“And so the spring buds burst, and so I gaze,Onitsura
And so the blossoms fall, and so my days …”
As I walked near my home today I was pleasantly surprised to see plum trees and even a few cherry trees working on their beautiful spring dresses. It reminded me of a day in April when my wife Kazuko and I went to Kappabashi street in Tokyo to buy a seiro, a dumpling steamer made of fragrant bent Akita Cedar wood and bamboo.
I don’t share her fascination for computerized sewing machines, smoothie blenders, and fuzzy bunny slippers, but she is an excellent cook and I would be a fool to deny her every possible assistance in obtaining any food-prep tool she desires.
Kaminari Mon (Lightning Gate)
From Kappabashi we walked to nearby Sensoji Temple, famous for the Kaminari Mon aka “The Lightning Gate” in Asakusa. Crowded with tourists, but good to see every few years.
After purchasing the seiro and other essential items at Kappabashi and visiting Sensouji Temple and Kaminarimon, we went to a little restaurant and enjoyed a nice lunch. After lunch we traveled a little further afield to view the last hours of the year’s cherry blossoms.
Cherry blossoms have an important place in the hearts of the Japanese people. The seasons change suddenly here and cherry blossoms seem to explode into bloom. For a few days the trees are bright and fluffy and glorious, but as quickly as they appear the individual petals fall to the earth leaving green leaves behind. The fallen flower petals decorate parks, sidewalks and ponds and flow down the rivers in spinning, colorful rafts.
The Japanese people love to walk underneath blossoming cherry trees, and where possible, spread a blanket under the flowers to enjoy lunch and few adult beverages with family and friends.
Since ancient times, as evidenced in literature, poetry (see the famous example above), and artwork, the budding, bloom and fall of cherry blossoms have been seen as a metaphor of all living things, including humans. Cherry blossoms represent a quiet, elegant, pure life with an inevitable, unselfish, beautiful ending. The cherry tree shares its bright raiment with everyone; The blossoms dance in the wind that scatters them. No complaints, no regrets, just the cycle of life.
One of my favorite memories is of walking home from the train station late one night after a long day at work. It was a cold night and the wind was blowing. Fallen cherry blossom petals formed a soft, beautiful snowstorm that whirled around me in an unexpected and sudden blessing of nature.
Lest any druids or tree-huggers among my Gentle Readers be offended, I will not say that trees do not have emotions, but I think we can agree their language skills are limited. Humans however definitely have emotions and lots of words, so allow me to delve a little deeper into the Japanese language and the emotions cherry blossoms evoke in the hearts of many Japanese people (at least the mature ones). If there is even a little bit of an artist or poet hiding among the dusty barrels in your soul’s basement you should find it interesting.
There is a strange word in the Japanese language pronounced “Setsunai” and written 切ない The direct translation of the characters means “can’t cut.” Strange, right?
The dictionaries translate the word as “painful” (both physical and emotional); sad; or even “heartrending sorrow.” But when used in the context of something as beautiful and inevitable as the budding, flowering, falling, scattering and often muddy end of cherry blossoms, it is used to express the emotions of the quite, sad, unavoidable end of a beautiful thing that once gave joy, a natural event that repeats every year. Not hopelessness or despair, in this case, but sadness after beauty.
A human life is (hopefully) much like this cycle. A baby is born and becomes a happy, energetic child. It grows into an adult, is productive and loving, and imparts beauty into the world. The adult grows old; its beauty and energies change. And the day comes when each human’s physical existence fails and their spirit is carried away, perhaps dancing on the wind like the petals of a cherry blossom. Beautiful on the one hand, sad on the other, but definitely setsunai.
Knowing cherry blossoms will appear next year and the cycle of life will continue tempers the sadness at the loss of such great, unselfish beauty, and gives one hope for the future, at least for a while.
I invite you to read Onitsura’s poem at the top of this blog again. Simple but setsunai indeed.
A craftsman, upon realizing a chisel, plane or saw blade won’t cut may jokingly call it “setsunai,” but not in the poetic sense.
The End of the Day
We enjoyed a beautiful day at Kappabashi and Asakusa, complete with a lunch of tempura soba for me and some sort of raw fish for my patient wife. Life is short and sometimes hard, but it has its beautiful moments. I pray you have many such moments, and that your blossoming will be joyous and your dance on the wind graceful.
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