100% chance of stress
The blooming forecast
Last night before I went to bed it started raining big cold bullets. I imagined hearts tightening across the region.
It’s sakura time, aka the Olympics of FOMO. Every minor edit to the forecast sends a ripple across the bloom predictions. Rain and wind agitate the petals, and warmth accelerates the blossoms opening. Park blogs and social media accounts, left untouched most of the year, get daily updates: “30-40% of the park’s blossoms have opened.” “The peak is predicted for this weekend.” “There was wind last night, but most of the blossoms are still OK.”
Earlier today I could be found in my apartment idly refreshing the page on the Shinjuku national gardens to check if any tickets had opened up for this weekend. All the timed entry slots appeared sold out, but I could periodically see tickets free up, going from a gray x to “just a few left” as people canceled their tickets one or two at a time, then reverting to x’s before I could finish paying. As the city’s sakura logistics-related stress played out in real time on my screen, I recalled a similar experience trying to get a vaccine last summer.
I sense that people are growing restless after being told for two years not to have hanami parties. I was skeptical when I first heard the government was trying to limit an activity that takes place entirely outdoors, but things do get dense and also apparently pretty rowdy. I’m told that in a normal year the most junior member of the team is sent to the park early in the morning to save the group spot. Tensions run high as drunk youths are strewn across lawns. Last year at a rare park allowing picnics, my housemate almost had a rumble with a member of the park staff after they accused him of throwing out what appeared to be a wine bottle buried in with the rest of our regular trash. (He was forced to fish it out.) Though I have yet to see a covid-free sakura season, the scene I imagine is St. Patrick’s Day dyed a pale pink.
Sakura was a major metaphor for young me, one I received from my father over many, many lessons on impermanence. (I recently found some truly awful verse I wrote on the theme in pre-pubescence. Everything is impermanent, but it seems that some things do come back.) My father liked to pontificate on sakura, but he also liked to look at them. Come spring he would start checking the paper for the cherry blossom forecast, then without warning on a Thursday he would announce our imminent departure for DC the following afternoon. I found photos of my siblings with the blossoms as far back as 1984, and my parents continued on their own up until the pandemic.
Last sakura season I was pretty sad, but also had a lot of free time, so I went to Kyoto to try to address one with the other. I went first to Yoshino, the Most Wow Super Famous Sakura Spot in Japan. I had made plans to go the year before, but in March 2020 I struggled with the idea of even leaving my apartment, so I canceled my flights. Mt. Yoshino shares its name with the main variety of cherry tree that was cultivated and planted all over Tokyo, the ones with the pale pink, almost white, paper-like petals, though they’re actually not the same variety. The mountain itself is said to have 30,000 wild cherry trees, and there are accounts as far back as the 8th century about this Super Amaze Fuckballs Wow.
During a pre-covid year the parking lot near this modest mountain would apparently be packed end to end with tourist buses, and the walkways would be dense thickets of overseas tourists. When I went last year I had no trouble keeping the requisite covid-appropriate distance from the few other domestic tourists who had come. It rained a bit and was overcast most of the day, so I felt some minor disappointment that the colors didn’t pop as I’d seen on social media. But I walked along the highway to a place outside the main paths, looking for an angle I’d seen in a lot of photos. The pink looked sketched in with pastel, dozens of faintly different shades in a haze, the trees cascading like water over the valley. “Overwhelmed by the scenes, however, I was not able to compose a single poem,” Basho wrote after a three day trip to Yoshino in the 1680s.
Later that week in Kyoto I walked along the Philosopher’s Way on a clear day. I reached the end and stood with all the other gobsmacked schmoes, watching the petals fall in a blizzard over the canal. The sound of people’s phone cameras clicked against repeated squeals of dismay. It was a high contrast day, and the petals made a thick carpet on the water.
Last October in tanka club, we read this 9th-century poem by Ariwara no Narihira (with a very rough translation from me):
If there were no cherry blossoms in this world, my spring heart would be calm.
“When spring comes, Japanese folks start to become incredibly stressed,” my very spirited professor said in her remarks. “‘When! When! When are they going to bloom?’ Check the weather: ‘Oh my god, is that rain??’ ‘Oh no it’s so windy today, the petals are going to blow off!’ That’s how it is, starting from the end of March and throughout,” she said.
The hype is so high, the planning so hectic. The love is so intense, and the bloom so brief. “You’re in a constant state of unease,” she said. “The spring heart can’t relax.”