Chapter 3: Next Stop, Nagasaki!
We chased the cherry blossoms to Hiroshima, where the buds were just breaking open in a white flush. We stayed at the Hiroshima Hostel which had a curfew and single-sex dorms. In the common room, we played cards and drank Chu-Hi (a fruit juice cocktail mix) until midnight. Tucking in for the night, I heard a ruckus downstairs. The men’s dorm was in full party mode. Several college seniors were celebrating their upcoming commencement in Nagasaki. A radio played J-Pop. Someone plucked at a guitar and everyone talked at once. Some of my roommates didn’t appreciate the noise, though no one really complained. I closed my eyes, remembering that feeling of invigoration, the expectation of a new life, a new world opening up to me.
We chased the cherry blossoms to Fukuoka, where the buds had opened wide under the high dome sky. We met up with Taka—one of the graduates who’d been celebrating his commencement in the Hiroshima Hostel. He brought his sister and together the four of us drank and talked under the white crowns of sakura trees. At dusk, we had a local specialty for dinner: tonkatsu ramen, a delicious concoction of slippery noodles, pork, and briny white broth. Tall bottles of beer cluttered the tables between our bowls of ramen. While the restaurant filled with the sound of slurping noodles, we toasted to Taka’s future and our safe travels.
We chased the cherry blossoms farther south to Nagasaki where the trees burst in soft pink pastels. All day we sat under the trees. We read, relaxed and drank amazaki, a warm sweet rice drink served by street vendors. Tiny petals floated down in cascades. Young parents picnicked with their friends and children. Generations mixed and mingled, sharing their bento boxes and homemade treats. Toddlers wobbled over tree roots. At night we meandered through the festive streets of Nagasaki. Approaching an intersection, we heard a crowd of people jostling toward us. Cheers and chants bounced off the buildings, amplifying down the avenue. Closer to the cross street, we stepped back as a herd of young men clad in fresh suits marched passed us, laughing and shoving each other in camaraderie.
“Where’s the party?” Neil asked just as the young men burst forth and our friend, Taka stumbled past.
“Hey!” Taka yelled and the entire herd halted. Taka, our friend from the Hiroshima Hostel who had treated us to noodles in Fukuoka, was celebrating his university graduation with a cross town processional; and we’d walked right into the middle of the party. “Come on!” He waved at us and we merged into the group, sharing beer and snacks and good laughs.
Finally, we chased the cherry blossoms back north to Nagoya City. Our modest hometown had transformed in the rush of warm spring air and sakura trees. Usually industrious and low key, Nagoyans came out in full force. Japanese sidled up next to expatriates. The mood shifted to a boisterously intense celebration of the season’s beautiful. Tiny lights illuminated the tree branches as twilight fell on the park. Suited office workers sat in circles and began passing sake. As we strolled by, they offered us congenial shots of whiskey and take-away cans of Kirin Ichiban beer. A Japanese girl wearing a horse mask mewed through the park path, passing out Chu-Hi and chugging her own down the long plastic muzzle. A portly businessman stripped down and revealed a pink string bikini underneath. Flexing with his beer, he chanted with his friends and danced under the sakura trees.
Close to midnight, a group of men clustered together under a large tree with big white lanterns strung up among the cherry blossoms. A sheet appeared and the men pulled it taut, creating a parachute launch. Their voices cut through the darkness as they counted: one, two three! Everyone turned to watch as the throng of men tossed a colleague into the air. Shirttails flapping and legs kicking, his fingers reached up for the branches and missed. Again, they counted off and launched him like a rocket into the canopy. Howling in laughter, he merged into the white blossoms and when he came back down, a cascade of white petals followed him, showering us with fragrant petals like kisses from the sakura trees.
After three more tosses, cherry blossoms sprinkled the grass like a pink tree-skirt and the men had exhausted themselves. Gray haired bosses wrestled with their green subordinates. Ties came off. Shoes mixed in a heap. No one was afraid of looking foolish or saying something stupid to their bosses. According to Japanese norms, all would be forgiven and forgotten, because this was hanami, a celebration. If a worker blurts out what he really thinks about his job—well—it’s all chalked up to the festivities and alcohol.
The throng of businessmen settled into a large circle under lantern-lit trees. They invited us in, offering wine they swigged right from the bottle. They introduced themselves without fear that their English was flawed. Spring is the season of revival and beauty, for awakenings and appreciation. Throughout the year and over the cold winter months, the Japanese work hard, earn their living, and support their families. When Hanami comes, they can pause and take time for themselves, ease their grip on a world that can be harsh and grim. They can bask in the season’s splendor that is both miraculous and short-lived. Some say it is a very Japanese notion: that we must understand that beauty is temporal.
The man in the bikini lounged near by, ankles crossed most un-ladylike. The girl with the horse head sat next to me, passing me the mask and a beer. “You try!” She said, clapping her hands and encouraging me.
The night slips into dawn and my travels to see the cherry blossoms ended where I began several weeks before. In a few weeks, I’d be teaching school kids again, working and saving so that I can travel once more. I didn’t dread it at all. It makes sense. The equation computes.