Thursday, April 6, 2006

The cherry blossom trees uncurled their gnarled winter fingers during the last week of March, offering Tokyo the delicate pink and white flowers of the sakura, or cherry blossoms.

Japanese friends had talked about the apparition of the cherry blossoms with a zeal bordering on the religious. Now I see why.

Snow-banks of the gauze-thin white blossoms draped across the green banks of the moat at the Imperial Palace. On some streets, the trees lining the sidewalks were bent and bowed under the weight of the hanging cherry blossoms, or shidarezakura, so that entire city blocks were enclosed in thick pink tunnels. One day, I rounded the corner to my flat to find the neighborhood playground dwarfed by a cherry blossom tree that had sprouted a towering corona of white flowers.

The appearance of the cherry blossoms is an event in Japan that nearly everyone eagerly tracks, as news programs feature daily bloom forecasts like weather reports. The flowers’ appearance in Tokyo marks the start of spring, at which point the Japanese go on hana-mi outings. “Hana-mi” means “flower watching,” although a more adequate definition would be “drunk picnic.”

Last Saturday, a few of us gaijin ("white devils") walked through Yoyogi Park, a massive public park in Tokyo that sprawls through Shibuya and neighborhoods beyond. Certain areas are thick with sakura trees, and when the flowers bloom, hana-mi-goers picnic under a dense snow-white canopy.

That Saturday, thousands of Tokyo dwellers unrolled plastic tarps under the trees, unloaded cases of sake and beer, and removed their shoes to sit down and get to business. The air was electric with an intoxicated anarchic madness, the beautiful sense that anything could happen. People talked, laughed, sang songs, and stumbled into each other, and on one blue picnic tarp, a group of friends took turns donning and then capering about in a strange blue bear outfit, complete with giant blue bear head.

It was the cathartic heaving off of the heavy mantle of winter, and I swear I saw Bacchus, wearing a red Adidas warm-up jacket, winking at me from behind a tree. Although it may just have been a drunk Irishman.

Part of the beauty of the cherry blossoms arises from their sudden appearance after months and months of soul-freezing winter weather, and part of their beauty arises from their fleeting life-span: the flowers only last a few days, until the rain and heavy winds scour clean the branches. Their end is as stunning as their appearance, though---the wind drives the flowers off the trees, and for a time it snows pink and white.

Such a wind blew through Shibuya's Hachiko Square on Monday, and the cherry blossom tree by the Hachiko statue shed its blossoms, which spiraled and immelmanned onto the commuters rushing about below its branches.

That wind carried me out of Tokyo. April 3 was my last day in Japan.

The farewells were much more difficult than I anticipated; three months is a long time to visit a place. I also bid a fond farewell to Katsu. His passion and intensity are humbling and beautiful, and remind me of, well, me, when I first began ashtanga.

“You never know what is enough,” said William Blake, “unless you know what is more than enough.” I hope Katsu can build the practice into his life in a more wholesome manner. When I left, he said, in broken English, “I will see you in Mysore!”

I hope so, Katsu. I hope so.