Today was one the most incredible days of my life. I’m still in disbelief. Seriously.
And it was damned good timing, too. Two days ago I finally took a train down to Osaka and picked up my new digital camera (the Canon Powershot SD400 – highly recommended). Memory here costs three times more than in America, but Bjorn (one of our new friends from Germany) was nice enough to lend me an extra gig of his own so that I could take pictures of cherry blossoms while waiting for my own memory to arrive from the US. Four other people here at YHM also bought new cameras on the same day. We were all set up and ready for hanami (“Cherry blossom viewing”).
The one bad piece of news is that while I was in Osaka, my bike got impounded for being parked in front of Saiin Station (every single person in Japan parks their bikes in “no parking” zones because there’s simply not enough space – it’s just a matter of luck whether or not they get impounded). It cost me $25 to get it out. But I don’t care. Today was too awesome to care.
Immediately after my return, we set out with a huge group and rode our bikes across town to the light-up at Kiyomizu Dera, which was of course spectacular. Even more spectacular than Kiyomizu is on a regular day, which somehow does indeed seem to be possible. A light-up means that they light all of the lamps leading up to the temple, and have spotlights illuminating the already bright colors of cherry blossoms all around the temple grounds. A light-up at Kiyomizu also means an ultra high-powered spotlight crossing the sky over the entire city of Kyoto. Unfortunately all of my pictures here came out blurry due to the low lighting conditions, a problem that would soon be solved with the acquisition of a tripod.
After the light-up, we laid out a tarp in Maruyama Park behind Yasaka Jinja and had a nice night of drinking and socializing with all of our international buddies under the sakura. In celebration of the blossoms, this park has been packed for the last few days with people young and old from all over Japan. Truly sakura are something that must be enjoyed quickly – they only reached their peak a couple of days ago, and already the petals are falling like snow.
The next day, yesterday, the weather was flawless, by far the best day since I’ve arrived in Japan. We spent a good eight hours riding all around the city and seeing as much as we could. Clothed in flip-flops, board shorts, and a tank top, armed with my new digital camera, and surrounded by indescribable beauty, we completed our first full day of hanami. I realize that in my last entry I resolved not to post any sakura pictures online for fear of underrepresenting their beauty. I think we all knew that I could never hold back. Still, I want to reiterate that these pictures really do nothing to convey the striking beauty of the huge pink and purple trees, especially when set against the already breathtaking backdrop of a city like Kyoto.
At about 6:00pm, we gathered back here at I-House II for a large potluck dinner, in attendance was somewhere around thirty people. The party was wonderful, but in favor of talking about today I’ll leave it with just this brief mention.
So begins today. Thanks to Dylan’s Japanese sakura book, he and I started off on our own at three or four smaller temples and shrines, each more spectacular than the last, partially because several of them were ours to enjoy alone – the swarms of people seem to only go to the “major” sights. One of the most amazing sights of the morning was when a huge gust of wind came, taking up thousands of petals and whirling them around us literally like a snowstorm. I’m sure one of us will end up editing a video together soon enough…
And once again, the weather was perfect. So perfect, in fact, that I’m now sunburned to the point that I fully expect to be kept awake all night in pain. But I don’t care. Today was too awesome to care.
After awhile, I finally decided that I was going to buy a tripod for my camera – using Axel’s (our Swedish friend) for one shot at the Kiyomizu light-up convinced me that it would be a worthwhile purchase, and I’ve never been so right. We then met up with Stuart, Harrison, and Keir, and following a brief snack (which we ate sitting on the steppingstones in the middle of the Kamo Gawa with the water rushing by on both sides, cherry petals falling on our heads) we set off for the philosopher’s path.
But the day still hasn’t even started to get good. The overwhelmingly beautiful cherry blossoms, the absolutely flawless weather, the perfectly delicious matcha ice cream, the peaceful sound of a river flowing by us on both sides. ‘Eh.
