It wasn’t a warm wind that crawled through the Good Hood of Himeji city last night. It was an Arctic blast with a knife edge and it wailed like a crazed woman through the cracks of my old mud-walled and tiled-roof house. Hundred-year-old dust drifted from my ceiling while the paper doors rattled like old bones in their grooves. Outside the din was worse: empty beer cans somersaulted down the street, telephone lines whined and a drunk fell off his bicycle somewhere near the Funabiki Barber Shop around 2am, got back on it a half-hour later.
The Siberian northerlies I blame for my sleepless night ― the last chill breaths of the Wind God, Fujin, before spring well and truly sets in. That process has already begun; the warm air pushing in from the Philippines is beating winter back across the Japan Sea. It’s a tussle that always ends in tears over Honshu.
As predictable as the Japanese themselves, the weather last week was thus: rain, rain and more rain. It was bad news for Hanami party-goers who huddled beneath the cherry trees of the newly-restored Himeji Castle drinking good sake cheapened with rainwater. Trees shed their blossoms in pink blizzards and rivers and moats ran the colour of strawberry milk, a wash-out worthy of tears for those who had turned out with bento and booze to celebrate the beginning of all new things.
“The life of a cherry blossom is like the life of a samurai,” says Smokin’ Joe Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who tends a field beside the Semba River at the end of my street.
“How so?” I ask, hoisting my umbrella against the soft drizzle so he can light another cigarette.
“Short and beautiful,” he says.
“Like your neighbor Ms. Hayashi.”
He fixes me with his bloodshot gaze, searching my own.
“Don’t get any funny ideas. She’s got a boyfriend. He's yakuza.”
There’s a point, where if you stand just to the left of Smokin’s onion rows, you can glimpse the sweeping roofs of Himeji Castle’s main tower as they rise above the rooftops of the old city neighborhoods. I thought of the lovely Ms. Hayashi, her mobster man, the castle veiled in drizzle and the mud on my boots and murmured, “Pure misery.”
“This rain," I said.
“Harusame. Spring rain never lasts.”
True ― one kind of rain is merely replaced by another in Japan. The steady drizzle and lingering mists of harusame are preceded by natane-zuyu, or ‘rapeseed rain’, with its sudden downpours and droplets that can fill a sake cup within minutes. Gardens of the Good Hood surge on this abundant rainfall; bulbuls wing down from the mountains to feast on the new growth and the inhabitants thank the heavens for temporary respite from the hay fever-bearing cedar tree plantations in the north.
There will be further rain, on and off until the mighty tsuyu, the wet season, arrives in mid May. Then, the aging residents of my old neighborhood will know that spring has truly passed and that the Good Hood has once again completed another 940 million-kilometre circuit of the sun. I bet all this travel makes them tired.
Smokin’ Joe takes the umbrella from my hand, folds it and hands it back to me with a bunch of red onions.
“A famous samurai movie actor once said to his sidekick, “春雨じゃ, 濡れて行こう!”
“Spring rain's here. Let’s get wet.”
I laugh, he laughs. Rain is the one true constant at this time of year. So we set out along the river path for home ― the old samurai and his sidekick ― with a swagger that sets our onions swinging.
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!