Lessons From Strangers: End of Hanami

By Chris Fryer

The End of Hanami - Quote 1

In the morning I feel a little better, the jealousy quelled by sobriety and a decent night’s sleep. I’d been mad with it. A ferocity unknown to me. A raging jealousy that I am here and she is there. I fell into its vicious vortex, lost in the dark cravings of long distance love. Love with its power to turn me inside out like an umbrella in a sudden gust of wind.

I brew some coffee and consider my options for the day. The weather is chilled but lacks the forecasted rain. Today is the last day of hanami, the annual viewing of the sakura, the cherry blossoms, which bloom only two weeks of the year throughout Japan. I figure my only real option is to enjoy these beautiful white flowers while I still have the chance, so I finish my coffee and throw on a warm coat.

For me, I operate in Japan solely with muscle memory. These turns at these corners gets me to the subway. Pressing these buttons gets me a ticket after depositing these bronze and silver coins into this slot. These arrows and symbols lead me to the proper side of the track. Much of this country is memorized repetition. When the doors slide open, I know it is time to disembark. There are many others. We’ve all come to the same park to see the sakura before they die.

Each tree–and there are hundreds–has burst with these white flowers in vain self-awareness. Look at me! Look at me! And we do. We can’t help it. Even among the throngs, one could stare up at the cherry blossoms and feel entirely alone, as we do when we witness a shooting star, as if it happened only for us, as if all the universe conspired to make sure we were there to see it.

I meander through the park, hands in my pockets, admiring the flowers and the faces and the mixed aromas of various food stalls. There’s a guy juggling bowling pins to the applause of a small audience. Elsewhere, dance music is already thumping from a stage under construction. Everywhere, friends and families have laid out tarps to drink and picnic beneath the blossoms. I don’t understand any of the language I hear but it seems like everyone is having the best day of their lives.

There is a stone monument in the middle of the park where a photographer and a newlywed couple try to find the best angle to capture the sakura in the background. I’m surprisingly disgusted to know that I’m in the background of their happy moment, a distant misplaced American they’ll have to crop out of their scrapbook.

I make it to a quieter edge of the park with fewer cherry blossoms to admire. Here, I find more of the older locals, the shorter, wrinkled, wise-looking Japanese with their heavy cheeks and squinted gaze. You can still feel the heavy bass of the younger generation’s music but it doesn’t impede the tranquil meditation of these elders as they look upon the sakura with true admiration, here for the flowers not the festivities.

There are a few adorable old couples sitting on benches completely immersed in each other. I’m less turned off by their happiness but still feel those pangs of jealousy. I’m here and she’s there, which is fine, but she’s there with other people who aren’t me, and there’s just something incredibly stupid about that. What I want is to be photographed with her by the stone monument. What I want is to be here with her on this bench, our wrinkled hands clasped, our weathered faces close, our whispers full of a rich history together. Alas, that’s not now.

And so I wander farther.

I come to this cherry blossom tree with no audience, a rare sight considering all of Japan flocks to the sakura like cats to catnip. It feels wrong to have this whole tree to myself. I’m not even Japanese. I can almost hear the sakura complaining that their beauty is being wasted on a foreigner. What does he care? They protest. He’s just here because he’s a native speaker who wanted to travel and didn’t want to get a real job.

The voices in my head. I shut them up. Beauty is beauty no matter how you got to standing in front of it. The flowers are delicate. White, with hints of pink, with petals about the size of a fifty-yen coin. With a gust of wind, some petals disembark and flutter to the dirt, joining other victims of their brief life cycle. There’s something symbolic about all of this but I can’t quite pen the sentence in my mind, so I just stare at the flowers on the branches and feel calmed by the blankness of my thoughts.

“You’re American,” says a voice. It’s not a question.

I turn around and there’s one of the elders, a hunched man probably a hundred years old (the Japanese live forever) wearing a comfy red and gold knitted sweatshirt, brown slacks, and surprisingly shiny black shoes. His hair has the wispiness of gray seaweed. His hands are clasped behind his back and his forward fold and grin makes it seem like he might bestow some wisdom upon me that would take the rest of my life to interpret, like ‘He who idles never arrives,’ but far more profound.

Before I’ve responded, he says, “You must be in love.”

“I am,” I say, to both statements.

He nods slowly, his attention moving to the cherry blossoms overhead. “Americans who travel are always in love. But they are so rarely in love with where they are.”

