Springtime in the Old Capital



I had to take a picture as I got off the train to walk home today. Beautiful. No editing or anything.

It’s sakura season. I didn’t believe it until a few weeks ago, but now I can truly say that the cherry blossoms live up to the hype. This past weekend was supposed to be the peak of the blossoms (there’s a website with sakura forecasts, and the TV runs sakura forecasts along with the weather every morning). Judging by the crowds in the market where I work, I’d say everyone else knew it too.

Actually, according to the forecast, today was the peak bloom. After this, the trees will slowly start to shed their petals. I was walking along the Philosopher’s Path the other day, and I saw a few petals falling and hitting the water in the small aqueduct next to the path. They really do float like little boats. It’s amazing.

It’s a little bit dramatic, but I’ve been reminded of this poem we had to memorize before coming to Japan ever since the sakura started blooming. Well, I’ve been thinking about it ever since we landed in Japan, but especially recently. It’s from the Heian period, and uncredited.


Here’s a translation from professor Abe Ryuichi:

Although its scent still lingers on

the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory

of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side

of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away

intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

I promise it sounds much friendlier and playful in Japanese, but you get the picture. Another fun fact: the poem uses exactly all the sounds in Japanese exactly once. It’s very much like “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” but more poetic and more impressive, since it doesn’t reuse any characters. Well, to be honest it does reuse a few characters when printed in modern Japanese, since there are less sounds in modern Japanese. But you can count the characters up there (it’s in older Japanese); not a single one is repeated. Some people still use it to remember all the characters, like the ABC song. Well, all this is a bit off topic, but that’s no big deal I suppose…

Today I sat on the Kamogawa river with a friend and ate mochi from a famous nearby sweet shop. The line was three layers thick with two switchbacks, but it was actually a nice experience waiting in line for a little bit with all the other customers.

I got 6; two for me right then and for for me and hostfamily later. We found a bench and I unwrapped my parcel. The mochi were all so soft and actually still warm. It felt like a baby’s butt. It was a bit chilly and the clouds kept things a little dark and wet today, but everyone was out underneath the sakura having picnics and/or playing card games with friends. We had to be sure to guard our mochi from the hawks that kept circling overhead. At one point I counted at least five.

I took the mochi home later and since it was just me and hostmom we had four all to ourselves. As we were eating I started telling her all the phrases I’ve started to write down. Because I’ll be leaving soon, I won’t really have access to these everyday idiomatic phrases I hear all the time in Kyoto, so I’ve decided to write down the ones I hear the most as I hear them. We don’t really learn this stuff in class.

Between the two of us and several dictionaries, hostmom successfully explained nearly all of the phrases I heard, and then we had some fun exchanging Japanese and English sayings. Turns out the funniest sayings are exactly the same in English and Japanese (not counting ‘two birds, one stone): “Pearls before swine” (豚に真珠); and “Blood is thicker than water” (血は水よりも濃い).

Kyudo sensei and I, along with another kyudo student, went to get me a bow and arrows this past Sunday. I met up with him early in the morning at his house and the three of us set off to the kyudo shop. It takes about thirty minutes to get to the shop by car, and on the way up was a wonderful opportunity to see all the sakura trees blooming in the mountains. It really was breathtaking to see these bright, bright, pale pink ploofy explosions all over the green mountains. Even one tree changes the whole landscape.There was usually a ring of sakura trees around each of the mountains. Sensei pointed out that each day, trees a little bit higher up on the mountain bloom. The people who have lived there forever know when each of the trees will bloom, and if you ask them they can tell you when the sakura blossoms will reach a certain place.

On the way there we listened to one of sensei’s 6-or-so enka (Japanese balad) CDs, like we always do. I’ve really started to like them. It’s the only kind of music that hostmom and dad listen to, and they turn on the TV for a few hours every Tuesday and Sunday to watch enka specials. I wasn’t so sure about it at first, but I have to say I’m hooked now. I’ll have to get a few CDs or something before I go.

The buying of the bow and arrows wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It felt just like Ollivander’s, but I suppose that’s how these sorts of things always go. It really does feel like it chooses you, not the other way around. I bought my things and we left. As always, I got lots of freebees. For my own reasons I think my favorite by far was a small towel with the name of the place printed on it.

For the first time ever on Saturday, I saw sensei shoot. I think it was a big deal for everyone else too, since all the students, young and old, rushed out of the practice area and onto the viewing stage. Only two people other than sensei were left practicing. They were both infront of him, so they couldn’t slip out to the viewing stage so easily.

“Damn it, I want to see!” They both tried to shoot their arrows as fast as possible without seeming hasty and joined us when they were through.

For the first time since I’d met him, sensei was serious. Not down and gloomy–but serious, and centered. I watched him standing there before he even took a shot, looking at the target. Something strange happened. I suddenly saw the sensei I’d seen in all the photos around the house next to plaques and trophies. He looked suddenly very young. And strangely, at the same time, I realized how old he was. It was like someone had taken a picture of a young man and sharpied all of his hair white. While they were at it, they added a few lines on his face. He suddenly became much younger than I’d ever seen him, and much older.

After not practicing for the entire day, he hit the target on his second shot. While I heard the second arrow hit, I wasn’t watching the target. I don’t think anyone was. It truly was a very moving experience, for whatever reason.

When he left the practice area and I came back around to praise him, he was already back to joking and jeering with the students and other teachers.

“Hah, yeah damned if I missed the first one. Oh well, shit happens, huh.”

I would have posted this a few days earlier, but I accidentally deleted all of my sakura pictures from my phone. In the end I suppose it was alright, since they really reached their peak the past few days. But it was a little disappointing. I started taking pictures again three days ago. One of my first was of the tree in my neighborhood that I pass every day on the way to school.


I was already cutting it pretty close that morning, but I had to take a picture.

I never knew it was a sakura.

People have already started to say goodbye to me. My scheduled flight day is the 22nd, so I still have a few weeks to go. I have a feeling they’ll go by quickly, though.

This upcoming week the Imperial Palace grounds will be open to the public again. My sake brewery actually sells sake there during that time, so I’ll be selling there from Friday to Sunday. Not really sure where I’ll be or what it’ll look like, but I bet it’ll be great business. This was something they asked me if I’d be able to do since the very beginning, so I bet it’s a busy time for them.

Tomorrow is my third to last tea class. Still don’t think I’ve gotten too far, but I suppose it’s difficult to tell. I think I’ve finally found pleasure in it, though. I always liked doing it, but it’s never really been relaxing. I’m still concentrating pretty hard but I’ve found I can relax into it now. We’ll see what happens I guess. Just as I’m starting to relax into Spring, the cherry blossoms will fall.



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