WRITTEN BY BARBARA FEATHERSTONE
First love is always a poignant thing – even more so when experienced in a location so magical that emotions are high
The plane dips low over the North Pacific Ocean as we begin the approach to Kansai International Airport, situated on its artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay. From my window seat, I watch the water below ripple silky rose in the morning sunlight. I clutch at Dad’s sleeve, my Japanese phrase book forgotten. The magic has begun…
After landing, Dad and I progress quickly through the beautiful, modern airport; the Japanese staff friendly and efficient. Mr Tanaka is here to meet us. He is Dad’s financial business partner and an old friend. He has invited us to stay. We are to be in Kyoto for two weeks. Dad bends to whisper in my ear.
“The Japanese don’t invite strangers into their homes,” he says, “only close friends. We are honoured.”
When the bowing and greetings are done, we take up our cases and Mr Tanaka ushers us swiftly from the airport to his car. Alongside Mr Tanaka’s short, neat frame, my Dad ambles like a great bear, just a little crumpled.
I climb, yawning, into the rear of the car and settle back against the luxurious leather. The flight from London, with a stopover, was tiring. Dad eases himself into the front passenger seat, chatting to Mr Tanaka. I catch intermittent snatches of their conversation as we drive along the access bridge to Kyoto.
“…about an hour until we arrive…”
“…Kyoto was Japan’s Imperial Capital for over two thousand years…”
“…heartbeat of traditional Japan…”
“…a bustling, modern city…beneath its industrial façade…its past reflected in every corner…”
Then Dad is shaking me gently from my drowsiness. “We’re here, Olivia.”
I climb from the car and glance about me, and my breath catches at the fairytale scene before me.
It is Mr Tanaka’s beautiful house that impresses first. It is built in delicate tiers, the large tiled roof sloping, with deep eaves to shelter from a summer’s heat.
I look from the house to the garden. There are stepping stones, sculpted shrubbery, a stone lantern and a miniature bridge. Across the bridge, lanterns are strung. In the pond, leaping fish are gilded gold in spring sunshine.
With a sigh, I close my eyes. When we left London, it was raining; a misty, grey-washed morning. I smelled wet pavements, damp newspapers and grime-etched history. Here the air is different. There is a warm rain-scent of incense, jasmine, old wood, and soft winds. I breathe it in.
There’s that magic again; that tingle of anticipation…
Something delicious is going to happen. I can sense it in the perfumed air.
Dad gives a gentle nudge. “Olivia…”
I open my eyes. Mr Tanaka’s family has emerged from the house. There is more bowing and greetings. Mr Tanaka presents his wife, his son, Kisho, who is nineteen and a student, and his daughter, Sakura, who is sixteen, the same age as me.
Sakura is dressed in jeans and T-shirt. She has a flick of dark hair and a tip-tilted smile. I know at once we’re to be friends. Then I look at Kisho. He is a tall, slim, athletic boy. He has Sakura’s flick of dark hair, and eyes as black as midnight. Our glances meet. For a small moment, he is still, then he smiles – and it is as if I have known him for ever. He has always been there, on the wind, in the air, part of me.
His glance slides shyly from mine, and, suddenly, my whole world is turning topsy-turvy, glinting gold like the spinning fish beneath the bridge.
In the genkan, the main entrance, we take off our shoes, and enter the house. While Mrs Tanaka prepares a meal for us, Sakura is permitted to give me a tour of the house.
As in an English house, there are wooden floors, and a traditional wooden staircase, though in the living areas is tatami – woven rush grass mats – soft on the feet. The rooms have bamboo ceilings and sliding doors – paper over latticed wood – to allow light through.
Kisho comes to tell his sister and me that the meal is ready. We follow him into the dining area and eat seated on cushions, our feet resting in the well beneath the table. We say itadakimasu, “we receive this food”. There is steamed rice, miso soup, grilled mackerel and pickled vegetables. We use chopsticks.
I’m pleased that Dad has taught me how, and can’t help showing off a little, but I think Mr Tanaka is pleased, too, that Dad and I have learned something of the traditional Japanese way of life.
The days of our visit pass like a sigh of the wind. While Dad and Mr Tanaka go about their business, Sakura shows me Kyoto. When he has time from his studies, Kisho accompanies us.
We travel by bus and train, we cycle, and sometimes we walk. We visit shrines and temples, Nishiki Market, the Instant Noodle Museum, the deer at Nara Park and a puppet theatre. In the Gion District, we go “geisha-spotting”.
I take my camera everywhere we go, and snap the fascinating geisha girls with their jewel-coloured kimonos and white painted faces. We watch them scurrying in and out of restaurants and tea houses between their appointments.
Sukara leads me to a special shop where we are allowed to choose costumes and dress up like the geisha. We parade about the streets in our kimonos with our hair piled high, caught with combs and flowers. I ask Sakura if Kisho would think me beautiful as a geisha girl. She says she knows how it is between us, and that Kisho likes me how I am – a gentle, modest English girl. I feel my cheeks flush and ask how she can tell.