His English is impeccable, of course with an accent but with the clarity of a native speaker. Usually the old folks regard me with a passive stare on the subway or a quick glance when we pass on the street. This is the first time I’ve conversed with anyone over fifteen who wasn’t a student.

“I guess that can be true,” I reply. “Do you meet a lot of Americans?”

“Occasionally. I have not traveled in some time. There are many Americans in Europe.”

“True. We like to go there. I think it’s too expensive.”

“Japan is expensive.”

He’s stumped me. But Japan also pays well, though I don’t say this. Instead I ask, “How did you know I was in love?”

“Because you admire the sakura for what they are. You are not drinking and dancing. We say, when you are at hanami for reasons other than the sakura, hana yori dango. Perhaps they are in love,” he nods toward the noisier section of the park behind us, “but they are too distracted to realize it. The hanami will end and they will feel no different. They have not realized that the biggest lesson of love is blooming and dying right above their heads.”

Hana yori dango,” I repeat. Like all Japanese vocabulary, it’s gone as soon as the syllables bounce off my tongue.

“Dumplings over flowers.”

“That’s what it means?”

“They forget easily that the dumplings will be here tomorrow but the flowers will not. Tomorrow most of the sakura trees will be bare, but will leave a far sweeter gift than the dumpling.” He reaches up and gently touches one of the branches. “This is how I know you are in love because you understand this.”

I don’t want to confess that I’d imagined the sakura were mocking my decision to come to this country, rejecting my blank gaze. But maybe he has a point. I did wander far away from the revelry to seek a quiet moment with a solitary sakura tree. Maybe the symbolism I was looking for had to do with choosing flowers over dumplings.

“It’s sad that the flowers come and go so quickly,” I say.

“Not at all,” he replies. “This is what makes them special. Love is not a dumpling that can be easily possessed and consumed. Love is like the sakura, a prize for the patient, a beautiful reminder that nothing is forever, not even love. Rather than try to possess love, we must let it bloom and die naturally, as part of a cycle we cannot control.”

I study the blossoms for a moment. Then, as if snapped out of a dream, I look about the park and wonder why this is happening to me. Why am I here in Japan? Why is this old man talking to me?

“You,” he says, “admire these flowers because they will die. You love because you know it, too, will die.”

“But I’m still in love,” I say. “She’s just not here.”

“You are between blooms. Worry not. Hanami always returns to those who are patient.” He nods. “My wife died fourteen years ago. This was her favorite sakura tree. I come here every year to fill with love again.”

I think of the old couples sitting on benches. They must come here each year to do the same, migrating here to soak up the last lessons of love from the cherry blossoms. A refueling. Surely they are in love throughout the year, but not foolishly so, holding onto love less like a dumpling and more like the fragile, finite flower that it is.

Did I come to Japan to refill with love? Last night, full of jealousy and frustration, was I simply wishing for a dumpling when really what I needed was a heavy dose of cherry blossom? Probably, yes.

The old man says, “Tomorrow most of the trees will be bare, but you will feel fulfilled. You understand love.”

Do I? Looking up at the flowers, I see how incredible they are, how the puzzlingly brief lifespan is part of what makes them so wonderful, and I feel my love for her, both our time together in the same place, when things are in full bloom, and our time apart, when we are bare branches full of potential, is equal and the same. Yes, I miss her so much because I miss admiring her petals, but in the meantime I shouldn’t crave her like a dumpling, no hana yori dango for me.

“Thank you,” I say, but I’m not sure if I’m thanking him or the tree.

“When your hanami happens next, together or apart, spend more time beneath the blossoms. Two weeks every year. Remind yourself what you love and why you love and who you love. When the blossoms fade, the time between blooms will be sweeter than any dumpling in the world.”

I sat there with the sakura long after the old man left. The flowers didn’t care that I was a foreigner. They didn’t care about my motives for coming to Japan. They recognized my understanding and patience, and they said softly, their petals falling in the breeze, “Love that you have loved, and love will return.”

About the Author

Chris Fryer was born to tell stories. Amidst figuring out what to do with the rest of his life, he’s been submitting short stories, working on a novel, and actively building the blog Thousand Thoughts. On a path toward a teaching career, he looks forward to teaching English and creative writing in the future.

This column was originally published on Niche’s website on April 8th, 2014

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