Ghosts and cherry blossoms remind us of our own flowering and fading
In Japan, the full spring blooming, or sakura, brings joy but also a sharp sadness, a reminder of life’s transience
1. In Japan ghosts emerge in the late afternoon, in the hours just before sunset. Cemeteries provide little brooms and buckets of water for visitors to tend the graves of loved ones. Twice a year, on the spring equinox and the autumn equinox, when the days and nights are the same, there are public holidays in Japan so that people can spend a day remembering their departed and tending to their graves, and to the neglected of strangers without relatives, but even outside of those days there are always people pottering away and prettifying and paying their respects, but they tend to make sure they have finished by the time the sun begins to lower. By 5pm Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo is empty, except for a flight of crows, and a policeman strolling. Later, people will come back to walk down the illuminated rows, bundled against the cold. The daytime is safe, the late night is safe, but in those twilight transitional hours no one is safe from the ghosts.
2. Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo covers 100,000 square metres and holds 7,000 graves. It’s a Shinto graveyard but stands alongside a huge Buddhist temple. It feels like a vast Central Park for dead people. There are groves of trees and a long, wide avenue lined with cherry blossoms. During the cherry blossom festival, the graveyard will be alive with white and pink, there will be so much colour it will dazzle and daze you and death will seem defeated. The blooming cherry blossoms are called sakura, which means “to bloom” but also “to laugh”, or “to stare open-mouthed”. It is still days till the fullness of sakura, and most of the trees in Yanaka Cemetery are still only in the early stages of budding. Their branches are dark and skeletal still, but somewhere near the centre of the cemetery is an orange tree. The leaves are very green and the branches are heavy with full, round, very orange fruit that glow in the dusk like illuminated paper lanterns.
3. There is an ongoing sakura-watch, with daily updates on television and in the newspapers. Meteorologists study the projected temperatures and weather patterns, botanists ponder climatic conditions through the past winter measured against previous years, fortune tellers and magical octopuses weigh in with their predicted dates. In the weeks before sakura, some outlying trees that perhaps get more sun come to bloom and are very beautiful, but sakura only happens when full bloom comes for all the trees, with the full flowering effulgence of spring.
The Japanese are very polite about many things but they are firm on this. I stood beneath a pink and white cloud of blossoms earlier this week, smiling up and feeling pleased, when a gentleman passing by on his bicycle dismounted to put me right. “Not real sakura,” he said, shaking his head. “Real sakura only next week.”
“But some sakura,” I said, pointing at the blossoms. “Some sakura is better than none.”
“Not sakura,” he said fiercely, and swept his arm to indicate the rows of bare trees along the street and the river. Only when they all come out, only when the people join together and agree that this at last is sakura, only then is it real. There is no half-sakura.
4. I sat on a bench in the cemetery near the orange tree and looked at the bust of a man on his grave. He was perhaps in his late 60s, balding, with that increasing anonymity of advancing age, that smoothing away of distinctiveness as though preparing to return to some great singularity. He was wearing glasses. Perhaps he’d worn glasses all his life and they were an inseparable part of his personality, but what if he’d only started wearing them in his 40s, say? I have recently started wondering if I need glasses. I don’t think of myself as a glasses guy. Glasses, if ever I need them enough to wear them permanently, will always feel like an insult to my sense of self, a chasteningly visible reminder that I am not what I once was. If someone makes a bust of me to stand forever, I wouldn’t want it to include my glasses. But by the time of my death will I feel differently? In my heart will I have become a glasses guy?
How do you decide at what age to fix a man’s memorial? Who’s to say who he is? Are we most truly who we were when we were strongest, or happiest, or at the moment of our greatest capability, or who we were most recently? It would be absurd, when a 90-year-old dies, to erect on her grave the bust of the 10-year-old her, even if in her heart she always felt most truly 10 years old. But it would be unfathomably odd to memorialise her at 90, at her most reduced. So where to fix the pin? Are we most ourselves in the flowering, or the fading? And whose opinion matters most? Ours, or those who remember us?
5. The festival of sakura is a festival of life and renewal, the essence of the northern hemisphere’s infatuation with spring. People around Japan will have hanami: picnics and street parties and barbecues. There will be much drinking and laughing and making love. The trees will be illuminated at night and couples will go to them to court or to remind themselves that once they courted. Sakura brings joy but also a sharp sadness. Built into the celebration of sakura isn’t only the celebration of life, a Shinto ecstasy of nature and place; it’s also a Buddhist reminder of life’s transience, of that fact that the preciousness of life lies precisely in the fact that it’s always already leaving. Part of the beauty of hanami is watching the blossoms begin to tumble and fall like fluffed flakes of snow. Peak sakura bloom is scheduled in Tokyo for today. In two weeks it will be over.