Pink cherry blossom in a full bloom, zen gardens smoothing all senses, mesmerising geisha dancing in a beautiful kimono. The sweetest sweets on earth, the greenest green tea on earth, the freshest sushi on earth. 2000 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines. Welcome to Japan. Welcome to Kyoto. It sounds like a paradise, but was it so great from the beginning? Well… it wasn’t.
I felt rather grumpy about the whole idea of going to Japan. It might sound crazy, because it was always my dream to see the cherry blossoms and yes, it was a privilege to be able to go. However look at the facts, wouldn’t you feel discouraged to go if you were in my shoes? I checked the weather status: rainy, super rainy actually. I checked accommodation: 93% not available (guess what was left — Quickly! I need to marry a millionaire now!), it was an Easter weekend so I was about to miss a family meeting (next one, stopped counting which one). The truth is I had no one to go with, I felt lonely… But the biggest risk was that cherries could play a little, sweet game with me and disappear overnight. The perspectives were pretty gloomy, right? But here’s what really perplex me the most: the more you struggle at the beginning, the more you don’t want to go, the bigger the fight — the more rewarding the trip is. I think it’s a common knowledge whispered within travellers and I was about to put it in to the test again.
Let me start from the beginning: why is it actually such a big deal to see the cherry blossom (Sakura) in Japan? I believe there are few: an aesthetic — it is simply beautiful, a practical — to have impressive photos from the most recognisable Japanese season, a cultural — to melt between locals participating in popular hanami (flower viewing) picnics under the trees. To appreciate the fragility of life? To understand the Japanese national obsession? For me it was a bit more personal. And this is why.
Early in my life I was in a relationship with a man who kept telling me: I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees. He was into all kind of poetry, not just Chilean, but nothing I remember more than those Pablo Neruda words. I remember, I was thinking that time: I really want to be a cherry tree! — an elegant, beautiful, mesmerising and worshiped one (show me the woman who doesn’t). Now, many years later, I still believe in the beauty of that metaphor, where we are responsible for each other in a relationship. It’s not just about women to be treated as cherry trees, it’s also about men to grow into… an oak? To build a better man, like an oak, who will turn into a good partner, a good father and ultimately into a good friend, seeking for meaningful conversations and practising mutual respect. I grew up with the love of Sakura in my heart. Cherry season is sacred for Japanese, it is also sacred to me.
When I arrived to Osaka I thought I would fly into a rage and die of frustration standing almost 3 hours in a passport control queue. New weds in front of me, two best friends chit chatting behind me, I felt overwhelmed with their joy and happiness. Believe me, I was not in the mood to join cheerful conversations and because of that, of course, the perversity of universe decided to teach me a lesson: the lonelier you are, the happier people around you have. Lovely. I managed to survive merciless queue and got to Kyoto late night.
I dashed my hopes about sunny Japan but I have to say that the destiny prepared a nice surprise for me. No, it wasn’t sunny, but it was relatively dry. I had one full day of walking around Kyoto, admiring cherry trees, which were overwhelmingly beautiful and at their best. I was afraid I won’t see any and I had them in spades! I felt so grateful, that words can’t express it. But cherries in a full bloom were just one of many reasons why I felt so blessed during the trip.
I graduated in Art History, it was a lovely period of my life, when I was studying many wonderful things. One of the subjects taught at the university was an Oriental Art. It was a course, where we studied Japanese art and its elements like shibui (simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty), yūgen (profound grace and subtlety), irregularity of form, simplicity, evanescence. My favourite was mono no aware, which expresses the gentle sadness towards the impermanence of things. That’s one of the reasons why Japanese love cherry blossom season so much — the transient beauty of flowers, which lasts for just about a week or so, represents the fragility of love and life. One of my graded assignments was a presentation about Japanese gardens, its design, symbolism and history. Not only did I have it in my mind, I also had the printout in my hand! I brought my old papers back from home and took it with me to Kyoto. Therefore I was going page by page, garden by garden, traveling around the city, visiting the places I used to be just dreaming of. I was particularly happy to see zen gardens, called stone gardens, where the composition was almost monochromatic, very abstract, representing the image of the world or some elements of nature. I have to admit that I committed a crime. A horrible crime, if done by an art historian. I took one stone with me. I stole one stone from a zen garden, which ultimately will became a ring. You can say, eeeh it’s just one stone, but a zen garden minus one stone is like Mona Lisa plus moustache drawn with a pencil. Well, I do feel guilty, if it makes any difference.
Would I have ever believed, if someone had told me almost ten years ago, that I will be walking around Kyoto, looking at the gardens with my own eyes? I’m not sure…I was always a dreamer, an optimist, a fighter, but Japan even for me was a bit too distant.
I was really off colour when I arrived to Japan, but I left as a different person. Is it possible for someone to change in such a short period of few day? My answer is yes. I promised myself to practise gratitude on daily basis, because the trip to Kyoto was a true gift. Now when I’m back from the trip, I flick though the memories with the highest thankfulness and appreciation. I am grateful for the cherry blossom, for zen gardens, for a benevolent Japanese gentleman who helped me with a map directions, for all the temples — the architectural paradise, for the beauty of Geisha I could admire — for all these and many, many other reasons. From the moment I came back from Japan, I started cultivating my little jar of happiness to help me to appreciate life more. Having a jar is an excellent idea, I recommend it to all! More on the jar and how to make it, please read here.
On the next episode of Bon Chic Travels: How to be a modern Geisha? Is the tradition still alive? What is the difference between Maiko and Geisha? Would you like to be one? See you soon! Bon chic, Bon voyage!