The Bittersweetness of Things

‘If the cherry blossoms lasted six months, nobody would love them’.

IMG_4365This sentence1 lies close to the heart of Japanese culture. Right now, the cherry blossom is covering the city in a thick mist of wan, snowy petals, and the city’s outdoor spaces are coming alive again after the winter. Stirring dull roots with spring rain, and all that. Despite a cold snap, people are barbecuing on the riverfront and eating picnics in the park. Every man and his dog carries himself like a pro photographer.

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Weeks before the sakura2 started to unfurl, someone was interviewing joggers on the news, and there was a segment about a freak early-flowering cherry tree. Asahi turned bright fuchsia, and we started seeing these delicious pink sweet-rice-adzuki hybrids wrapped in leaves in the shops. Passers-by started wearing cherry blossom designs and the local museum had a (half-assed) tie-in exhibit. Some perceptions of Japan are distortions, or exaggerations, but people really do love the cherry blossom, and the gnarled roots of the trees are buried deep in Japanese cultural history.

Untranslatable

物の哀れ (mono no aware) is a famously difficult concept to pin down. It’s sometimes loosely translated as ‘the pathos of things’ 0r ‘empathy towards the world’, although I’ve also read ‘the sadness of things’, ‘the pity of things’ and even ‘the aah-ness of things’. It’s probably best understood by its context, rather than in translation, but for what it’s worth, I think the most similar concept in English is bittersweetness. Pleasure undermined by loss. Pain softened by beauty. The knowledge that what’s beautiful can’t last, and that the ephemeral is beautiful.

So the mingled joy and pain of some new parent’s daydreams of half-remembered childhood? Mono no aware. Watching a butterfly flicker past in the last hour of summer sunshine? Mono no aware. The pain of death tempered by the knowledge of a life well lived? Mono no aware. A boozy night spent discovering the inner lives of complete strangers before parting ways forever? Mono-no-fucking-aware. That’s why people love the cherry blossom; because it’s over almost as soon as it’s begun, a dreamscape that disappears and leaves nothing but photographs.

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Season’s Change

The point is, Japan loves the changing seasons like no other place I’ve ever been before. As I near the one-year-mark, I’m also drawing closer to completing a seasonal cycle. So I thought I’d talk a bit about the seasons here in Hiroshima.

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Spring starts before the cherry blossom. The willow trees sprout chartreuse streamers that bounce gently in the wind. The plum trees start to blossom, and so do some of the smaller bushes. But it’s still fairly cold here in March, nearly as cold as December. And then the spell is broken, and suddenly the birds are everywhere, darting from blossom-heavy tree to tree. In the midst of all this clamour, the new year is starting in schools and universities.

In April and May the temperature will rapidly rise until it regularly tops thirty degrees. Golden Week, which celebrates Japan’s emperor and its post-war constitution, is held in May, and many Japanese people get a week off work. In 2019, Golden Week has an extra significance; because Emperor Akihito is abdicating, a new age starts in May, Japan’s old calendar splits history into eras, and since the Meiji Restoration each era has matched the reign of an emperor. So goodbye Heisei, and we welcome in the Reiwa Era. I don’t approve of all this imperial hocus-pocus, but I really like the idea of dividing time into eras with names taken from literature.

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Then in early Summer, the humidity goes through the roof. June is the start of the rainy season; over the summer, a series of typhoons swirl in from the tropical seas to the south, battering Okinawa, Kyushu and Shikoku. By the time the storm hits Hiroshima, the strongest winds have usually evaporated, but the rain remains, and pelts you with a ferocity I’d never encountered before. Between the rains, the sunshine bakes the earth.

Even after the worst of the rains stop, the humidity is intense, and the buzzing cicadas are deafening in the trees. On good days, summer is like a heady wine; on bad days, it’s like a perma-hangover. I’m honestly not sure if I’m looking forward to it, but I love swimming in the sea. At the height of August is Obon, the festival of the dead, which I have spoken about here before. Fires are lit, lanterns are thrown in the river, and the city remembers its past.

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The long summer days stretch on into autumn with relatively little change. The air gets less muggy gradually, and the storms generally die down. September is sporty, with major baseball and sumo events being held. And October is lovely, perhaps the best time of year, with warm, sunny afternoons and mild evenings. But this far south, the leaves don’t really turn until November, when the air gets crisp and Peace Boulevard is a sea of burnt orange and vivid purple-red. In November, Hiroshima seemed to be full of festivals, with dancing and taika drums around every corner.

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Something which was strange for me: I’ve never wintered somewhere with so many evergreens. It felt bit like the winter never came. There was one small flurry of snow on a February afternoon, but that petered out without much fuss. Having said that, the nights were genuinely cold, and since Japanese homes usually don’t have much insulation, you really feel the sting.

At the new year, people visit shrines and pray for happiness in the coming year, and buy omamori, charms for protection and good luck.

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— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

I’m looking forward to the rest of the spring here in Hiroshima. And after that, I’m not quite sure what summer will bring. My plans past June are vague, and it’s possible that I won’t be based here. But I definitely want to see more of this country. Time will tell. Anyway, I’ll leave you with some more snapshots of sakura.

1 from ‘Lost in Japan’, quoting an unnamed Japanese observer.

2 cherry blossom.

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