Living in Japan
The smile of Spring

The smile of Spring

Added In: Living in Japan › Life in Japan

Jeffrey Townsend

Spring comes to Oyama. Today is one of those days when the world seems perfect. A day when, for an instant, decay and death seem to have disappeared. Everywhere is flowers and flower buds. And even from the rotting straw placed last autumn as mulch on my tiny strips of garden, fresh green stalks of rye arise like resurrected Christian saints, Greek maidens dancing in a sacred grove, or… whatever. This is the real eternity of life – not Ray Kurzweil's outrageous bionic immortal of the coming post-Singularity epoch that I have just been reading about in an idle moment on the Web.


The older that I get, every new year seems to be a miracle. This year I celebrated the completion of my youngest daughter's first year at senior high school with a day trip to Komagane. Oyama is a fictitious name that I've substituted for the Nagano village which has been our home for the last 20 years, but Komagane actually exists. It's a city in the southern part of Nagano and was some years ago voted the most desirable place to live in Japan. Personally I prefer Oyama, but Komagane would not be a bad place to live either. What I particularly like in the town is the ancient Tendai sect temple of Kozenji. Set on a hillside of giant cryptomeria, it has a superb main prayer hall and a small but extremely attractive pagoda standing modestly beneath the trees.


After we had offered prayers before the image of Fudo-sama at the altar in the main hall, my daughter and I strolled through the forested grounds, discovering interesting niches, among them the ancient grave of an heroic dog and a tiny Sainokawara of little Jizo statues and piled stones. On some of the stones people had written wishes for long life, health and love.


We then ate a lunch of soba noodles at the place of a friend who moved his restaurant here from the city. This man is what my daughter would call maniakku (fanatical) about noodles, which he hand-makes every morning from buckwheat that he has collected in his expeditions across the country. It's the best. Kodawari (obsession) is another Japanese word that might be used to describe his attitude.


I noticed that our fellow diners had obviously come with expectations. Among them was a very rich Buddhist priest and his family. Later, in the car park, I saw that he had come in a fancy left-hand drive Toyota Land Cruiser.


Anyway, it was a super lunch – simple noodles, complemented by creamy tofu and subtly flavored wild plants, picked perhaps from the temple forest.


On the way home we decided on a roundabout route which would take us back to Oyama over a 1500m-high pass. Historically it is the oldest road linking Oyama to the other settlements, but is now the village's back entrance. The road follows a river before its sharp ascent. En route we stopped the car at a park where the river had been dammed to make a lake. There were cherry trees along the banks, and a group of people in wheelchairs were relaxing with their helpers. Two or three others were taking photographs of the blossoms. I noticed an old tree across the park. Compared to the white flowers of the Somei-Yoshino trees, its flowers were pinker. When I went over, I discovered that they also had a distinctive perfume.


We had bought some manju cakes filled with ground sesame from the shop in front of the Kozenji temple, and decided to eat them. At the small exhibition hall by the lake there was free tea. We filled two cups and took our tea outside to drink with the cakes. Sitting on the grass in the afternoon sunshine near the old cherry tree, sipping the tea and eating the cakes, we gazed at the shining blossoms.


Everyone seemed so happy. It is not a Japanese custom to engage in idle conversation with complete strangers, but a perceptible feeling of goodwill permeated the air. Occasionally we smiled at each other.


Later - by now it was late afternoon – we drove back over the pass, pausing briefly to look down the valley to another, much grander lake – Lake Suwa – resplendently reflecting the rays of the declining sun. I thought again of the interlude by the lake and remembered what the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had written about a similarly mundane but unforgettable occasion in 1938, on the banks of the Saône south of Lyon:


We were completely at peace, well sheltered from disorder in a definitive civilization. We were enjoying a perfect state in which, all our wishes having been granted, we had nothing more to confide in each other. We felt ourselves pure, upright, luminous and indulgent.


And here's Saint-Ex again:


The essential, most often, has no weight. The essential here, in appearance, was only a smile. But in many cases a smile expresses the essential.



The smile of Spring
Spring cherry blossoms