Sunday, May 7, 2017

April: 物の哀れ

This is an extremely image-heavy post that shows the beautiful season of spring - you know what, why do I even bother making up an excuse?

This is a shameless sakura spam post in all its glory.

This year, I experienced my first spring. Before coming to Japan I never paid much attention to the flowers or trees around me. Singapore has so many evergreens that I think the only flowers I remembered, or at least went out of my way to notice, were ixoras. Or the occasional orchids that the neighbours grow.

Some plants and flowers began to bloom near the end of winter. One of my favourites was the ユキヤナギ (yukiyanagi, lit. 'winter willow') shrub. Also known as Thunberg's spiraea. It's really beautiful and true to its name, it does resemble snow collecting on the small, gentle branches of the willow tree.

Plum blossoms, or 梅花, also bloom at the end of winter, at least two to three weeks before the sakura makes its appearance.

Every morning, I cross a river lined with trees a couple of minutes away from school. One of the most delightful moments I've had was when I first saw, from that bridge, that the bare trees had began sprouting small red buds at the ends of their branches. This was around mid-March. It just happened overnight, at least fifty trees lining that river, all changing for the first time in several months. Again, I know this may seem totally ordinary to most who are reading, but for someone who saw this for the first time, it was nothing short of magical.

This might sound silly, but a couple of weeks earlier a pretty upsetting event left me feeling depressed and in an emotional funk. But seeing this view that morning changed everything. In a metaphorical, spiritual sense, these trees made me feel like I was able to start anew. I think I really needed to see it at that time and I was grateful that I could.

A week later, I saw my first sakura tree in full bloom. It's actually a pretty famous tree in the neighbourhood because it's a single tree of a different variety that blooms earlier than the rest (which are usually soumei yoshino sakura). Actually, a colleague of mine who lived in the vicinity told me to look for the「7-11の隣の桜木」(The Tree Next to the 7-11) on my way home. So I did.

The famous 7-11の隣の桜木
I also met M (who came down from Gunma and was travelling with her friend from Singapore) and we headed to Asakusa, and later to Shinjuku Gyoen, on a particularly cold day. We were definitely too early for full cherry blossom viewing, but there were a couple of trees that gave a good photo-op.

We had REALLY good tempura at a restaurant in Asakusa. I wish I had taken note of the name...

Day after day, the transformation across Tokyo unfolded. It was still unusually cold this March, so it took the trees a long time to reach full bloom - almost two weeks later. By the first week of April, it was everywhere. The view that made me fall completely in love with spring was that very same river where I first spotted the buds on the trees. This portion of the river was closer to my apartment:

During the sakura season, there are many things the Japanese do to commemorate the start of spring, from flower viewing parties (花見, hanami) to eating sakura mochi (桜餅, one of my favourite Japanese sweets), and many shops and restaurants created recipes that are sakura flavoured. At home, I tried making sakura-meshi (桜飯), where you rinse out the sakura pickled salt and add it to your pot of rice for a nice, fragrant and salty bowl of rice.

A bunch of my colleagues also gathered at one of our homes for a sakura-viewing party and I got to play babysitter for an afternoon with their children. We played hide and seek for over an hour (yes, I was the only adult playing), then we headed out for a stroll along the same river (again, a different portion).

The following pictures show the section of the river closest to my school, which in my opinion have the most beautiful and spectacular displays of the sakura.

Taking a selfie with some of our students on the way home

One of the things I love about this river is that it stretches for many kilometres and there's something different to see at every stretch. The best part though, is that it's not known to most tourists who visit Japan. I always snigger quietly when someone tells me they only want to go to Ueno Park, or Nakameguro to fight the crowds and see the cherry blossoms. Please. This one has even better views that the ones I mentioned, and it has a more humbling atmosphere - old folks gathering for beer, sake and boisterous chatter, or parents bringing their toddlers out in the neighbourhood to catch falling sakura petals.

For the purpose of privacy, I chose not to disclose location-specific information. But if you know me personally, drop me a message and I'd be happy to tell you where you can go to next spring for these beautiful views.

I also never realised how short-lived these cherry blossoms are. Some time after, there were a couple of days of rain, and nearly all the petals fell and were washed away. Everything was gone by the time May came around. Which brings me to the main point of this post (yeah, this wasn't just a gratuitous spam post).


I first learnt of this phrase in a beginner Japanese class. My teacher brought it up one random lesson, and said that mono no aware was an important Japanese philosophy in literature (Genji in particular), as important as yūgen in Noh, or the concepts of wabi-sabi and ma in aesthetics. She said that mono no aware extends beyond the pages of a book, and it permeates every aspect of life.

Having experienced my first season of cherry blossoms, and having seen them come and leave,
having to badly want something but teaching myself to let go,
wanting to remember something that time will eventually take away -

I've come to understand it, clearer than ever.

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