‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts […] there’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you,and here’s some for me.‘- Ophelia, Hamlet
I always knew this would be the difficult time. As winter gives up the ghost, my battered old green coat is finally too warm. There’s an ambient chorus of birdsong outside my window, and when I walked through the park today, early spring was making its mark on the trees. Mosses were glistening on the damp tree stumps and gaunt paper birches suddenly sprung to life. Around me, I could see cotton-white, fuschia, lemon yellow, warm mulberry purples and brick reds. I used to say spring was my least favourite season, but I think I’m changing my tune.
The blossom is dredging up yearning though, splashing colour through the dull land, mixing memory with desire. The turn of spring, like the turn of autumn is a time for remembrance, but there are particular reasons why this one is having an impact on me. At this time of year, a transformation like none other is starting in the deep south of a volcanic archipelago nine thousand kilometres away.
Without Regret they Fall
Local festivals are part of the deep charm of Japan, springing up along sidewalks and in bijou city parks overlooked by people’s apartments. They break the rules; suddenly people eat and drink beer in the street and are noisy and free. Drunk college students sit on kerbs with plastic cups of Asahi, eating yakiniku and flirting as best you can when you’re eating skewered meat, which is usually not well. However, nothing compares to the two weeks of the year when the cherry blossom arrives in town. Depending on whether you live in sultry Kyushu or snowy Hokkaido, the blossom front can arrive anywhere between mid-March (it arrives in Fukuoka in six days, according to forecasts) and early May.
The sakura is one of the rare Japanese cultural phenomena whose significance isn’t oversold to outsiders. People obsess about maid cafes that hardly anybody visits, about ‘rent a friend’ services in Tokyo that are used by a small number of lonely businessmen, and about sumo tournaments which sadly suffer from declining audiences. But the cherry blossom is the real deal. News broadcasts feature regular updates about the ‘blossom front’, predicting its arrival and progress with mathematical precision (today, the sakura has reached 65% of full bloom). Companies hastily rush out tie-in products, and occasionally, you’ll see a girl walk past with a twig of cherry blossom, real or fake, pinned to her backpack. At the height of the mania, revellers crowd into every park to throw hanami parties under the flower-heavy boughs of trees. To get a sense of the spirit of the season, you could do worse than pick up Hokkaido Highway Blues, Will Ferguson’s wry journal of his springtime hitchhike across Japan.
It’s not just any spring festival, but a period of reordering. In a society which is deeply attuned to the changing seasons, and loves costumes and uniforms, the coming of the cherry blossom is a transformation. People don’t simply change into spring clothes, they change mentalities. The new school year starts in April in Japan, and the blossom fall marks a mental break between the old and the new. The revelry itself is deeply contagious: in the words of a friend I met last spring, ‘I love the cherry blossom. Every day when it falls, I feel half drunk.‘
And I miss it, palpably. I miss Japan more than I have at any other time since I left. It’s not that I’ve forgotten its downsides: the awkward, demanding companies, the stuffy patriarchy, the inflexible bureaucracy. It’s not even a rational thought process, really. I just know that I want to be carried in the swell of the intoxicating, intoxicated throng, under the cherry trees with the people I met and ones I’ve yet to meet. I wonder if I’ll feel this way every year, or if I the feeling will fade with the years. I wonder if I want the feeling to fade. Most of all, I wonder when I’ll stroll along those Hiroshima riverbanks, lost in time, and see the riverside picnics beneath pale, ghostly pink branches again.
The tug of memory has made me more attentive to spring’s wonders. I’ve found myself looking closer than ever at the trees as they burst forth with life. Spring in England is its own magic, and comes with its own traditions and allusions: Wordsworth’s daffodils, May Day, and painted eggs. After experiencing a Japanese spring last year, I wanted to share the understated beauty of English springtime with my friends from abroad, and particularly with those in the archipelago.
There’s something missing, though, and that’s the sense of transformation. The Irish import of St. Patrick’s day aside, there are few big spring festivities here. Easter was always the flattest of the big dates on the calendar, and with its religious aspect stripped away (hardly anybody I know goes to church), it amounts to little more than an excuse to eat egg-shaped chocolate on a Sunday morning. Even the seasonally-minded Wiccans don’t pursue the Celtic Bealtaine1 with the enthusiasm they reserve for the solstices or for the autumn festival of Samhain2. So there’s no great occasion to dress up and greet the new year, no sudden transformation, and no cuddling kerbside college kids, and life goes on as usual.
The thing about living somewhere far away for long enough is that it splits your heart permanently in two. It’s pointless for me to pine away over Japan like some lost lover, because if I was back there I’d only miss England, for a different set of reasons. The yearning is a feature, not a bug. I’m not sure if this feeling diminishes or intensifies if you live in a third faraway place, or a fourth. I should celebrate the feeling, really, because it means I’ve accumulated another home.
The steady flow of travel restrictions spreading with the coronavirus are twisting the knife in a bit, though. I don’t remotely have the money to fly across the world at the moment, but options closer to home are rapidly closing off, as Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Italy have barred all but essential foreign visitors from entering. Japan’s already closed its borders to South Korean and Chinese tourists, and I doubt it’ll be long before European visitors are equally unwelcome. I hope the closing of the borders is an extreme short-term measure, and I’m afraid of how the world will change if it isn’t. Anyway, I’m off to Scotland next weekend to see a friend and enjoy the bracing spring north of Hadrian’s wall; in the meantime, I’ll just have to keep working on that teleportation device.
‘Til next time,
From your correspondent in the Home Counties.
1- Bealtaine is the Spring festival in pre-Christian Celtic tradition. It takes place on the first of May. Traditionally, it was a festival of bonfires and blessing cows, where the community celebrated the coming of long days and warm weather.
2- Samhain is Bealtaine’s gothic sister. Celebrated on October the thirty-first, when the border between our world and the realm of the spirits was at its weakest, Samhain was never fully destroyed or co-opted by Christianity, despite its best efforts. It survives today in the form of Halloween.