“What do samurai and cherry blossoms have in common?” asks my old friend Smokin’ Joe Matsumoto, the kitchener gardener who lives at the end of my street. It is not a question. He is offering me the tail end of a thread, inviting me to pull.
I give it a yank, “Both live short, beautiful lives.”
“Exactly,” he says.
“You told me this story last year.”
“I said you told me this last year!”
“What’s wrong with your hair?”
At 78, Smokin’ joe is the sage of the Good Hood, the traditional neighborhood in which I have lived for 15 years. If samurai lived like cherry blossoms, then Smokin’ has lived like a kusunoki (camphor tree), one of those ageless arbors which shade castle forecourts and shrine yards all over Japan, hearing all, seeing all. Kusunoki have medicinal qualities, too, and were once used to treat the septic sword wounds of the samurai.
And yet, physically, Smokin Joe is no tall timber. He reminds me of the ronin (masterless samurai) leader in Akira Kurosawa’s seminal film Seven Samurai. He’s short and bandy-legged, has arms like vines and legs like tree stumps that'd probably take root if he spent any more time in his garden. But what he lacks in stature he makes up for in knowledge. This is the man who powers my blog when the Thought River runs dry. He gave last week’s post a boost with his two cents on cedar pollen and the seasonal wind, the Haru-ichiban, which disperses the damn stuff.
From hay fever to cherry blossom fever, this week. The Good Hood readies itself for another season of partying in the pink, yeeeEEHAAAAA!
Spring signifies new beginnings; school starts, the financial year too, a time for big companies to mince fresh recruit meat for their rank-and-file sausages. It is also when karoshi (death by overwork) reaches its peak as the senior sausages struggle to make deadlines, finalise accounts and receive their lucky dip job transfers to far-flung posts. Getting rip-roaring drunk, thus, is acceptable form of steam-letting. Hanami - cherry blossom viewing - is the perfect excuse.
The cherry blossom, or sakura, remains an enduring symbol of Japan. From coins to kimonos, fingernails to footballs (Japan's national rugby team is called the Cherry Blossoms) the sakura motif gets blanket coverage for the next few weeks. Gangsters of Japan’s largest criminal organisation, the Yamaguchi mob (which incidentally originated in Himeji!) favour the sakura blossom tattoo. Or, at least used to. I have the feeling that old school is out and the young yaks are pressing their bosses for something more racy, more y’know, “groovy-daddy,” like a nude tattoo of P!nk.
The tradition of Hanami dates back to the seventh century, when the blooming of cherry trees was considered an indicator of the coming rice harvests; full blooms would signify a bountiful crop and that would be cause for celebration. By the end of the 17th century the Hanami party had become popular across all social classes. Now, you’ll find bands of liquored truckies parking their picnic sheets between chain-smoking company bosses and their beery-breathed minions. Hanami is the great equalizer.
Newspapers splash their weather maps with tiny pink dots to pinpoint the best hanami spots. Which is helpful to Japan's sakura otaku, “cherry blossoms maniacs," who are generally retired folk with money to burn and like to jet around the country chasing the party blow-by-blow, bloom-by-bloom.
Me, I think I’ll bundle up a bento for Smokin’ Joe and myself and throw in a bottle of fancy sake, the stuff with the gold flakes in it, and head us down to the castle. It’s the least I can do for my old mate the kitchen gardener, a man who, even at 78, never seems to stop growing.
Last night was a howler. Fujin (“Foo-jeen”), the wind god, arrived in Himeji bearing both fragrance (plum blossom) and foulness (cedar pollen). I could almost hear the pollen drumming against my 100-year-old walls trying to get inside. I tried plugging the gaps in the warped timber, the cracks in the mud walls and the chinks in the tatami mats, but I can tell you I've failed; my wastepaper basket overflows with soggy tissues, my tears sprinkle this keyboard and I need a bottle brush to de-itch my throat.
It’s not Fujin’s fault. The big green dude with the crazy hairdo is in town because it's that time of year again. From March to April, he dips in his finger and gives the atmosphere a good stir over Japan. Fujin is one of the senior Yaoyorozu-no-Kami 八百万の神, (8 million gods) which ‘inhabit’ the Shinto world and the ‘spiritual' force behind the Haru-ichiban which heralds the start of spring.
Like the ‘Freemantle Doctor’ of Western Australia, the Mistral in France and the Monsoon in south Asia, the Haru-ichiban signifies a turning point in the seasons and is the first strong wind to blow across the archipelago before the typhoons arrive in summer. The boffins tell it like this: low pressure systems pushing in from China create a vacuum into which air from the Pacific is sucked and this generates the big southerlies.
They shake down the cedar plantations upcountry, delivering pollen up the nostrils of the good and innocent, knotting my saliva, tickling my throat and causing my eyes to spring leaks. I cycle to work crying.
Sidenote: Why so much cedar pollen? My good friend Smokin Joe Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who lives up the street, explains: “After the war, Japan rebuilt with timber. Towns and villages went on cedar growing rampages backed by government tax concessions. These plantations have matured. So have their planters. Now, no young people want to manage these forests. They don't like the snakes, boars, hornets and bears (ed: and poor iPhone reception). Cheap imports from China and Siberia have sealed the timber industry’s fate.”
Enough of timber. Let's get back to winds, which are not just ‘winds’ in Japan. Each has its own handle, character and purpose. They're named for their strength (typhoon), taste and smell (shiokaze, sea wind), cooling effects (soyokaze, summer breeze), location (yamakaze , mountain wind,) and ‘divine' purposes (kamikaze).
My neighborhood is shielded by the mountains in the north and the island of Shikoku in the south. Unlike the rest of urban Japan, the traditional neighborhood in which I have lived for 15 years, is not a sophisticated place. Wind strength is measured by a wetted finger, or a loose sheet of roofing iron on an abandoned house nearby which flutters in the dry Siberian winter winds, clangs in the late summer typhoons and bangs in early spring when the Haru-ichiban arrives.
Spring has sprung and I don't need Fujin to tell me. The Semba River which flows through my neighborhood is running fast and clear, the cherry blossom buds overhanging the castle moat are groaning under pressure. Bulbuls wake me up at sunrise with their sing-song calls, raiding the gardens of the abandoned houses for loquat flower nectar, and the sickly sweet fragrance of jin-chou-ge (daphne) is everywhere.
The Haru-ichiban is Japan’s proverbial ‘wind of change’. It heralds the start of everything new; kids march back to school in stiff new uniforms, university undergraduates dye their hair brown and gold. Graduates, on the other hand, revert to black before joining the grey workaday battalions. And Ching! go the tills of Himeji’s hairdressers. Which reminds me, my sideburns need pruning.
Next week: The Good Hood breaks out bento and sake bottle and heads for hanami (cherry blossom viewing).
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!