Frederic is an excellent poet, and he’s written a sequence of five short poems about cherry blossom. I’ve reblogged my favourite, but they’re all well worth reading, and I recommend a visit to his site to read the others. While you’re there, you might enjoy his poem “The True Poet”. I like it; it seems to me to be very French in sentiment. But is it romantic with a post-modern slant, or is it just romantic? I’ll leave you to judge!
Sufferers from anxiety know that the condition can be debilitating. I was in that state some years ago; thankfully I’ve now recovered. In the recovery, I learned a number of mental habits that help me to avoid recurrences; living ‘in the moment’ is one of them; hypnosis for relaxation is another. I recently came across another influence, namely the power of symbols.
I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan. I’ll start this post by confirming what a wonderful holiday it was. It was full of interest, full of beauty, full of emotion. My wife Daphne and I really enjoyed it.
It was a big, important holiday; we cashed in savings to be able to afford it. I was looking forward to it eagerly – but I was also apprehensive, because I am prone to anxiety attacks. They are sometimes very unpleasant, and they’re triggered by stress…
Travel – especially long haul flights – can be stressful. A different culture – and Japanese culture is pretty different from European culture! – can be stressful. Visiting a place where you don’t understand the language can be stressful – and although English is taught to all children in Japan, it’s not widely spoken, and only the most important signs are in English as well as Japanese.
And yet I have returned feeling tranquil, and the feeling has endured. This was sufficiently unexpected that I have tried hard to understand it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any definite conclusions, but here are some of the thoughts.
Before going to Japan, I recognised that I might suffer from anxiety, and I accepted the possibility. I find that acceptance is a big deal. It goes at least halfway towards dealing with anxiety symptoms. I must make a very clear distinction at this point. To accept the possibility that something might happen, is definitely not the same as expecting it to happen. It’s the exact opposite of worrying about something. It’s realising that something may happen, and saying “Yes, I understand that, I accept the possibility. I don’t have to worry about it.”
So I considered in advance what might happen.
The anxiety would be very unpleasant. Could I get through an attack without going home? Yes. Could I get through two attacks without going home? Er, yes, probably. What about repeated attacks? It would spoil the holiday but I’d survive.
What about a worst-case scenario? The worst case would be that I would have repeated anxiety attacks that would leave me feeling so vulnerable that we would have to return home before the end of the tour. It would be a great shame to lose the holiday. It would cost a lot of extra money to change flights for an early return.
I consciously accepted that this could happen, and used my usual hypnotic relaxation regime to put aside any worrying about it.
I’m sure it helped. But I’m equally sure that it’s not the whole story.
Could the tranquillity have arisen as a result of having succeeded in surviving the stress of the holiday? I took on the challenge of a visit that in prospect I found quite intimidating, and came through it unscathed. Was I just feeling relief?
Well, I suppose it’s possible. But the tranquillity seems such an active feeling. I’m a slightly different woman from the one who set off to Japan. I would have expected relief to be a reactive feeling, and to dissipate quickly.
One of the features of the holiday was that we visited some important Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path, and includes a recognition that human suffering is unavoidable. It also teaches, among many other things, that true happiness can be attained despite human suffering, by relinquishing useless craving and by living in the moment. Surrounded as we were by pilgrims, it seems possible that some of their piety ‘rubbed off’ on me, so to speak.
Beyond any of these possible explanations, though, my emotions tell me that the answer may lie in the symbol of cherry blossom. It was the ‘Cherry Blossom Tour’ that we took, and there were several occasions when the symbolism of the blossom overwhelmed me emotionally. The blossom is beautiful – and transient. But the symbolism goes far beyond the recurrence of beauty in the world despite personal tragedy. I can’t explain it; I had to experience it.
I suspect that Japan has given me a most valuable gift. I’m so glad we took the holiday!
Why did I visit Japan?
I expected to enjoy the food and the scenery; I anticipated seeing cutting-edge technology; I already knew from working with them that I liked Japanese people. The country seemed slightly exotic without being intimidating. A tour of Japan felt like a suitably ‘special’ holiday to mark my retirement, especially as we chose the cherry blossom tour which takes place around the time of our wedding anniversary.
Many Japanese celebrate cherry blossom season with a hanami party, which is a picnic under the cherry trees. On day two of the tour, our group was going to enjoy its very own hanami party! Unfortunately, the weather was poor, cold and wet, and we picnicked in the rain. Our tour guide had prepared copies of a traditional Japanese cherry blossom song for us to sing, and provided a recorded accompaniment. We sang it. It all felt a little silly.
Until the next day.
We took a boat trip on the Sumida River, and there, in the background, was the cherry blossom song, ‘Sakura, Sakura’, we had sung the day before. Suddenly, the symbolism of cherry blossom made perfect emotional sense. I don’t think I can explain it; it’s something you need to experience before you can even begin to understand it. It goes way beyond the obvious reading of the transience of beauty.
