21. Floral Yokohama
by Pencil Louis
Vince and Connie Patchwork arrived in Japan just before the
cherry blossoms came out in early April. They spent their
first week in the country with a family called the Suzukis
in Chiba who spoke in raptures about how lucky it was that
they had arrived in the country at such a fortuitous time.
They'd be able to get an early view of the sakura.
Vince had spent his entire toddlerhood wearing light blue
romper pants and the experience had left him with a
particular disdain for light pink romper pants and
originally anyone wearing them. This prejudice had
eventually translated into a distaste for pink in general.
To say that he was unimpressed with the cherry blossoms is
an understatement. He was totally bewildered as to why
anyone would make such a fuss over tiny flowers that weren't
adequately adhered to the trees on which they'd grown. No
sooner did half a gust of wind come along than all the
cherry blossom was sprinkling a fine carpet of petals on the
lawn. He couldn't understand why a large segment of the
weather forecast was devoted to flowers rather than the
possibility of rain. And why, if it were going to rain, the
major concern was over what it would do to the blossoms.
Of course, Vince was culturally sensitive enough not to go
around bad mouthing the cherry blossoms, but he said nothing
in their praise. When someone rhapsodised about their
supposed beauty, he remained non-committal or asked:
"When can you eat the cherries?"
Of course, if the rhapsodiser knew anything about cherries
at all, they'd have to admit, "No, no, no. These cherry
trees don't have any fruit, just blossoms. We get our
cherries from other trees."
"Oh, cherryless cherry trees," Vince would nod, trying not
to sound sarcastic.
Twelve months later, Vince didn't particularly feel like a
different man, but he had survived the sultry Japanese
summer which began with the the tsuyu rainy season and ended
with the typhoons, an autumn in which the trees seemed a
thousand different hues, and a freezing if sunny Japanese
winter. He knew just how much smog billowed out of the farms
and factories around the tiny district of Saedo, although
everyone was blaming the murky atmosphere on Sadam Hussein's
burning oil wells. And then, there was suddenly a brightness
not only around the community, but everywhere. The sakura
had arrived and Vince couldn't keep his eyes off it. It was
so refreshing and vital.
Vince was moved to write to his father about why the sakura
were so impressive in spite of their light pinkness.
a). They're everywhere. You spend the whole year passing
these Colditz-like factories and then suddenly one day you
discover that they are surrounded by cherry trees. The
landscape truly changes, not just in the country but in the
city as well. The sakura is always in places you least
expect to find it.
b). They're bright. It is hard to escape the fact that
spring is one of the wettest seasons and that rain usually
brings clouds which generally mean no sunshine. Unlike other
flowers and plants that look far better under bright sun
shine, the sakura seems to be luminescent. The greyer it
gets, the brighter the blossoms becomes. Last week, Osamusan
rolled up unexpectedly in his van just as we were preparing
to go to bed. He was all excited and insisted that we get
into his van and go around to see the sakura. We visited
Orimoto Awashima Jinja, a shinto shrine in Yokohama which is
dedicated to a female deity and which is especially popular
among women. It is noted for promoting good luck and
happiness in marriage. It also offers a safeguard against
road accidents. With only one street lamp to view it by, the
cherry blossoms seemed absolutely brilliant in the night,
like pink coral under the water.
c). They are temporal in nature. The Japanese claim to see
religious significance in the falling blossoms. They
represent the fleetingness of life and the fickleness of
external beauty. They soon fall like flakes of snow in a
scattering called Hanafubuki. For me, the effect is very
refreshing. There has been little snow to speak of in
Yokohama, this season, but some bitterly cold days all the
same. There is something about the falling snow that is a
reward for the cold weather and we don't get enough of it
here. I guess it's just a novelty because I'm an Australian.
Vince knew that the Japanese usually celebrated the sakura
in picnic style, a statement that winter was over and it was
time to eat outdoors again. They called this hanami,
literally flower appreciation, although as far as Vince
could see, it was really an excuse for a booze-up and, even
in his first cynical attempts at flower-appreciation during
that first year, he could identify with this. He believed
that a cherry tree wasn't really in bloom until there was at
least one little Japanese man holding a sake cup and pitcher
sitting underneath it. Later, when he came to appreciate the
blossoms, himself, he discovered that there was even an
expression in Japanese, hanayori dango, which described
people who preferred the drink and food to the sakura.
It was only during his third sakura season in Japan that
Vince experienced a real hanami. During the second such
season, the Matsumotos and Atsukawas had wanted to take him
to Kodomo No Kuni, a huge park for children and the young at
heart. They were all set to head off when Mrs. Atsukawa
remembered that no alcohol was permitted in Children's Land.
At the last minute, they changed their destination to Shiki
No Mori Koen, a park that had about a thousand blossom
revellers but only two cherry trees. Vince was suitably
impressed that good spots for hanami were hard to come by.
He had heard that new recruits in companies usually got the
job of staking out a picnic area the night before the party
and camping there to guard against poachers until the rest
of the group arrived, usually in the afternoon.
Vince's first real hanami was at Mitsuzawa Park, which had
once been the soccer venue for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. A
statue of a man running with an Olympic torch and no soccer
ball marked the spot. Mitsuzawa Koen was an athletics
stadium by this time and there was a 1300 metre jogging
track around the park. This meant that various species of
superjocks and keep-fit enthusiasts kept running through the
picnic area trampling the newly fallen cherry blossom petals
into the ground and giving everyone indigestion.
