Kyoto in Cherry Blossom Season

“The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”

Skylife — April 2017

In a scene from the movie The Last Samurai, the character of Lord Moritsugu Katsumoto, the samurai leader, walks in a temple garden surrounded by sakura (cherry blossoms) in full bloom. Katsumoto, who usually terrifies everyone as a commander, recites softly as he compares the cherry blossoms to life: “ To know life in every breath, every cup of tea.”

Like some Ottoman sultans who were expert swordsmen as well as masters in literature, music and other art forms, the Japanese samurai had a hidden aesthetic side. Appearing throughout Japanese history as philosophical personalities and not just brutal warriors, they saw cherry blossoms as an example of the noble character of the Japanese soul – and themselves as men who do not fear death. Yet, they were well aware of their own mortality.

Indeed, nothing is more illustrative than a cherry blossom to understand the fragility and beauty of life, and the overwhelming effect of both of these concepts on the Japanese psyche. And nowhere, in my opinion, is a better place to experience both than in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan during the hanami (annual cherry blossom viewing) season in April.

 Path of Philosopher

The transience of life is a common theme in many cultures. “This, too, shall pass” is a popular saying in Eastern philosophies, rumored to have originated from the Persian Sufi poets. Likewise, cherry blossoms don’t last forever, and cherishing the moment of watching them is the same as cherishing life.

Nature is featured often in Japanese folklore and religious rituals to give strength, courage and longevity. Path of Philosopher is perhaps the ultimate place in Kyoto for a contemplative walk among cherry blossom trees with branches full of small pinkish flowers in full riotous bloom from late March to mid-April. The path takes its name from Nishida Kitaro, a professor of philosophy at Kyoto University in the 1930s, who used to walk this path every day to work in the northern Higashiyama part of the city.

In fact, for the Japanese, every journey, whether short or long, is an inner pilgrimage of sorts with profound depth. Near the Philosopher’s Walk is the Nanzenji Temple which thousands of people visit every year for purification, protection, and prayer. Walking in the Arashiyama bamboo forest; rowing in the Hozugawa River; and praying at Saihoji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site deep in the woods also known as the “moss temple,” all have meditative qualities that enhance the Kyoto experience.

Japanese Capital of Aesthetics

This ancient city of gardens, temples and teahouses is also regarded as Japan’s capital of aesthetics. The idea of aesthetics is sometimes embodied in a beautiful kimono on an elegant lady waiting below a willow tree in Maruyama Park, in the subtle movement of her hand pushing a streak of hair from her face, in the spontaneity of a carp jumping out of a pond in Ginkakuji Temple, or the joy of a dragonfly flying in the summer heat.

Closely related to this aesthetic beauty, the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi (imperfection) is to see beauty in various things because of their simplicity, irregularity and perishability. For example, the tea ceremony itself is pure aesthetics, using utensils and ceramics that are beautiful because of their flaws and cracks.

Drinking tea and savoring each moment is important, because like falling sakura, all shall one day pass.

At the time Kyoto became Japan’s capital in 794 AD, its name was, unsurprisingly, Heian-kyo, or Capital of Peace and Tranquility.

Today’s Kyoto isn’t much different from nearly 1,300 years ago. The city is made up of concealed alleys and byways intersecting on a grid pattern. It has a total of nine neighborhoods, including the famous Gion for entertainment and local cuisine.

To enhance Kyoto’s aesthetic experience, one must stay at a Japanese inn (ryokan). The understated, classic Tawaraya is the most famous ryokan of all of Japan — and the most difficult to book. It is the late Steve Jobs’s favorite inn, has no website and no online booking. It is, in other words, “otherwordly.” Even Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton Hotels chain, had pronounced Tawaraya as the best hotel in the world at the time. If you’re not lucky enough to book a room, then Ishihara is another good option. Try to book the Akira Kurosawa room where the legendary filmmaker used to stay when he visited Kyoto.

Another Kyoto classic is the Shibunkaku antique shop. It deals in highly sought-after artworks that transcend time and space. Their miniature hina doll collection is the cutest souvenir to take home. On Girls’ Day in March every year, girls in Japan take out their hina dolls and pray for a long, healthy life. From a young age, every girl is taught the etiquette of handling precious hina dolls and how to eat the traditional feast in full dress. Suetomi, the wagashi  (Japanese sweet) shop established in 1893 in central Kyoto, makes exceptional sweets for such special days and occasions.

 Final Words of a Samurai

The Tale of Genji, the classic work of Japanese literature, is thought to be the world’s first novel. Each year in April at the Kyokusui no Utage (Wandering Stream Banquet) Festival at Jonangu Shrine in South Kyoto, a theme related to The Tale of Genji is selected for the poems. During the banquet each participating poet is tasked with writing a poem on the common theme. A couple of years ago, the theme was yūgasumi, or “evening mist”. The poem written by one of the participants, calligrapher Masako Nomura, on that theme is reminiscent of Japanese simplicity and refinement:

Inviting flowers to bloom,

The wind blows to the end of its course.

If you gaze after it,

Mt. Fuji’s evening silhouette,

Appears from the mist.

Towards the end of The Last Samurai, the warlord Katsumoto is fatally wounded. Earlier, he says of the preciousness of life,

“The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”

As he lies dying under thousands of cherry blossom petals floating in the air and falling like snow, his last words are “Perfect… they… are all… perfect…”

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