cherry blossoms, continental drift
After six years of living in Japan I’ve gotten on an airplane and flown back to live in the States, where I’ll be living for at least one year. My last few weeks in Japan were spent meeting up with all of the friends who have helped to make my time in Japan so wonderful, as well as trying to eat a healthy sample of all the incredible foods that have contributed to making my time in Osaka so replete with the gustatorial delights of くいだおれ (kuidaore) culture.
In the days leading up to my final day in Japan, the cherry blossoms were just starting to appear on the trees like small bits of lost popcorn. The annual appearance of the cherry blossoms in Japan signals both a new start and the renewal of the yearly cycle, but in my case there was an incredible feeling of circularity involved this time since I first arrived in Osaka during cherry blossom season six years ago. In a way, the early blossoming of the cherry trees this year ended up making the end of my stay feel almost as if I was circling back to the beginning while — perhaps a bit like Finnegan’s Wake — connecting everything together into some kind of aesthetically discrete wholeness.
The cherry blossoms have another effect as well, which is to concentrate your attention on something outside of the perceptual fields related to everyday attention. Although I was socializing as much as humanly possible while madly packing (indeed, up until 10 minutes before the taxi arrived to take me to the airport bus), there were still moments were every thought related to this would be arrested as I passed below the cherry trees, white blossoms appearing overhead like stars blinking slowly into existence as the evening rolls in. In a famous haiku, Basho writes about the power of the blossoms to concentrate thought and cause everything else to disappear —
A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms
Of course, leaving a place after having lived there for a long time also concentrates attention, and during my last weeks in Osaka I kept noticing things that I hadn’t noticed before, or else started noticing things again that I had stopped noticing long ago because they had become so familiar to me. Food especially benefited from this effect as each time I had something that I knew I might not be eating again for several years I experienced a strange kind of intensified flavor nostalgia, as if I were eating my favorite foods again after a long time and experiencing them in all of their fullness. There is another Basho poem about cherry blossoms that seems to fit this experience perfectly —
From all these trees –
in salads, soups, everywhere –
cherry blossoms fall
I hadn’t been back to the States in almost two years, so getting on a plane to ‘return home’ felt quite alien to me, almost as if I were moving between two different worlds, rather than between two different locations. Air travel may make the distance between one place and another feel smaller for some people, but for myself the rapid juxtaposition of different geographical and cultural spaces instead ends up highlighting the differences between them rather than making them feel closer together. Appropriately enough, for the flight back across the Pacific I had chosen to revisit The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, a series that deals explicitly with the question of what it feels like to move rapidly back and forth between different worlds, and what it feels like to become another person in another world and then to return home again. This time, let’s read the blossom in Basho’s poem in relation to the solitary airplane, drifting between continents —
Between our two lives
there is also the life of the
As the plane flew into Seattle and passengers went through customs, I could almost watch Japan drifting away from me. At first I was still surrounded by the sound of Japanese conversation, and as we took the escalator to the baggage claim area I could see Japanese people standing on both the right and left hand sides while wondering if the passengers standing on the right were from Osaka while those on the left were from Tokyo. At the baggage claim itself I watched the pop-ornamented hard suitcases I’m familiar with from Japan (my own included) get picked up one by one and then move off into the larger crowd where they began to disappear, distinctness diluted by the influx of passengers from elsewhere. While navigating the ridiculous amount of subway transfers necessitated by the Seattle airport’s transit system I had a conversation, half in Japanese and half in English, with a young guy from Osaka who lives permanently in Vancouver but had returned home recently for a visit. By the time I made my way to terminal N there were no recognizably Japanese people around me. The airport was full of vaguely remembered stores and the last bit of direct connection I felt to the place that I had just come from occurred when I pulled out my wallet to pay for a coffee and a scone and realized that I hadn’t bothered to change any of my yen into dollars before getting on the plane.
I was picked up at San Francisco International and we drove straight north to Sonoma County, where I’m staying now. It’s been years since I’ve seen the green hills of Sonoma County in the spring, bright green and rolling into the distance. The tree that defines much of the California landscape is the oak, rather than the cherry, and as we drifted north into the oak forests that crown the rolling hills I couldn’t help but hold the two trees together in my mind as emblems of the two places that have been most important to me in my life. And Basho, too, has something to say about the oak and the cherry —
The oak tree stands
noble on the hill even in
cherry blossom time
I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Japan, though I’ll definitely be making a return at some point. In the meantime, I’ll be living between northern California and Swan’s Island while I finish my doctoral work and spend any time I have left over finishing the creative projects that I’ve kept on the back burner for far too long. Since there’s still so much I want to write about, I’ll keep posting about Japan on this site, but expect a lot of posts about island living and Henry David Thoreau as well.
Filed under: culture, Japan, Kansai, literature, nature, Osaka, personal, poetry, sweet story of Trout Monroe | 2 Comments
Tags: air travel, さようなら, Basho, California oak, cherry blossom season, haiku, intercontinental travel, leaving Japan, sakura, sayonara, 桜