Spring has finally arrived. The snow has melted and we’re shedding our winter jackets for band T-shirts and those god-awful bicycle shorts. Love is in the air, mosquitos are at large, you’re popping Allegra-D by the handful, and that pesky kid next door is already conning you out of ten bucks to mow your lawn. It’s totally that time of year again—and our favorite.
While the turn of spring in the states might mean nothing more than a couple laps around the block at night or those loud soothsaying cricket chirps on dinner dates, the Japanese inaugurate Earth’s yearly lap around the sun with cherry blossom viewing parties, or hanami. Cherry blossoms, known for their brilliant white petals, flower indigenously in Japan on trees usually found in parks. From January to about May the flowers blossom northward along the island, lasting about a week per locale, and then die, withering away just as fast as they came. They’re finicky little things, these cherry blossoms, so every hanami season is a special ordeal. Once the cherry blossom forecast is out, the Japanese scramble to make party dates and, if they can, reservations for hot spots in local parks.
The tradition of hanami first began in the Heian period (794-1195 A.D.) among the imperial family and noblemen. They would gather under white cherry trees, feast, drink sake, and make merry. It didn’t take long for the rest of the country to catch on, and soon everyone, rich and poor, was fat and drunk off flowers. Because of their delicate beauty and short life span, Japanese people saw the cherry blossom as a metaphor for life itself.
In modern day Japan, hanami season also takes on a symbol for the new fiscal year, as well the new school term—which starts in April. As it is now, the celebration remains relatively unchanged since it first began: A breath of fresh pollen-y air, a crack of the champagne bottle on the hull of a new beginning. I have attended these hanami celebrations for three seasons since moving to Japan—the location being Tenshochi Park, one of Japan’s top 100 viewing sites.
The flowers are indeed worth any traveling pains it may take to see them; but I admit, for me, they lost their flame by the second year. I saw the spectacle more as an excuse to party every night and come into work the next day hung-over. The cherries were fine and all, but alcohol was essential.
This year I was invited to a party by a Japanese woman that probably wants to marry me. I’ll refer to her as Keikon—Japanese for “marriage.” She’s an old English conversation student of mine who had been trying to get me to go out with her for a couple years. I accepted the offer this time for lack of anything better to do during this year’s hanami season. I figured it would also be an opportunity for me to get my point across that it’s not really going to work out. I didn’t bother asking her who else was going to be at this party, seeing as I have no ties with her other than those already stated, but she said I could invite anyone else I wanted. So I took the liberty to ask a few other friends I hadn’t seen in a while, all of whom cancelled when I woke up two hours late the day of the party.
Tired, and without a car to transport me the two miles to get there, I walked, thus delaying my arrival time even further, stopping off at the grocery store to pick up snacks and alcohol along the way. When I finally arrived I went to the “rest house,” where Keikon said to meet her, but she wasn’t there. She sounded a little ticked off for my being three hours late when I called her, but ticked off in a chipper way. Skelly was here, she seemed to be thinking. Skelly was late, but he was here after all.
She kept saying she was at the “Rest house, rest house.” I was at the rest house—or a rest house anyway. Lord knows how many rest houses there were in one of the top 100 cherry blossom-viewing sites in Japan. She’s terrible at English, by the way, and I wished she would just switch to Japanese so I could figure out where she was and get this day over with. Turns out there’s a shop on the other side of the park that sells souvenirs that’s actually called “Rest House.”
I met her halfway there, and we walked along the path that runs between two long rows of cherry trees, a river flowing fat and blue alongside it. Above the river, ten ropes strung across hanging fish made of fabric, called koinobori. They fluttered pink, blue, red and green in the wind like spring flags.
Withered flower petals snowed down from the trees around us, and we got to talking about my future.
“How long you stay in Japan?” she said in her broken English.
“I’m switching jobs in August. I’m moving to Tokyo.” I lived in the current small town we were walking around in. The park, Tenshochi, was its major, if not only, attraction.
“Ehhh?? Tokyo?” she said, taken aback. She wore a pink shirt and looked very nice, very done up. She looked ready to picnic and flower-gaze. Her appearance had improved since I first met her. She seemed to gradually throughout the years of me not talking to her to put forth an effort.
“How long you stay here?” She seemed confused, like she misunderstood that I just said I was leaving.