Then, a few days later, Mount Fuji. What is it about that peak that makes it so potent? I’m not Japanese; it’s not a national icon of mine; and yet seeing it evoked a sense of awe in me. And it wasn’t just my response. We were travelling by bus, and the whole busload of us gasped (and I really mean that – you could hear the sharp intake of breath) as we first saw the mountain.
In the afternoon, I walked a short way along the ancient Tokkaido highway, which is planted on either side with 400-year-old cedars. There was one especially majestic tree. I stopped and rested my hand against its trunk. Abruptly I felt…disrespectful. I felt as though it would have been more appropriate to have bowed to the tree.
The next day we saw the Miyako Odori. I have rarely watched a performance of such intensity. I understand some of the theatrical devices that made it so powerful, but there’s more to it than that. Once again, it leads back to cherry blossom, the exquisite beauty of the world that humans are privileged to share for a short period.
This holiday has changed me. A small part of that change is that I feel more tranquil. I haven’t changed my religious belief; I’m certainly not a Shintoist, or an animist; but I’ve experienced emotional responses that go beyond my ability to understand or describe them more than superficially. I’m glad of those experiences; I’m the richer for them.
It was a good holiday. Thank you, Japan!
This is going to be a miscellaneous collection of thoughts and pictures; a portfolio blog post if you like. That’s what today has been like.
It was a “free” day, when we managed our own activities. Daphne and I decided that we would start by visiting the temple at Fushimi-Inari. We caught the first subway train and arrived at the station where we changed to another line. All well so far. We found the right part of the station for the next change, and, after careful study of the subway map we boarded a train. It wasn’t very full, and we wondered where everybody was. Then we realised that they were all on the adjacent platform piling into a train that was going in the right direction.
We leaped up, sprinted across the platform (insofar as two elderly ladies can sprint!) and just caught the train. The doors closed and we departed. It went straight through the first station – we hardly noticed – and stopped at the second, where we realised what had happened. “I hope it stops at our station,” said Daphne, as the doors closed. I suppose it didn’t actually take us that long to retrace our journey by four stations…
When we finally reached the right place it was raining. Never mind. The temple is renowned for its many torii gates, and they were spectacular, brilliant orange, which in some lights shone golden. They became closer and closer, until it felt like walking inside a great cathedral.
Above the torii gates, on Mount Inari, we walked through a forest, a mixture of bamboo and cedar. It was wonderfully tranquil. The trees were reddish-purple and green.
One final thought on the temple. It seemed to be much more of a working temple. There was worship and meditation taking place.
When we returned to the station, we needed the loo. Most stations have European style toilets. Fushimi-Inari station does not. It has Asian squat toilets. I squatted, and then it was time to stand again. My knees and quads told me in no uncertain terms what they thought of that manoeuvre – in fact, I reckon I was lucky to make it without falling over!
We went to the Philosophers’ Walk next, which is a path by a canal whose banks are planted with cherry blossom. It was raining heavily by now, and there were crowds of people being slightly less courteous than they would have been in the sunshine. Still, at least we saw the place, and it is indeed beautiful.
Now we must pack. We’re off to Hiroshima in the morning, to see the Peace Park. That’s a serious business, and I shall blog about it tomorrow.
For a few short days
Cherry blossom blooms then falls,
But the tree still lives.
We have seen many temples and shrines on this holiday. They are colourful and crowded. Many have been destroyed at some time and then rebuilt. They are often of great beauty. They celebrate important aspects of the natural world; for example, the temple that we visited today is called Kiyomizudera, which translates as “Pure water temple”. This particular temple has stood for 1200 years. It’s massive, it’s constructed of wood, and it is built entirely without using nails. The grounds were absolutely thronging with people.
This is the waterfall that gives the temple its name.
I have increasingly wondered during this visit about the extent to which Japanese people believe the teachings of these temples, and, so far as I can make out the answer is “A lot” and, simultaneously, “Not much at all”. In fact, I think it’s probably a meaningless question.
The throng of visitors close to the temple.
There is, apparently, a Japanese joke that says that each Japanese is born Shinto, and dies Buddhist, which seems to mean that when you are young you are seeking to influence the world around you, and when you are old you are more concerned with a tranquil acceptance of death.
Many significant life events are recognised in a religious sense, to a much greater extent than in the UK. For example, graduation, or the start of your first job might well be celebrated with some form of blessing. People go on pilgrimage and collect stamps from the holy sites that they visit – there are thirty-three such sites in western Japan, I’m told.
What comes across strongly is the extent to which symbolism is important. Children who have died young, or been stillborn, or been miscarried, are publicly remembered in wayside shrines. Houses often have symbols for protection or prosperity outside the front door.
And, of course, there is cherry blossom. Life is beautiful if brief – but there is continuity through our family. I have tried to capture a little of this with a haiku at the top of this blog post.
