Friday, April 07, 2006

Sakura Blah!

At this time of year, every foreign blogger in Japan seems to post about cherry blossoms. I hate to submit to tired cliche, but it's unavoidable. The sakura culture offers you so much material.

Usually in the 'Nog, I'd go to a different location everyday, sitting in a prime spot with my tea and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (to further propagate the cliche), which I only read in that setting. (It's taking me years to read that book.) To avoid the crowds, I rarely go out at weekends. But I think that Morrissey was referring to Kyoto when he sang, "Everyday is like Sunday." So began my first sakura experience in the Kyo. Noticing all the bikes outside Hirano Shrine should've been my first clue. The second would be the tour guides with flags. Well, I'd been warned not to hit the famous spots. In the shrine grounds, there wasn't a bare spot of ground to be seen. I simply wanted to find a nice patch to enjoy my bento, but this was harder than I thought. A group of tatami platforms had been raised under some of the most prime trees. They were surprisingly empty. I hadn't been sitting for three minutes before a woman said that I had to pay 4000 to sit here. I asked her if I could just finish my lunch, and I'd leave within 10 minutes. Despite there being no other people, she still insisted on my paying. Yet again, rules over reality. Well, I'd been warned.

So on a spring day with weather that can only be described as glorious, I began a huge circular course around the Kyo. A zigzag zensen, if you will. From Hirano to Nijo, across town to Kiyamachi, up along the canal to Sanjo, weaving around and around Gion, cutting through Maruyama Park, past Chion-in and Shoren-in, over to Heian Jingu, past all the love hotels of Higashiyama to the Path of Philosophy, then along the Kamogawa north toward my home near Kinkaku-ji. And the crowds were consistant, hundreds of bodies per tree. Well, I'd been warned.

The peace I'd been seeking seemed elusive. Rather than get frustrated, I decide to change my focus from Cherry Blossom viewing to viewing the Cherry Blossom viewers. Revel in the subculture. In the drunks who hassled the gate-keeper at Chion-in for closing on time. In a cop yelling at a tour bus driver, "Can't you see how congested it is!" In another cop showing no emotion as an old woman gestured wildly about something. In how every square centimeter of Maruyama was covered in blue tarp, so much so that people couldn't pass between them. (I haven't seen so much blue tarp in Kansai since the Hanshin Quake of '95.) In a superfluous crossing guard telling people to cross at the crosswalk. (How many times today did he say that same line? How many times this week?) In gaudily dressed women walking their little barky dogs, which piss on tree roots to do their part for the sakura front. In the large cluster of Chinese tourists ricocheting off each other. In the strange dialect emanating from a group of oldtimers at a sidewalk cafe. And in the stylish white-clad couple in the Jaguar, driving along the canal, top-down to reveal the pink ceiling above. The ultimate metaphor.

I of course had my own part to play. Dodging the masses, who walked with eyes looking up to the petals, oblivious to my own pedalling form. Weaving to stay out of photos. (A mid-afternoon beer at Cafe 58 temporarily diminished my avoidance capabilities.) Repeated stops to dip into Sei Shonagon or my book on Dogen. (One guy snuck a photo as I read the former on a hillside near Eikan-do. I blame the beer.) And finally finding what I'd been looking for all day. Away from the crowds, a single weeping willow sakura stood in the grounds of a little non-descript temple at the city center. Dignity and independance in dazzling pink.

Aside from the famed temples of Higashiyama, the largest crowds seemed to be in Gion and Kiyamachi. If, to the Japanese, these blossoms are prized because they represent the fleeting, then what better place to see them than in these floating worlds, where value is measured in the ephemera of beauty? And if the fleeting nature of existance is so cherished, what's with all the photographs?

On the turntable: "Putamayo, Islands"
On the nighttable: Yuho Yokoi, "Zen Master Dogen"

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