“Ehh??” she groaned again. The gaps in our dialogue were elongating. I thought about two of the girls I had invited but had canceled due to my irresponsibility. I’ll refer to them as Josei—“girl” in Japanese—and Onna—“woman.” Why couldn’t Josei and Onna be here? I hadn’t seen either of them in such a long time. I wanted to see them. Why did I have to spend all day with Keikon when all I needed to say to her had just been said?
“When you go back America?”
Did it matter? “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”
We arrived at the party. Emblazoned on the picnic blanket, Mickey Mouse greeted us from underneath food crumbs, plastic containers, and rear ends. Most of the guests were Japanese and classmates in an English conversation school. This party was an opportunity for them to practice English with foreign native speakers. Two other foreigners were already present, but I could tell my tardiness had thrown a wet blanket over everyone’s mood all the same. One of the foreigners was an older guy from Canada who had a Japanese woman with him. He taught snowboarding in the nearby mountains. Didn’t speak a word of Japanese. He wasn’t very talkative in English either. He was in high spirits, but his only concern seemed to be for the woman sitting next to him. She would draw his biggest smiles.
The other foreigner was an Indian-American from LA. He had had the same job as me six years prior, worked the same position, lived in the same apartment. Odd, he didn’t look much older than I did. He was very slim and wore hip white reader glasses, a polo shirt and tight white pants. He told me about how boring my job used to be for him, how uninteresting and dorky the English students were. He was a raging alcoholic at the time, but he missed the place and came back about ten times the year after he left. He didn’t make a whole lot of money at his job in Tokyo and was only sitting there next to me that day because he was able to hitchhike. I would be moving to Tokyo in a few months, I wondered if I would be doing a lot of hitchhiking, too.
LA actually turned out to be a really nice guy and fun to talk to. We might have been friends. He introduced me to some other Japanese people on the blanket. Two of them were little kids who ran around yelling things like, “Oh my God,” and “My name is such-and-such.” They weren’t much to talk to. I met another guy wearing dark aviators and a black T-shirt, a cracked white emblem of something across it—my memory says a ribcage, but I don’t think I got a good look at it. He was in his 40s and liked English. He had been to California before. He seemed very happy about these things, very content with his life. He was one of the most boring people I had ever met.
The conversation around my vicinity started to peter out, and I went back to Keikon. She handed me a beer (she kept handing me beers) but I declined it. It was only four o’clock, and I was already starting to feel uninhibited. I leaned back and stretched my arms behind me to prop myself up. The sun shone cooly, the river just three or four party blankets in front of us, the grass very green. I figured now would be as good a time as any to ask my big journalist question.
“So, Keikon, what do cherry blossoms mean to you?”
“Ehh??”—she was always making that noise. She said they were beautiful but didn’t really give me much after that. She always seemed to have difficulty with words, this woman, regardless of language.
I left the party for the bathroom—an excuse I use often. Two rows of food stands lined the way to the parking lot, a clever trap. Buttered potatoes, fried octopus, giant hot dogs on sticks, whole squids, whole salted fish—I grabbed two of those. To wash them down I bought a canned coffee from a vending machine, hoping it would sober me up a bit. Children were running around after all, didn’t wanna kick one of em.
The sun was sinking pretty fast, and I was getting lonely. I wished it would sink faster so everyone would leave and I wouldn’t have to say goodbye. That’s when I got a call from Josei, one of the girls I invited earlier. She was there, at the park, driving. It was crowded, where should she park? I couldn’t believe it, she came. She was impulsive, Josei. I never knew what to expect from her. She’s the kind of girl that would go a month without talking to you, then show up one night at your door with a souvenir she’d bought while traveling. She was a nice girl nonetheless. She smiled and laughed a lot. I liked her.
By the time she and I met up and went to the picnic ground, the party was already packing up and moving out. I suddenly felt better. Some of Keikon’s friends stopped to chat, but Josei didn’t know any of them very well. She had only met Keikon a few times, so their talk was brief.
We, a group of four of us—Keikon, Josei, an annoying drunk guy with a dog, and I—had separated from the larger group and were making our way back through cherry tree lane. I thought I overheard some talk of hitting up a bar in town. I really didn’t want to hang out with them anymore, so I tried distracting from all talk of bars and having fun. I think Josei saw this in me and slowed her pace and pointed back in the direction we just came. Her car was way back that way. If we were going out, should she get her car and drive there to avoid the crowd later? But if she drove that meant she wouldn’t be able to drink. Should she just go home? I went along with that:
“Yeah, and I need to stick with her since she’s giving me a ride home.” And before I knew it she and I we were on our way back; the other two trodding silently in the opposite direction.
