Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Spring Flowers

Tsubaki ochi,
Shizuka ni sakura

The tsubaki drops;
Quietly the sakura
Is starting to bloom.

There are certain things I thought would last forever. The mikan, for example; every morning, when I woke up, I found a small juicy orange sitting next to my plate. I began to assume they would always be there. But just today my friend told me they were out of season, and it has been many weeks since I’ve eaten one.

The same can be said for the tsubaki, or the camellias. When I came to Nanzan Daigaku, the tsubaki were the only things that were really alive: the grass was dead, the trees were bare, the buildings were stone and cold. But the tsubaki were open: large, bright red-pink flowers with yellow centers. I thought them a bit garish, but even garish was better than nothing at all.

Over the next couple months, the camellia began to symbolize Japan for me, in the same way that vending machines and good public transportation did. I regarded the camellia as a sort of Oleander, a bushy shrub with a gaudy flower you just couldn’t avoid. The camellias began to droop, but I didn’t think much of it: like a pine tree shedding needles, a few petals must drop now and then.

It wasn’t until someone told me, “The camellias are dying,” that I began to take any heed of it. I turned around and all the bright flowers were gone.

I didn’t notice it sooner because already spring was beginning to bloom, bring with it twinges of green (the first of the grass) and new flowers. The crown of these flowers was the ume, the flowering plum. Before I even came to Japan I had enjoyed ume boshi, its tiny red, pickled fruit. But the flowers themselves were unique in their own way: though modest white blossoms, with yellow at their centers and red at their base, they emitted a quiet and delicious smell. It was very faint: to fully enjoy it, you had to press your nose up to it and sniff. This sweet, demur flower was one of the earliest to bloom.

Plum and cherry blossoms are cousins, the former regarded as the plainer of the two. Aesthetically inferior to cherry because they “linger so long on the boughs”*; nevertheless, the plum blossoms had all wilted away before their fair cousin arrived.

The sakura, the famous Japanese cherry blossoms, began to bud in March, and I waited for them: examining the cherry each day, I did not see the plum wither. The cherry trees sprouted buds ever so slowly, but their blossoms came all in a whirl.

I returned from a week long break, and my breath was taken from me: the cherry trees were halfway bloomed, pale pink flowers resting like snow on the black boughs. The petals were delicate, nearly translucent. The covered the tree with a soft pink lace, and everywhere I walked, cherry blossomed in abundance.

But sakura is famous not only for its beauty, but for how quickly it perishes. They day after the bloom is at its height, the petals begin to fall, blown in the wind like tears. Outside, the gutter is filled with cherry blossoms.

Now is the time of the wilting of the cherry, and the plum and the camellias have left me as well. And while other flowers have poked their heads—Iris and Peony and Daffodils—and while the grass bursts out green and tender leaves shoot from the limbs, the flowers I have come to love—tsubaki, sakura, and ume—are gone. They died, almost before I knew them.

*Donald Keene, “Japanese Aesthetics”


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