This week, April 10 Memphis time marked the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. This week, the remains of the sakura blossoms snowed down on gentle winds, piling up in pale pink drifts, their trees gradually yellowing with growing leaves and blending back into the landscape. Sakura-fubuki they call it, “cherry blossom blizzard.” (Try googling images of 桜吹雪.)
On the morning of the 11th, still the 10th in Memphis, I dashed into the restroom at work before the 8:30 bell rang to deal with my inevitable post-commute hair, and I found that a sakura petal had chosen my head as its final resting place.
I carefully unwound my hair from around it. As I did, I remembered the wad of bubblegum, only a slightly deeper pink, that my mother had cut from my hair one morning when I was six or seven. I had sobbed for my lost locks, furious that I had fallen asleep with the gum in my mouth. Everyone at school would know!
Then I remembered another hair-pruning that Mother (still “Mama” then) did a few years later. A tick had implanted itself in my scalp on a camping trip and had gone unnoticed by me until I got home and found it bloated and knotted firmly in place. This time, I didn’t care about the hair. In fear and revulsion, I begged for Mama to get it out of me, no matter what the sacrifice to vanity–which I didn’t have much of as a preteen tomboy.
Back in the present, I dropped the sakura petal into the tiny restroom garbage can. A wave of bittersweet sorrow for my gentle mother flowed over me. Then I dashed back out to get to my office area in time for the morning circle meeting.
Last week, my older brother, my oni-ani, came to experience Osaka and its environs in sakura season. If you only visit Japan once in your life, try to visit when the sakura bloom. Other places in the world abound in varieties of blossoms and bulbs that revel in the annual return to life. But Japan is about sakura. A couple of hundred years ago, the strict Tokugawa shogunate even reduced it from sakura in general to one variety from one village, the Somei Yoshino. This is the delicate, cloud-like bloom that now ices the country’s avenues and hillsides. The nation blushes. It becomes a young girl’s birthday cake.
Variety has its wild and rampant beauty, but uniformity, when done right, washes your soul in soft sea of understated glory that can change you forever. Japan does it right.
Before my oni-ani came, my heart sank when I heard that Tokyo’s trees had blossomed a week early. Every day I watched the buds bulging out in Osaka, willing them to stay inside their bursting cocoons just a few days longer.
The trees at my office building burst open simultaneously, transforming my gray, industrial office building into a lacy fairyland. These were all planted from the same tree so that they bloom, and later leaf simultaneously. They melt my heart. I badged in the gate in the morning with my head thrown back and my jaw dropping open at their glory. Most employees marched forward with their normal, bland, ready-for-work faces, but a few other people stopped in wonder, too.
But when the flowers opened almost to full bloom (mankai, 満開), and then started snowing, I wanted so much to glue them back up for a few more days. Wait for my brother!
I sent my brother terse, worried texts, updating him on the sakura conditions. I pored over hopelessly pink and white websites mapping the “cherry blossom front” (桜煎線). (See if *you* can figure out this site: www.sakurazensen.com. It’s beyond my powers.)
Finally, the day came. My brother left his home in Memphis and started on his 30-hour pilgrimage to my town. The tenseness in my shoulders started to relax. The blossoms had peaked at my office, but higher up on the hill in my town of Minoh, only a few blossoms had popped from their buds. Kyoto was always behind Osaka, too.
His timing was perfect. When he arrived, I kept thinking we needed to call Mother. She would be so happy to hear about his visit. And then I’d remember with a pang that we had to just enjoy it for ourselves.
My big bro did the Kansai region proud as a sakura pilgrim.
Driven and guided by my adventure-loving hairdresser, we boated down the Hozu River (保津川下り) to Arashiyama (嵐山) and watched the wild sakura (yamazakura, 山桜) sweep by.
At Arashiyama, we stood in awe of the graceful weeping cherries (shidarezakura, 枝垂桜) in Tenryuji, the Heavenly Dragon Temple (天竜寺).
Even the construction workers in Arashiyama honor the cherry blossoms.
While I worked, commuting past my favorite statue, now bejeweled in pink…
…my oni-ani spent an afternoon with the sakura and Kansai history in Osaka Castle Park. He called me over for the evening.
In Kyoto, my brother continued on the sakura trail. He trekked to one temple that advertised a tree in full bloom. It was a little forlorn after the glory of Tenryuji, and he chuckled when a couple of older ladies commented disgustedly that they saw leaves coming in under the blossoms. (This sullied state is called “leaves cherry blossoms,” hazakura, 葉桜.)
The pièce de résistance of the Kansai sakura experience is, of course, the Philosopher’s Path (哲学の道) in Kyoto. Robert hit it at its peak. (He’ll have to send me pictures to post, since I wasn’t there.) Many Osaka folks I know avoid that path at all costs during sakura season, but if it’s your first sakura experience, I insist…do it once. Walking four kilometers along a winding stream through Kyoto, an unending panorama of blooming and floating blossoms enveloping you in pink clouds from every direction, along with crowds of awestruck people pushing each other to photo the good ones, is an unforgettable experience.
We ate mochi (sticky rice balls) flavored with sakura leaves. We licked on sakura-flavored soft serve ice cream. We ate sakura chocolate and sakura-flavored bean paste.
If you follow the sakura from Okinawa to Hokkaido, you can keep them going for over two months. In one location, though, they last about ten days. As the sakura in our lowlands began to languish into hazakura, we made a trip to Kobe. It was a drizzly day, and the sakura were past their prime.
But as my brother said, the hazakura had a wistful, mature beauty of their own.
And we saw a baby blessing (note the sakura in the background on the right)…
…and a wedding between a German man and a Japanese woman–also plenty of sakura.
The fleeting beauty of the fragile blossoms is fading, but the green leaves follow with a more robust message of hope.
One year ago, my oni-ani woke me early with a trans-Pacific call to let me know that Mother had gone. Gentle, stubborn, upright, spiritual, endlessly loving Mother. In the whirlwind of grief and travel that followed, I barely noticed either the blooming or the falling of the sakura. This year I was ready for their message of life and death. And I can depend on somewhere in Japan to snow sakura on Mother’s day of departure, if not forever, then for a long, long time.
Love to my uncle, who lost his only sister and promptly “adopted” us orphans. Love to my siblings and in-laws and all five of Mother’s grandchildren, who lost our matriarch and guiding spirit. And especially love to my daughter, who gave me the other side of motherhood.