We made our way through the line of food stands on our way back to the parking lot. The weather was so nice, and the sun was just lying above the houses over the river. We couldn’t go back, not just yet.
“You know, I haven’t tried the buttered potatoes yet. Do you want to sit down and have one with me?” I said.
She agreed. I ordered two, and we sat down in the grassy picnic area. Actually, I think it might have been the same spot Mickey was lying earlier. She told me she had just finished cleaning up from her family’s hoji ceremony, a Buddhist tradition of honoring deceased relatives. Lots of her family members had come into town, and she was pretty tired from that.
After that I brought up the topic of God just to see how she would react, and we talked about that.
“Japanese people believe in many gods, right?” I said. “What do you think? Is there one God or many gods?”
“I’m Japanese, so I believe in many gods. A different god is in each thing on the Earth. There’s a tree god, a sun god, a water god, a god in everything.”
“What do these gods do? … Why are there so many of them? … Do they all have equal power? … Why pray to one over the other?”
She couldn’t answer those ones.
I knew she was Buddhist, so I asked if she believed in reincarnation.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” she said.
“I believe we go to heaven.”
She paused but didn’t seem to be thinking. “Yeah, I think so too.” Though I bet there was more to it than that.
Josei confused me a lot. She was Japanese, and I understood that they as a culture keep a lot of their true feelings inside, thus rendering confusion for Westerners, but on top of that I didn’t really know anything about her. Why did she study so much English? She was a daycare teacher, she didn’t need it for her job. Why did she want to be friends with foreigners if she only saw us every once in a while? Why would she show up late to parties and never stay more than an hour or so? Why couldn’t she hang out more often?
On the ride home the roads weren’t as busy as we had thought. I rolled the window of her small K-car down and let the warm breeze run through my fingers. We lived on opposite ends of town; she was driving out of her way to take me home. I felt guilty but mostly because she was doing this all in vain. I wasn’t ready to go back yet. I was planning on getting another beer and making my way back to the grounds the minute she let me out and drove off. The night was still young after all.
We were having such a nice time, the weather was so beautiful, and we were so deep into random conversation that I almost forgot to pop my big journalist question of the day.
“I’m writing an article about cherry blossoms and trying to get a variety of opinions. What do cherry blossoms mean to you?”
Her face brightened and she answered as if she had been waiting for me to ask that all along, as if she had already prepared an answer and was waiting for someone to finally get it out of her.
“It’s like the start of a new life. New school year, new job season, spring, it’s just a new beginning for everyone.”
I was beginning to understand this girl a little better. Maybe she just liked talking about open-ended and introspective topics like these. Maybe she studied English and hung out with foreigners just so she could talk about traditional Japanese things like hoji and religion to us. Maybe she just liked hearing our opinions on everyday Japanese things that her friends and family took for granted. Maybe she just liked expressing her thoughts, however big or small they might be.
She drove away, and, as planned, I took a beer from a bag of leftovers from the party and started walking back to the park. Why did I let her take me home if I was just going back anyway? Why did I waste her time and hospitality? Maybe I just wanted to prolong our afternoon together as long as I could. Maybe I just wanted to get a ride home from a pretty girl and talk about cherry blossoms.
I text messaged Onna—the other girl that canceled that day—to try and persuade her to hang out with me. Luckily she wasn’t doing much and decided to meet me at a video store near the park. I said I’d only be a half hour, but I was feeling a little teetered again and showed up late. This wasn’t the first time I had made her wait that day, but she waited all the same. She didn’t even seem to mind either. It was around eleven o’clock after all. It was cherry blossom season.
I suggested we go back to Tenshochi, where I had just been the whole day, to see the cherry blossoms lit up at night—or yozakura as they call it. Before that she wanted to stop off at her house.
Onna’s mom, an old woman who never seemed to do much but sit around in her pajamas and smile all day, greeted us at the door. I needed to pee really bad, so I had little time for small talk. I’ll never forget their bathroom. I loved it. Right when you opened the door the lights slowly faded up and the toilet seat lifted all by itself. Maybe it had a gender reader somewhere on it, too, because it always seemed to know I wanted both lids up. Mom liked having foreigners over. She knew a lot in town. She didn’t speak any English and most of the foreigners didn’t speak Japanese, so conversation must have been difficult. It was Onna who spoke the English. She must have acted as intermediary during the times I wasn’t there.