I’m tired. We’ve walked miles, stood on tube trains, sat in taxis, stood and sat in buses, walked in warm sunshine and cool rain, sat on rudimentary benches, balanced on one leg while removing shoes to go into a temple. It’s all been well worth it, just exhausting, and I don’t have the energy to write anything intelligent.
Why did we visit at this time of year? To see cherry blossom. Did we see cherry blossom today? Yes, we did; lots of it. Single trees with exquisite blooms, groves of trees in drifts of pink, cherry trees on mountains, cherry trees beside lakes, cherry trees on islands. And, in addition, the Zen garden of Ryoanji, the Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji, Nijo Castle, and the bamboo forest. Oh, we saw two herons as a bonus.
Incidentally, what you see in the picture below is real gold. That Pavilion is covered in gold leaf, a total of 20 kilograms!
I fear that you, my gentle readers, are going to feel that I cannot write without the use of superlatives. But it’s that sort of trip; the experiences that we’re having can only be appropriately described by superlatives.
Today we travelled by shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kyoto. It’s a train. It’s very fast. It’s very smooth. No, it no longer deserves superlatives, even though it travels at well over 150 mph, and we haven’t built anything that fast yet in the UK.
The countryside through which we travelled is interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. Think of the foreground being Holland and the background being Switzerland and you’ve about got it.
We ate a really pleasant okonomiyaki this evening, washed down with beer. Superlatives unnecessary.
But this afternoon. This afternoon we went to the Miyako Odori. This is a traditional theatrical art form performed by geisha. It has elements of straight theatre, opera, and ballet; and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
I expected to see beauty. I expected to see grace. I expected to be moved emotionally. What I didn’t expect was drama of such intensity that the tears were running down my cheeks. It was a simple story of loss set in the context of the continuity of human life, and performed with a hypnotic focus and skill that was shattering.
It’s invidious to pick out individuals because it was the effect of every contribution together that made the performance so memorable – but I’m going to do it anyway!
The principal singer was superb. An astonishing voice, and such amazing projection of emotion. The flute soloist accomplished remarkable effects and her intonation was wonderfully precise even when using microtones. The little details were perfect, like the snowflakes in the winter grieving scene, which were small paper discs. When illuminated by warm light in the finale, they were revealed as pink cherry blossom underfoot.
So I have yet another memory that I shall cherish until the end of my life. And if I have time on my deathbed to think of this, I shall remember the cherry blossom and die with a tranquil spirit.
The weather forecast today for Tokyo was for rain and a maximum temperature of 6°C. It helpfully added that 6°C would feel like 1°C. So where was I at 12:30? In the Imperial Palace Outer Garden, eating a picnic in the rain, on a plastic sheet, with no shoes on. Yes, you read that correctly; I had no shoes on. To be fair, the food was both tasty and filling.
And we were, too, under a magnificent cherry tree in almost full bloom. I am sure this will bring me enormous good fortune over the next twelve months, just as soon as I’ve recovered from the pneumonia. We sang a song about the blossom
“Sakura, sakura, yayoi no sarawa miwatasu kagiri
Kasumika kumokanioi zo izuru, izaya izaya mini yukan.”
In the morning we had visited the Tsukiji fish market. This is made up of an outer market, which has unrestricted public access. It’s a maze of literally hundreds of small retail outlets, which are not food stalls exactly, but I struggle to call them shops, as they are completely open to the street at the front. They sell fish, fish derivatives (like flaked bonito tuna), fruit and veg, processed fruit and veg, and general small items. And there are lots and lots of micro-eateries mostly with disproportionately long queues. It’s crowded.
The inner market is where the serious business takes place, with £15m of fish being traded every day, and a where a large tuna can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public access is restricted to a period after 10:00, when the busiest time is past. Again, it’s crowded. It’s also hazardous, with motorised trolleys whizzing unexpectedly round corners. They have de facto right of way; pedestrians must dodge! The visit was very worthwhile, because it gave us a view of some of the things that happen behind the scenes to enable visitors like me, and of course the residents of the city, to enjoy our daily life. Here are people working in cold, wet, crowded, hazardous conditions, for not very much money. For them, life is hard, and we could see that it was.
After our picnic, we strolled in the Imperial Palace Eastern Garden.
There are castle ruins, a pond with koi, and a small museum with woodblock prints. And some of them are beautiful, indeed, one of them is amongst the most beautiful objects I’ve ever seen in my life and I shall never forget it. It depicted rain at dawn on a shrine. The light from the rising sun was wonderfully captured, and the shrine glowed translucent. Utter perfection!
I am delighted to invite my family, my friends and all those who follow my blog to come with me in spirit as I visit Japan. The itinerary includes Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Hiroshima. I expect to blog pictures of Mt Fuji, cherry blossom, the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji Zen garden, the bullet train, Miyajima Island, and the Peace Park in Hiroshima. There will also be pictures of food…
I don’t expect to be writing any fiction unless the muse becomes very insistent.
Normal blogging will resume w/c 17 April, with the first post planned for Tuesday 18th April.