The Time Before the Flowers Bloom
Reflecting on my fondest memories amongst Japan’s ephemeral cherry blossoms blooming
There’s an accumulating warmth in the air, as the days in Japan fluctuate between pleasant and cold, sun and rain, swaying on the verge between winter and spring.
A few days ago was the balmiest day in months. I rode my bike up to my apartment and my neighbor stood in the street watering the row of plants which sit at the entrance of my building.
I’ve never seen his entire face, just his eyes above his mask; they always seem to smile beneath arched, greying brows. He’s usually gardening when I see him. Perhaps that’s why his eyes seem to smile.
I parked my bike and gave a friendly ohayogozaimasu, good morning. He gave a deep ohayogozaimasu in return with his usual wave.
As I walked past the flowers, I caught the scent of water drying on pavement on a sunny day, mingled with the earthy soil.
Nostalgia overwhelmed me in nothing more than a second of passing time.
That smell reminds me of being a kid at my grandparents' house in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. It brings to mind the smell of water evaporating on the edges of the pool and the warmth of laying flat on the concrete, letting the sun dry me to my core.
The thought brings to mind the cheerfulness of the gardener spraying down the vibrant green plants in my grandparents’ yard. The world was quiet in that yard, simple — yet it contained so much.
There, I experienced moments of joy as a kid, as an adult, and even now; I’m not there physically, but the impressions remain. These memories inspire who I am, a young man finding my way on the other side of the world.
I think about the yard: the beauty of the red, white and pink roses; the smell of the wet pavement; the sound of the spraying hose; the touch of the concrete beneath the sun.
Our memories skip, jump, and follow us through life, conjured into meaning through our senses. We carry these pieces of our past, these fragments of our self; they guide us, drawing our hearts to walk this road or that based on intuition.
Where we’ve been tells us where to go. These recollections help me understand who I am.
I smell the wet pavement on a sunny spring day; I walk past the row of bright green flowers, and I’m home. Physically, yes. But regardless of where I catch that scent, that feeling — I’m home in my spirit and soul.
I’m an English teacher here in Japan, and last night, I taught a lesson about senses and memory to a middle-aged Japanese man, Tsuyoshi. This was the first time we met. It had been raining all day. The morning gave way to another warm afternoon where the grey spring sky felt sodden with moisture.
We spent eighty minutes talking about memories, specifically from our childhoods; after that time I felt like I understood who he was, however slightly.
I told him that my most powerful childhood memory is the smell of roses on a warm spring day. That smell contains all I’ve just presented: the water, the heat, the sounds of tennis and laughter and the love of my family, which is really what I felt most strongly in that yard.
He told me he didn’t have a memory relating to roses, although as a child, his parents had a small cherry blossom tree.
To see them beginning to bloom reminds him of his childhood.
I stood by the board, wearing slacks and my dad’s old blazer with brown elbow pads; Tsuyoshi wore a formal blue suit and told me he was so busy with work today that he couldn’t even have lunch.
We’re still those kids from our memories, right?
We’ve grown up and wear suits and have seen some of the world and more of ourselves. Yet we still retain those feelings; we still walk the same earth.
When we’re touched by the blooming pink flowers or water drying on pavement, we remember who we are and where we come from; life becomes simple again.
This is my first spring living in Japan. What I love about this country is how each season is utterly unique.
The autumn leaves (紅葉, kōyō) paint the hills in fiery red color, yellow and orange tints. The spring is delicate, renowned for its soft pink cherry blossom trees (桜, sakura).
While the fall foliage lasts for a couple of months, the cherry blossoms flower and remain for about a week. The anticipation builds until they bloom and cast the Japanese landscape in a light pink complexion; then, they fall and blow away.
The way they fall, land, and continue flowing forward through their lifespan is integral to their mystique, representing the cycle of birth and death in our own lives. The meaning derived from the ephemeral nature of sakura runs deep in Japanese history and myth.
In Osaka, they’ve begun blooming here and there. A couple hang over the wall from a tree in my neighborhood. A few have opened amongst the other bare sakura trees in the nearby park.
The cherry blossoms blooming presents one of the most incredible occurrences in the world. Although maybe it’s not just the week when they’re at their apex which makes this time special.
Discovering what the event means to people has shown me that maybe it’s the memories, the feelings, the emotions, the past which the sakura evoke that makes them so personal to each individual.
In five, ten, twenty years, I’ll reflect on my first year in Japan; I hope to remember the feelings I have now, waiting for the cherry blossoms. I hope I remember my neighbor, the man with the smiling eyes who waters the plants in front of my home.
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