Japan and Cherry Blossoms

Springtime in Tokyo: Cherry Blossoms, Fashion,
A Small Quake and, Finally, Signs of Recovery

Japan and Cherry Blossoms

Did he do it on purpose, to lift people’s spirits? Issey Miyake’s Spring 2012 “Pleats Please!” collection was fun, bright, playful, and delightful. Color palette: bright yellows, greens, whites or brilliant orange and purple. . Each piece could collapse and fold in on itself like Noguchi’s lamps; stand by itself like sculpture; fold and fit itself into a three in one sculpture that closely resembled a large piece of sushi. In short, it was lovely. It was springtime in a Tokyo that was in many ways somber in remembrance of 3/11, and it made the spirits bright.

Similarly, a photographic exhibit of Miyake’s more extravagant designs, photographed by Irving Penn, had been mounted in Roppongi. What a wild, crazy, lovely and grotesque collection of images that was. Not necessarily beautiful in the conventional sense. Some models in Miyake’s clothing resembled Breughel’s people. Some, plants or animals. Some, creatures of the plague years with their long pointed nose caps. Some celebrated the strange beauty of the model and his/her hair; others scarcely resembled animate creatures at all. Or mimicked robots! It was and is a glorious show and if you get to Tokyo this spring, I urge you to go and see it.

This year the plum blossoms and cherry blossoms seem to have an extra evanescent beauty. Bright, translucent, irresistibly drawing the attention, they are blooming on the anniversary of 3/11 and both Washington and Tokyo have made much of this coincidence. Even the streaming crowds of people outside of Ueno Koen (park) where the cherry blossom festival is held seem to stop, look, breathe in the scent, and then rush on.

And, very luckily for me, my bed and breakfast had a gorgeous garden. Featuring a huge spray of indoor orchids and outdoor plum trees, cacti, apple trees, grass, all viewable from the living room windows. A joy just to sit and watch intently, feasting in the green.

We are thankful for the trees, the blossoms and for Miyake. They do lift the spirits. Because the spirits of Japan do feel anxious, weighted down, sad. People don’t talk much about the anniversary of 3/11—the giant Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, but everywhere there are reminders.

My second day in Tokyo we had an earthquake marked 6 on the Richter scale that sort of bounced me out of my futon (sleeping quilts) and brought me to my feet. I was deluged with warnings, instructions, and cautions- after the fact. “Don’t sleep in the nude! Carry bottled water! Don’t rush outside! Stand in the lintels!” Too drunk with jet lag, it took me quite a while to realize what they were talking about, much less to implement.

Also too jet lagged to realize what a fine coincidence this was- coming to Tokyo for a disaster conference, and bounced out of bed by an earthquake. If we foreigners had not known it before, we knew it now- Tokyo is quake territory and this is the season.

The warnings carry over into daily life. People drink bottled water only, copiously. When you go into the supermarket each piece of beef has a lengthy pedigree inscribed next to it so that you will know the creature slaughtered is probably not going to make you glow in the dark. It is not calculated to reassure; more, to infuse more anxiety.

My United flight to Tokyo was marked by this same anxiety – everything eatable shrouded and wrapped and immured in plastic—and by an ill spirit between flight attendants which probably could be ascribed to the Continental/United merge. The two corporate cultures did not seem to working well with each other. Added to that, the passengers, almost entirely Japanese, seemed to be marked by a sort of sadness and a withdrawn quality that I found disturbing.

On the surface there was good cheer. Bright ladylike announcements in Japanese for the comfort and reassurance of the passengers. Japanese wheeling on board their bright shiny glossy new suitcases, personal pillows, and (in one case) a pair of fluffy pink slippers which the young lady next to me slipped on after takeoff and wore during the flight.

However, after takeoff everyone took out their Continental/United dark blue blankets, put them on so that they covered their entire bodies head to toe, and went to sleep. For thirteen hours. Eerie, to see the entire plane walled in with dark blue chadors. I was the sole person struggling to read with my window shade open to the brilliant sun, and that didn’t last long—I was sternly told to shut it down, as the glare was bothering everyone. Bothering whom? I asked. No reply.

Adding to the eerie quality of the silently sleeping corporate presence, the majority of the passengers wore surgical masks covering the whole face. On a young woman with long fluffy hair the effect was extremely strange—white blob, hiding eyes, framed by brown or black hair, resembling an obakemono (a ghost/monster). When the young ladies were in flotilla formation, the look—despite the giggles—was truly disturbing.

The withdrawn quality was carried over into the airport hotel I elected that night. The hotel boasted a huge Japanese/Western breakfast buffet to be eaten seated by the window looking out on a large topiary-rich garden. It was quite delicious—the Japanese breakfast featuring an array of pickles, cold vegetables, miso soup. Healthy and tasty. But the travelers did not seem to be enjoying either the breakfast or the garden. They sat, silently, alone; each occupying a sizeable portion of a very large table. The atmosphere was very chilly.

Luckily, the mood of my conference—humanitarian responses to disaster—was by and large upbeat. I found myself surrounded by young female activists, particularly by a striking young Malaysian woman who requested my card immediately.  Another woman from the International Christian University (ICU), where the conference was being held, came from Fukuoka near Nagasaki where I had spent my post college years. I had much in common with her in discussing what I saw as the overall depressed mood in Japan.

At the other end of the spectrum were several woman in their 50’s and 60’s, especially one woman whose very beautiful presentation was on the eruptions at Herculaneum and Pompeii as narrated by Pliny the Younger, whose father died in the earthquakes. She used Pliny’s texts and some extracted images of the wall friezes and the calcified bodies to illustrate the stages of the disasters and people’s responses to them. To no one’s surprise, it was all very like the disasters in Japan.

Another, in her 70’s, who had come to ICU straight from three weeks travelling solo in Shanghai, narrated a display of Buddhist images of aging and decay, especially as applied to women. This may sound grim; it was actually exhilarating. Some of the ink drawings were amazingly grotesque but beautiful at the same time. And the fellowship, (wine and beer) if I may use a Christian term, was very pleasant. Next year, Thailand. Or Malaysia. Or Vancouver. Or Singapore.

But what of Japan? Perhaps spirits are lifting a little. The news on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is really almost positive: sufferers may not actually be doomed to lifelong pain. The country is—dare I say it—recovering.

And there is a great deal intact of the Japan I used to love. When lost in my neighborhood, (I was frequently lost in the neighborhood) I asked a little old lady in kimono pruning her bonsai trees for instructions. She not only responded, she dropped what she was doing, took me by the arm and walked with me through many winding lanes to my doorstep. Similarly, in the airport, after I had walked around aimlessly for at least an hour trying to find the Information Booth, a little guy in his seventies and in uniform shouted “We go together!” and walked me many miles (or so it seemed) out of his way to my destination.

Such kindness is still everywhere to be found, even to a befuddled American/foreigner. The beauty of Japan is not just the cherry blossoms. It’s the creative genius of Miyake. The beauty of minuscule bonsai. The whimsy of the fluffy pink slippers. The corporate sense of responsibility for the welfare of the deeply addled foreigner. That is the beauty of Japan, and I still love it. I can’t wait to return.

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