Monday, May 16, 2011

Cherry Blossoms in Japan

Although I go to Japan as a solo traveler, I find that I am rarely alone. In Kyoto, especially, I am often approached by Japanese ladies, usually in pairs.

Where are you going? Are you lost? Can I help you?

It is this seemingly never-ending kindness as I'm passed from one stranger to the next until I reach my intended destination that endears the country to me. While I'm rather infamously bad at following directions, locating compass points, reading maps -- anything, really, that would mark me as someone capable of leaving her own back yard -- I am never, ever lost in Japan for longer than a 5 minute stretch. Any trace of puzzlement on my face or the action of unfolding my map is like a cry for help and the Japanese ladies nearest me immediately rush to express their concern, put me on the right bus, walk me to the sushi restaurant I'm trying to find, plot out my course and quiz me after to make sure their directions are clear. Their kindness is overwhelming.

Often, a pair of them will take it upon themselves to give me a tour of whatever temple I happen to be in. See the tree in the corner of the garden? It is old. See these roof tiles? They are old. *pause for dramatic effect* Very old.

{The Silver Pavilion is old.}

Maybe the information they give me is not quite as precise as that I might receive were I to actually hire a professional tour guide, but even if I was told the exact dates, my memory would sooner or later sort them into the categories of "old" and "very old," so in the end, it's all the same.

{The Golden Pavilion was old. But then a monk fell in love with it -- yes, the building -- and burnt it to the ground so no one else could have it. The rebuilt structure is mostly new.}

The Japanese ladies are also very solicitous about helping me dress. On my previous visit to Japan, I bought a used kimono of coral silk with delicate silver branches embroidered across it and sleeves that drip halfway to the ground, indicator that I am unmarried. I also have a floral, tapestry-type obi (belt) and linen undergarments someone gave me to wear with it. However, in spite of the lengthy instructions I've printed from the web, I'm not entirely confident in dressing myself in these items. If I wrap the kimono in the wrong direction, it indicates that I'm dead. Even worse is the matter of trying to tie the obi, an elaborate and complicated procedure.

At one of my hostels (I change hostels every night because the entire city is booked during sakura season), I meet a friendly Japanese girl named Asuka.

"Do you know how to wear a kimono?" I ask and show her my clothing spread. Asuka drapes the kimono in slightly loose folds around me and carefully ties the obi into an oversized bow in the back.

I happily wander around the city like this and get as much attention as Mickey Mouse at Disneyland: everyone from Japanese salarymen to Western tourists wants their photo with me. But when I get to Maruyama Koen Park, one of the Japanese ladies tilts her head at me and frowns. Without a word, she undoes my obi and reties it into a different shape, a sort of waterfall design, and then smiles. All better.

Next, I visit the Fushimi Inari Temple Complex at the edge of the city. With its hundreds of sunset-orange tori gates spanning the hillside, it's one of Kyoto's most iconic sites. After my long walk there, I must be a bit disheveled, for one of the vendors at the end of the trail grabs my hand and pulls me over by her table. For God and all the world to see, she strips me down to my underthings (which, fortunately, are plentiful) while a group of Finnish tourists stops to take photos of the event.

The Japanese lady then redresses me, wrapping the kimono tightly around my body. She untangles the long obi from its waterfall shape and ties it around my waist, refashioning it so that it is once again in the shape of a large bow. She then smiles proudly at her improvements on my appearance. It does seem tidier, with cleaner lines, now that everything is bound more closely to my frame.

Before arriving in Kyoto, I had imagined how wonderful it would be to see the cherry blossoms in a rural, isolated setting -- rice paddies with maybe a pagoda or two on the skyline. Kyoto is nothing like that. While the city is a living treasury of historic temples and beautifully-tiered pagodas, it's also packed with people. Some of the people are European and (non-Japanese) Asian tourists, but mostly the city is crowded with people local to Kyoto and various other cities in Japan. I unexpectedly love it, the crowds. There's something touching about being surrounded by families, groups of friends, and other solo travellers who are all there for the same simple reason as me: to celebrate some of the beauty the world has to offer.

{The photo does not do it justice. The weeping cherry tree at Maruyama Koen is the most beautiful thing I've seen in my whole life.}

The blush-pink and starry-white cherry blossoms which indiscriminately decorate the city, next to pagodas and homes, in school yards and parks, next to rivers and on tiny, otherwise unlovely, dead-end streets, seem to offer a lesson.

We always have the choice of whether to open ourselves to the world. We've all been hurt in various ways; it's easiest to stay closed. But how much better it is to let our hearts and lives, like the wild white cherry trees, burst into blossom without holding back.


  1. How gorgeous you are in your kimono! And how lovely that the Japanese ladies are so keen on helping you! Do you speak the language?

  2. You look FANTASTIC in your kimono. I was never brave enough to wear Indian clothes while I was in India (or back home for that matter).

    The cherry blossoms are exquisite!

  3. I love your analogy of the cherry blossoms, living our lives while opening up to the world without restraint. You look so pretty in your kimono - that was very sweet of Asuka to help you get the obi just right. How long will you be in Nihon?

  4. Love this entry! Love your writing and your humor!

  5. Thanks so much for the kind words, ladies! I truly appreciate it. :D

    Sadly, Oneika, I don't speak Japanese, just the "hello, thank you, food, bathroom" spectrum that covers the essentials.

    Thanks so much Deidre! I absolutely love trying out foreign fashions.

    @Patricia -- Even though I wrote this post recently, the trip itself took place last year. But I'm planning to return to Japan at the end of August or beginning of September. I want to climb Mt. Fuji! Do you live near there?

    @Jess -- Thanks! Your support always makes me happy, dear friend.

  6. I felt like I was right there with you in this post. I love visiting places where locals look out for you. This happened to me unexpectedly in some of the places I visited in Mexico and it made for some of the most pleasant travel of my life. The kimono adjusting experience reminds me of my sari on the 2nd day of the wedding I attended in Kolkata. I had to have someone put it on for me in the afternoon, and then two women helped me adjust it at different points in the evening.

  7. Melanie, I don't live in Japan yet but I am planning on moving there to teach English after I graduate university (at the end of next year). Climbing Mt. Fuji sounds like an awesome experience, I hope you enjoy yourself when you go!