming in (often) to a single blossom that’ll probably fall before the afternoon’s out.
The line going out the door at the Lawson facing Muryama Park, old men and teachers and their students all holding sake or Strong by the armful. Going up those steps, through the Torii gate, and past the hundreds of steaming stalls of chicken sticks octopus heads fried octopus balls ice cream machines dart boards water balloons and even a haunted house, reaching the field sweltering with sakura. In this place you’re choked by the scent of them, rising to meet you with the spilled beer and soy sauce and grilled after-burn. Cherry blossoms so thick they could be roofs, the hundreds packed tightly under them.
Families—one boy just threw down his dango and is crossing his arms, one girl’s just started hitting her brother with escalating shrieks (for every happy unit all squished together for that to-be-on-the-wall photo, there’s another three that finds the parents wondering why the hell they picked Kyoto of all the insane places to celebrate the pinkest of Japanese holidays)—and friends. Friends from back when, meeting together under these fragile stars to remember the times, sloshing back another kampai with tears at the corner of their eyes. Friends of the here-now, in their college baseball uni’s or their uniqlo, pounding back and getting louder as the day becomes the evening.
Hanami intoxicates. It’s more than blossoms—they’re, in a way, an excuse. Much more it’s the opening of the floodgates after another bitter 日本 winter, after the papers and the months on end of overtime. The scent of the flowers in the warmth makes them drunk with life. It only takes so long watching them that you’re pulled in too, you’re running under the white, drifting sky and feeling the ocean build in your heart. I couldn’t help smiling, even when getting budged past by my fifth grandma overcome by a teenage energy. I’m there; I’m reminded why winter has to be so long and spring so short. So I’m running gain, even though this time I’m running in.
The college students, it was them who did it. Dragged me into their circle in the evening at the park to shout and clap and drink, play games I’d never heard of that made me laugh till my lungs burned. Can after can, games into acoustic jam sessions into getting to know’s. They pulled me in because they were drunk enough to want to spice things up with a foreigner—I knew that thanks to Mike, the American already there, just arrived in Japan, loud to the point of anxiety, teetering on the edge of blackout.
I made sure not to be him, had to be the cool considerate expat speaking their language, returning their jokes. I knew when to be considerate, comfortable, approachable and when to be outrageous, Mr Edgy Canadian with copious weed-or-worse stories, frankly bisexual and in control of myself and my relationship with them (these wonderful Japanese Daigakusei: I’d never be more than an accessory to them).
And I loved them all—the sassy econ major making flirty false calls of hatred towards the hyena-pitched science guy, the quiet social worker holding her leg against her chest when talking to me and the “Okay let’s go-time!” ringleader, absurdly well-dressed in that black leather Eaton’s jacket, gray tight-fit, and ornamental cross necklace, insisting to me he’d lived in Detroit.
And the boy on the baseball team. His narrow face and bright eyes, continually pulling back the hair on his forehead and insisting on me telling the truth if he really was going bald at 20—and in the process, letting me run my hands through his thick black tangles (“it wouldn’t be this thick if you were!”) and drawing closer. Suddenly we’re leaning up beside and he’s shocked at how soft my hands are, laughing in fits at how this shouldn’t be happening and yet what’s amazing is I’m doing so little of it; just a bright smile and an honest opinion and he’s pulling in.
No one’d ever told him he was beautiful before. The phrase hits him at his throat, and he looks up to the sky with fractured breathing like he’s just tryna keep afloat but isn’t entirely sure he doesn’t want to drown in it. Drown in this night of lights and rebirth and cherry waves. And the boy from KaNaDa.
And then, I get more drunk and he gets less, and the balance shifts. Now the smile’s more forced as I pull at him away from his friends. Though we have a lovely talk hanging our legs over that stone bridge about parents and vocations versus dreams, my mind has that steel edge to it, thinking about his pants and how perfect an end to this story it would be if we fucked in this garden.
His words—the Japanese and the English ones—mean less and less as it draws near 3; so of course it ends with me pushing one step too far (stepping away from the lanterns, “no seriously come here”), and him running. But still, he told me if we ever met again—the word translates on his phone to “destiny.”
It left a bad taste in my mouth through most of this day, this incredible, fairytale day. How I always have to take something and wreck it, pick pick pick until it’s either molded in my image or left so tattered of holes it’s unrecognizable. But then I also wonder, coming out from that Second Hand in Arashiyama, just how much this new guilt always coming at me—dropping in by the grand ol’ Irish Catholic barrelfull—is just another way to amp up my eccentricities: “I’m a dick” “pig” “asshole” “sex-craved pitliless bordering maniac bordering alcoholic,” capable of Hong Kong, capable of that among the hanami.
And at points biking along today I get so cynical I feel like discarding the bloom, discarding the temples on every corner. When my mind wanders, when it touches upon these people in their best dressed for the photoshoots under the fresh Elm leaves, a wide smile gets to creating—and then, that part reminds me to ask “well, why?” and the feelings evaporate again.
It’s a delicate thing. Because sometimes you wander under a part of the Philosopher’s Path so thick in bloom you’re awash with it. And then you remember that Hanami is as much about death as it is life—that only something so short can be this beautiful. Why it hurts to look at them; why the sight of them falling in the wind is the most radiant moment of all.
The guilt in the laughter, the beauty in death; it’s hanami, and I’m brought back to Nanzenji, my ground zero for Kyoto, Japan, and (maybe) my conversion. Up those great stone steps to peer into a room of almost perfect darkness, where the light only catches the bronze siddharta and the dragging curling on the roof. Chipping away, decaying. Breathing. Holding the incense between my fingers. Burning through. Up the hill, the poem laced through bamboo. Running sluice. Gurgling brook. Heian paintings and socks on the tatami.
And the realization back then—Kyoto #1—that it wasn’t the amazement of the city that amazed me, it was the peace. The sense of coming home to the place I never knew. Now, I do know—meagerly, in bit-sized portions—and returning to Nanzenji really does feel like coming back home after first year college, to the parents with the warm bed and ready meal. Peace of course is a subtle thing, but today it’s total enough that not even my cynicism can override it.
The final sunset against the pillars of Kiomizu and its bough of blossoms. Probly glinting in against that angry Buddha and the lady’s paintings. After Hong Craze and the four all nighters and the so-alive-you’re-sick-with-alive. After flushing through parks and back alleys and the bottom end of so many bottles. The talking wind and creaking bamboo. The gold, rotting in the dark. The week we all wait for.
I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.