The toilet seats went down on their own as I left for the living room. I sat down next to Onna, and Mom handed me a plate of small grapefruit-looking wedges. I felt bad because she was always giving me things to eat, and if I was still hungry I could eat more. It was a Japanese custom to do this, but I couldn’t help but feel I needed to return the favor somehow. Next time I’ll bring some grapes. Mom likes grapes, so I’ll bring her a bunch of grapes. Though I would never remember to buy them because I only went over there on spur-of-the-moments like these.
I probably sounded like an idiot trying to speak drunken Japanese. This was in someone else’s house with their mother, not to mention. Many times I’d get ahead of myself and I’d stop mid-sentence, not knowing how to say something.
“I’m lost, Onna, could you help me?” I would say, and I would tell her in English, and Onna would translate to Mom easy peasy. Immediately; no pauses to think. She also wasn’t drunk like I was.
When I came back from my second pee break, Mom was on the phone laughing, a lamp on a mahogany stand off in the corner silhouetting her.
“It’s for you,” she said, talking to me.
“Who is it?”
“It’s for you. It’s for you.” The girls were laughing. I had definitely missed something while slavely toilet seats were lifting for me.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello,” said a voice.
“Hi, Yumiko, my name’s Skelly.” I looked over at Onna and Mom having a ball. They hung on every word I said. Who was this woman, I thought. What was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to keep the conversation going?
“Are you in town, Yumiko?”
“No, I live in Tokyo.”
“Tokyo, huh. What are you doing in Tokyo?”
“I work here.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t giving me much. This reminded me of the prank calls I used to make in grade school.
“I used to live there,” she said, talking about the town we were in, and then another silence.
“Well, I think Mom wants to talk to you now. Nice to meet you.” And I handed the phone back.
They told me Yumiko was young, near my age. She had come to a party they had invited me to a few weeks ago that I didn’t go to. She just moved to Tokyo. I would be moving to Tokyo, too, so I should look her up when I got there.
Onna and I left shortly after that. She said Mom wanted me to come back and visit often. Every week if I could. I didn’t know why, I must have sounded like a complete idiot. I was drunk every time I went over there. I only talked about nonsense. Maybe Mom wanted me back because I could speak a little Japanese and she could communicate with me—however little communication that may be. Maybe Onna liked me just a little bit, too.
What had been a path of cloud-like puffs earlier that day, cherry tree lane was now dark with only a few trees lit up. The air smelled of maraschino cherries.
“I guess the yozakura didn’t go as late as we thought,” I said. I looked out over the river to my right: The long lines of fish flags over the river now hung vertically in the windless night as if caught and hanging to dry; the lights of hotels and restaurants reflected off the flowing water; to my left a fog of blackness with a few house lights in the distance. A couple walked past us, coming the opposite direction. I bet they just came back from fucking. That’s what I told Onna, too, they had probably just come back from fucking.
Another couple sat on a bench enshrouded in darkness along the path. I only noticed them when we were just crossing their line of vision. They were awful quiet. Had they just been fucking, too?
“See how dark it is all around us? I bet at least 20 couples are out there fucking in the dark.”
Onna only laughed at me. She was fun to hang out with, too. It was hard telling what was going on in her head, though—if she actually knew what went on in the dark during “yozakura.”
I told her I thought Japanese people were always thinking about fucking. Every time I talked to one of them they asked if I had a girlfriend. They always seemed to be concerned with who was taken and who wasn’t. I could always hear them talking about what guys and girls were hot.
“It’s probably just me that thinks about fucking all the time,” I said. We had hardly gotten off the topic of nice nights and pretty trees, and I was already talking about fucking and personal things I hadn’t even internalized myself yet. I felt comfortable with Onna. I could talk to her about anything.
We approached the line of food stands. The area that had been so alive and smoky earlier was now shuttered and dark. The New Year’s “Auld Lang Syne”—a usual for closing-time numbers in Japan—played from the “Rest House,” the place I was supposed to meet Keikon eleven hours earlier. Some older men were taking things from the stands inside the building, the light shining from the large windows illuminating their work area. The dead cherry petals fluttered down around us as the song sang over our heads and disappeared into the darkness. A light turned off from the second floor, and Onna and I started heading back.