Sakura smiles her tip-tilted smile and explains the Japanese way of flirting. It is a serious business, she informs me, not the more casual, Western approach. Etiquette and concern for each other are paramount. Prolonged eye contact is considered rude. It is more of a frequent glancing, then a looking away and down.
Sakura gives a mischievous flick of her dark hair. She says she has been watching Kisho. She has seen from her brother’s body language how he feels for me. He has not been like this, she whispers, with any other girl. A delicious little tingle shivers through my body but then tears begin to prick my lids. There is only one more day of the visit left. I bite my lip and beg Sakura, “What do I do?”
Sakura tells me, “Wait.”
At breakfast next morning, Mrs Tanaka smiles and tells me that it is Sakura season in Kyoto. I look at Sakura, not understanding. Laughing, my friend translates her name as cherry blossom, Japan’s unofficial national flower. When cherry trees bloom, it’s time for Hunami – cherry blossom viewing.
Hunami parties are held all over Japan in celebration. Families and friends come together to picnic beneath the blossoming trees. Blossom time is usually late March to mid-April but can vary, according to location.
Sakura claps her hands. She and I are to go and see the lovely cherry trees. Her father and mine, she says, have last-minute important business matters to attend to. They will be unable to accompany us. Mrs Tanaka has decided to stay at home today and prepare a special meal for Dad and me, as it is nearing the end of our visit. So, as a treat, Kisho has offered to take a rest from his studies and escort his sister and me to Maruyama Park, for Hunami. Sakura’s eyes are sparkling bright. Hunami will be a special experience for me, she says; the highlight of my stay.
As Mrs Tanaka begins to tell us more about the cherry blossom time, Kisho comes quietly into the room. I tell him how kind he is to give up his precious studying time for his sister and me.
Sakura wrinkles her nose at her brother, then she turns to me. She grins and winks at me, her eyes full of wicked fun. She says Kisho’s name means he knows his own mind. Kisho flicks me a glance and away. A half smile curves his mouth and his cheeks flush. I feel my own cheeks flush too as I catch the bright shine in his eyes.
Kisho explains that Maruyama Park is Kyoto’s most popular public park for cherry blossom parties. We will set out in the evening so we can see the cherry trees lit up. And there is one special tree that Kisho would like us all to see.
When we reach the Park, we find it crowded and noisy. There are lots of food stands and temporarily constructed restaurants with tables set under a myriad of lovely cherry blossom trees.
However, it is the shidarezakura, the weeping cherry tree, which takes my breath away.
This is the large, beautiful tree that Kisho has brought us to see. The great tree is the centrepiece of the park, spangled like starlight in the evening dark. The three of us sit beneath it, on a blanket that Sakura has brought.
The night air around us is full of sweetness, a delicate perfume that catches at my heart. I breathe it in, to remember, and shut my eyes. I think it’s like sitting beneath huge clouds of fragrant pink.
I try to capture the moment so that I can treasure its memory for ever
My eyes are still shut when I hear Kisho’s voice.
“It is your last day, Olivia.” He speaks my name like the whisper of the wind, and brushes a finger over my closed lids and softly down my cheek.
It is enough…
The plane rises slowly over the North Pacific Ocean as we turn homewards from Kansai International Airport on the artificial island of Osaka Bay. From my window seat, I watch the water below ripple silky rose. I clutch at Dad’s sleeve, the Japanese phrase book forgotten and hope that the magic will never end. I turn to Dad. He gives me a gentle hug. Behind the sting of my tears, I glimpse the worry in his eyes. Dad looks at me and frowns.
He starts slowly, as if careful to choose his words.
“First love, Olivia,” he says, quietly, “can be a delicate love. It is like the cherry blossom. It blooms fleetingly, and then it is gone.”
He sighs. The airport is gone from sight now, with only the rippling sea far below.
“Many Japanese, my darling, believe that the short season of the cherry blossom symbolises the transience of life; it is an annual reminder to us that time is precious.”
I think about what he has said, and then I remember…
I smile at him, trying to hold the magic of a special memory – the memory of that beautiful shidarezakura, the weeping cherry, star spangled in the night.
I smile tentatively at Dad, and then I say, “But every year, Dad, the cherry tree blooms again.”
My Dad smiles gently back at me. He settles into his seat. He is tired after all his business with Mr Tanaka.
When he’s asleep, I open my Japanese phrase book. I take out the little note that Kisho pressed into my hand as we left. In his neat hand, is written Aishiteru – I love you.
I close my eyes. I feel the soft brush of Kisho’s fingers across my cheek. I smell the sweet perfume of the pink blossom as Sakura and Kisho and I sat beneath the weeping cherry tree. I remember the magic.
Then I whisper, Sayonara, Kisho… goodbye. For now.