Vince had a peculiar dislike of joggers in general. Not only
did he regard the activity as particularly unhealthy, but he
believed that to exhibit one's body in such a manner while
ordinary people were eating good food and drinking good
booze was to enact a moral invasion akin to the Jehovah's
Witnesses trying to change your religious convictions
outside Ichigao station. They were certainly more annoying
than the roar and rumble of the traffic on the Shuto
Expressway, just over the road from the picnic site that
Matsumotos had selected.
Nozomi Matsumoto had prepared a feast of onigiri, that
morning. Somehow, she could take a clump of shapeless sticky
rice and with a vigorous pumping of palms and fingers
fashion it in a matter of seconds into a perfect equilateral
triangle. In a fit of shameless hanayori dango, the onigiri,
with centres of pickled plum, salmon and mentaiko fish eggs,
disappeared as fast as it had been made.
Vince need not have worried about going hungry. A Japanese
picnic was nothing so much like one of the afternoon teas
prepared by his great aunts during his childhood in
Australia. He would think he had just finished a huge meal
only to discover that that was the hors d'oeuvres. Just as
his great aunts had assumed that because he was a growing
boy he needed to eat to excess, Japanese cooks felt because
he had a big stomach he needed a comparable amount of food
to fill it. Vince's big stomach was more the result of too
much beer drinking than anything else.
The onigiri was succeeded by fried chicken, senbei wrapped
in cheese and seaweed, cold oden, boiled eggs, sashimi,
sushi, pizza, pickle salad. And each course had to be
liberally watered by beer, whisky, nihonshu, wine, umeshu
and shochu. Curried rice, candied seaweed, raw slices of
carrot, onion and capsicum, dried fish, dried squid, cold
yakisoba ... The list would have gone on had Vince not
dropped off to sleep. The sunny morning had turned to grey
and was threatening rain, a wind had sprung up and was
sprinkling sakura petals in Vince's hair.
It was a month after hanami that Vince and Connie were
walking with Nozomi and Osamu along the four kilometre track
that circumnavigates the Kodomo No Kuni park. Osamu suddenly
reached up and pulled a twig off a tree.
"This is sakura," he explained, "but it's a different
variety to the hanami blossom. It blooms later in the year
and has many petals on a single flower, not just one."
In fact, there were 33 varieties of sakura cherry blossom,
all of which bloomed at different times. He had been told
that the main variety of blossom, or the one most revered by
the Japanese was Someiyoshi. He also discovered that there
were far bigger blossoms. The largest was called Yaezakura.
Vince was later to discover all these facts from a Mr.
Ishibashi at the Children's Botanical Garden in Hodogaya
Ward. If anyone was just right for their job it was Mr.
Ishibashi. He oozed enthusiasm once he started to talk about
anything horticultural. He took Vince and Connie around the
gardens showing them the rose that was named Princess
Michiko after the current empress and the persimmon arbour
with some 80 different species of the 624 varieties of
persimmon that grew in Japan alone.
He bustled them out of the persimmon arbour into the bamboo
grove where he quickly located a genus that had been brought
from Virginia in the United States. This had been the very
species of bamboo, Mr. Ishikawa informed them, that Thomas
Alva Edison had used in the very first light bulb. Vince was
just digesting this as he was led to the sunflower patch.
"These are Vincent Van Gogh's sunflowers," Mr. Ishikawa
informed them. "They were brought over from Arles in France
where he painted the sunflower series."
Mr. Ishibashi apologised to Vince and Connie for the size of
"Usually, they are two metres or taller," he explained, "but
there hasn't been much rain, this year."
They didn't stop too long to lament the lack of rainfall,
Mr. Ishihara pushed on to show them Newton's apple tree.
This tree had been grown from cuttings from the legendary
apple tree that provided the falling fruit which inspired
the theories of gravity. Mr. Ishihara informed Vince that
the original apple had survived Newton by more than a
hundred years and finally died in 1814. Cuttings had been
transplanted in the Royal Physical Research Centre in London
as a symbol to encourage young scientists. In 1962, Sir
Gordon Sutherland had brought another cutting from the tree
As a finale, Mr. Ishibashi had organised an arachnine
spectacular, spider sumo. Only the males, identifiable by
their short rounded antennae, as opposed to the long
feminine feelers, fight usually over territorial or mating
"Children, young boys in particular, catch the spiders and
make them fight," Mr. Ishihara explained.
"What?" Connie asked, rather alarmed, "do they kill each
"No, no, no," Mr. Ishihara laughed. "The loser just runs
Vince was well aware of Connie's distaste for blood sports
even when they involved spiders, but she seemed to feel that
it was quite acceptable once she discovered that all that
was hurt was male vanity. Vince selected the first spider,
an Arnold Schwarzenegger among arachnids. Unfortunately,
Arnold turned out to be a bit of a wimp and was easily
defeated by Connie's spider. Vince, chagrined by his defeat,
tried to get his spider to fight again but Arnold wouldn't
be in it. Vince had to be content with further proof to his
theory that body builders were poseurs.
Mr. Ishihara also informed Vince that cherry blossoms were
hardly the end of Japanese hanami. There were flowers and
natural events for every season of the year - the plum
blossoms in February, the quinces in March, the tulips in
April, the morning glories in May, the irises and fireflies
in June, the hydrangeas in July, the lotuses in August,
singing crickets under the harvest moon in September,
chrysanthemums in October, falling autumn leaves in
November, camelias in December and January. Everything, it
seemed, had its season under heaven.