Taking my first tentative steps alone through Tokyo one balmy April evening two years ago, I felt overcome with feelings of bewilderment and awe — but not for the reasons you might suppose.
There was no culture shock, Lost In Translation style. Instead I was reeling simply from the surprise of finding myself suddenly and abruptly in Japan.
If you’d told me two weeks prior that I would be flying ten hours across the world this dream of a city in a country I never thought I’d be fortunate enough to visit, I would have laughed in your face. Nevertheless, there I was, in Japan. And as well as feeling bewildered and awestruck at my situation, I was also really, really happy about it.
With a hasty turnaround to set up some extra assignments, I managed to turn a last-minute, five-day work trip into nine-and-a-bit day opportunity to eat, live and breathe Tokyo.
I landed on a Friday afternoon, and within a couple of hours was setting out on an evening walk from my shoebox Airbnb apartment, following a long string of gently bobbing pink lanterns along the petal-dappled Meguro River. It was fortuitous timing that my trip just about overlapped with Tokyo’s cherry blossom season and I was determined to make the most of it.
Japan is famed for its cherry blossom, although of course so are many other places — Washington DC, Seoul, even Kew Gardens in London. But what I quickly discovered that evening as I made my way past pop-up bars serving strawberries in pink champagne alongside the river is that it’s not simply the sakura (the blossoms themselves) that makes cherry blossom season in Japan so special. It is the hanami — the enjoyment and appreciation of the sakura.
Those pink, paper lanterns lighting my way were my first clue. Then the champagne, and then the cones of soft-serve sakura ice cream delivered up like frosted roses, followed by an endless succession of blush-coloured “Sakura Edition” goodies.
As I hopped from park to park the next day I looked on as delighted girls twirled under showers of falling petals while their equally delighted boyfriends photographed them in their element.
The spirit of Hanami was pervasive and provided the richest possible introduction to Japanese culture for someone like me (a relative know-nothing when it comes to Japanese culture).
The dizzying joy of it was something of a gateway drug to embracing everything Tokyo had to offer. Animal cafes? Tick. Meeting a geisha? Tick. Late-night karaoke? Tick. Nailing the ritual of consuming mori-soba without splattering soba water all over my face? Well… for someone as clumsy as I am that lofty goal may lie beyond my natural skillset forever, but I tried.
But my point is not to insult an entire country by reducing its varied, deeply complex culture down to a list of shallow cliches.
Instead what I want to tell you is that hanami got me hooked on Japan. Once I started to learn about the country, there was nothing I didn’t want to know. I thirsted for old Japan, rural Japan and gloriously gaudy technicolour Japan.
And over the course of those nine days I got little bits of each. The day before I departed for London I even hopscotched out of Tokyo, embracing the slightly baffling local train and minibus system beyond the main tourist routes to explore the lakes that fan out at the feet of Mount Fuji.
My trip was like a tasting menu for lots of bits of Japan, and those morsels only made me hungry for more. But this is always my problem with travel.
Fortunately, imbued within hanami is a lesson that can help me deal with my lust for more — always more — whenever I travel, and especially when I return from travelling. Hanami sees people celebrate the transient beauty of the cherry blossom and revel in it while it’s still present.
Finding pleasure in transience is something most people who are willing to blast a year’s savings on a couple of weeks away know a thing or two about. And yet I can’t be the only travel fanatic guilty of putting way too much emphasis on the nostalgia for trips gone by, the yearning for trips to come.
I need to learn to appreciate that just like cherry blossom, every trip has a limited lifespan. I am lucky because just like the cherry blossom, travel is a thing that happens every year for me. Every year (and in fact multiple times per year) I get to experience that specific happiness that travels brings.
It’s a lesson I’m trying to take on board, especially this year as I travel less frequently than in years past, and haven’t (yet) jetted off to Tokyo at a moment’s notice.
I’m going to have the good grace to be grateful for the travels I am fortunate enough to enjoy, and just like the girls spinning under the Tokyo cherry blossom, revel in the transient giddiness they bring. Because how else, when those surprise, whirlwind trips to far-flung destinations do come around, am I supposed to appreciate them to their fullest?
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