We took an alternate route around the other side of cherry tree lane. A foothill rose dark and woodsy up to our left and fell into the unknown on the other side. The neon square of a convenience store sign beckoned us from afar.
“Do you have a girlfriend yet?” she asked me. I guess my rant earlier had gotten her thinking about boy and girlfriends. (That or I was right and she was already thinking about it like I hypothesized earlier.)
She had to think for a while. She ended up coming up with koibito, “sweetheart.”
“No, don’t give me the Japanese word. This isn’t a dictionary game. Define girlfriend. Give me an explanation.”
“The person you love.”
“Define love.” It was becoming a running tactic of mine that day to throw Japanese girls open-ended questions to see if it knocked them off balance. Something in the air made it seem right, though. It was cherry blossom season.
“What do you think love is?” she said.
“I asked you first. If I tell you what I think, then you’ll just agree with me. I wanna hear what you actually think.”
I knew getting an answer out of her wasn’t going to be easy, so I let her have a few minutes to think about it. I was prodding anyway. I pointed out at the foothill we were walking alongside. If you climbed to the top you could have grabbed a star. She didn’t like the foothill, though. Too dark.
“So have you figured out what love is yet?”
She said a few words to me in Japanese. Short words, simple words. We tried figuring them out so I could understand them. She couldn’t explain. We looked them up in our dictionaries, but they didn’t make sense. We could never find an answer.
“I think love is when you want to melt into each other,” I said. “That’s all. When you could melt into each other and be happy.” I told her that hadn’t happened to me yet.
At the convenience store I bought a cup of ramen noodles and another beer, and we sat out front on the curb while I ate. We talked about how eating ramen and drinking beer in the front of a convenience store was bad manners in Japan. We talked about upper, middle, and lower classes in the states and how there’s a distinction. Rich people eat at fancy expensive restaurants, whereas some not-so-rich and poor people would see that as a waste of money, perhaps even pretentious; they might even hate people who eat at fancy restaurants. A lot of middle and lower class people wouldn’t see anything wrong with eating ramen out in front of a convenience store or in a parking lot. So what? But a rich person probably would.
I read an article about how Japanese people like to maintain the illusion that they’re all middle class, that they’re all the same, even though many aren’t. Minimum wage workers wear business suits the same as entrepreneurs, everyone’s got a designer Louis Vuitton handbag, and no one eats ramen out on the curb of a convenience store. And through all of this, even though she didn’t seem to like it, Onna stayed with me. I was the one who suggested we go out so late—I who decided we go on a walk through the park and get ramen at the convenience store. We had only been doing the things I wanted to do. But she stuck with me, right by my side all the same.
After my snack we went back to her house. “What are we doing next?” she said, the hands of her watch just passing midnight. It had been my night up until that point—why not continue with my night? I told her I was thinking about heading home. She hadn’t been drinking, and I had been whole time, so she drove me home.
In the car, parked in front of my house she told me why she started studying English. Her ex-boyfriend of twelve years, whom she was about to marry, committed suicide. She couldn’t find him one day. She searched and searched, and the police found him a few days later dead. (She never told me how.) Since then she joined an English conversation class to take her mind off it.
We talked about when we lost our virginities, and I told her how Japanese girls were less proactive than Western girls when it comes to sex. She said that wasn’t true, though. At least for older women. I told her about the girls I had slept with. She was shocked it was only four.
We talked more about fucking until about two in the morning in that running car, just outside the entrance to my apartment. Just before I said my goodnight I remembered something.
“Before I go, I have to ask you a question. I’ve been asking people this all day. What do cherry blossoms mean to you?”
She looked down at her feet and then back up into my eyes. “They’re very beautiful, and they only last a short time.”
“Would they still be beautiful if they lasted longer?”
“Not as. Then they would just be normal.”
On my walk back up to my apartment, through the door, out of my clothes and under the covers I thought about the same question.
What did cherry blossoms mean to me?
They meant a variety of different things. The first year they meant a spring in Japan. The second year they meant nothing. This year they were my going away present, a chance to say goodbye to friends and good riddance to those I was glad to leave. Maybe the cherry blossom season in Japan of today isn’t so different than the day I just experienced. Maybe it was just an excuse to get friends and family together, to have picnics in the fresh air, to go on long walks, and talk about love and fucking. Stuff like that.