Patchwork Yokohama
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
          the sunflowers.

          "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
          to Japan.

          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
          rights.

          "Children, young boys  in  particular, catch the spiders and
          make them fight," Mr. Ishihara explained.

          "What?" Connie asked,  rather  alarmed,  "do  they kill each
          other?"

          "No, no, no,"  Mr.  Ishihara  laughed.  "The loser just runs
          away."

          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.