Next we headed back to Yasaka once more to shoot some pictures of the famous BIG sakura tree with the new tripod, which came out beautifully. So beautifully in fact that the four others all decided to go out and purchase an additional tripod tomorrow. I guess you can’t so much tell from these low-resolution 800×600’s, but especially in comparison to the blurry Kiyomizu pictures from two nights ago these pictures were surprisingly sharp (particularly to me, as I’d grown accustomed to my OLD 2 megapixel Canon). I plan to go back to Kiyomizu and get some captures of the light-up before the blossoms whither once again.
By this time most of us were getting pretty hungry so we decided to head home and call it a day. However, when we were within a mere ten minutes of the dorm we noticed some lit up sakura off in the distance, so we stopped to grab a few more pictures. It turned out to be a gorgeous light-up surrounding some railroad tracks. We got some really awesome pictures of the sakura as trains streaked by, leaving only a trail of light for our cameras to capture. Around the tracks were less than fifteen or twenty other Japanese people, all of whom seemed to be intrigued by the fact that a group of gaijin stumbled into their little neighborhood light-up, and who were even more intrigued to hear that we could speak Japanese.
And now the truly amazing magic happens. Just as we turned around to head home, we were stopped by a few locals who told us that we should check out another light up down a nearby street. We debated just calling it a night and returning for the other light up tomorrow, but eventually decided to give it a shot. Hey, we’re in Japan – and you only live once. Had we left five seconds earlier, the people wouldn’t have crossed paths with us and the following events would never have taken place.
The light-up turned out to be a single tree in the backyard of a private residence. From the entrance, we immediately heard the enchanting sound of a shakuhachi – Japanese flute – along with a traditional Japanese singer.
It was entrancing.
The four of us stayed outside the private garden listening to the singing, all of us pretty much awe-struck. Soon, someone inside noticed us standing there and invited us into the garden. Passing through the surrounding hedges revealed the biggest sakura tree any of us had ever seen. It was notably larger than the house itself, supported by a huge framework of bamboo and posts. The sight alone was enough to knock you off your feet, and the music made it all the more surreal. The five of us just kept on looking at each other and mouthing the words “Oh my God.”
Soon, a woman came from inside with a tray of sakura tea, each cup with some blossoms in it, and offered them to us, telling us that we could eat the flowers as well. It was delicious, and again we were all overwhelmed. Dylan asked the man who invited us into the garden whether or not the house was his, and he said that it wasn’t. He said that the house belonged to everyone there, as the woman who owned it passed away one year ago and this celebration was in her honor. He also told us that it was to happen for only two nights, yesterday night and tonight.
He told us that this wasn’t his house, but if we wanted to go to see where he lived we were welcome to. We gratefully accepted.
His house was gorgeous, very traditional and clearly hand-built. The wood was all unpainted, giving it even more of a natural feel. The livingroom had high ceilings where you could see clear up to the paper lamp hanging on the second floor ceiling. We hadn’t been sitting for more than a minute when his wife came in and brought us some Japanese sake and the first of many home-cooked dishes that we would receive over the course of the night. By this time the five of us were so stunned from the evening that we barely knew what to say, other than profusely thanking the man who continued to give us amazing food and sake well into the night.
One of the plates he gave us was bamboo sashimi, which he told us only tastes its best if you chop it in the morning. “This,” he said, “I chopped this morning from my own garden.”
After not too long his son came home, who also joined us at the table. We all sat and talked for awhile, although I was fairly quiet because my Japanese isn’t nearly up to par with the others. I just listened and enjoyed the situation I was fortunate enough to have been placed into.
Just as the conversation started to die down, and I started to think that the man was tiring of our company, he asked us “would you like to come visit me again?” “Of course, thank you so much” we all said. He immediately had his wife bring him his calendar, and said “what about this day?” We agreed, and told him that next time we’d prepare him some American food.
Eventually we left for home, noticing once we hit the main road that his house was less than a two minute bike ride from our dorm. The whole way back the five of us were chanting nothing but “Oh My God…” The sakura, the music, the garden, the tea…and the dinner. It was just too much. Dylan said that it was one of the most memorable things that’s ever happened to him, emphasizing the fact that it really did “just happen.” There were three or four times when even a two minute shift in our schedule would have caused the whole evening to be missed.
What an incredible day.