May 2, 2009
LETTER FROM KYOTO
An enchanting evening
By Janice Tay
FLOWERS bloom even in the dark. And sometimes, that's the best time to see them.
You see many things during cherry blossom season in Kyoto. Mostly you see tourists. But they don't yet seem to have discovered Kiyamachi-dori, a narrow street in the centre of town lined with restaurants.
A canal lies on one side of the street and sakura trees lean over it, checking their reflections in the shallow water. On a few evenings in spring, lanterns and floodlights along the canal light up the white sakura flowers, blazing a trail down the dark street. This is yozakura - the sakura seen at night.
A young woman on a bike zips over one of the little bridges spanning the canal. The sight of the flowers overhead stops her short. Reaching into a pocket of her long red coat, she pulls out a pink phone. She holds it up to the trees but leans too far out and her bike falls. Picking herself up, she finally manages to take a picture of the sakura, then trundles off, a little unsteady, into the night.
Cherry blossoms can have that effect on people. They can make me boldly go where too many people have gone before.
I leave the quiet dark of Kiyamachi- dori for Gion Shirakawa, another restaurant district nearby. Even before I get there, I can see a crowd swarming in that direction and I fall in line behind an elderly woman. As she passes in front of a car, the headlights catch her skirt for an instant: It is as pale as sakura and as pink.
I follow the skirt to the flowers. 'Freakin' awesome,' says someone next to me. I turn to see a young man with dyed hair and ripped jeans. Took the words right out of my mouth.
The second half of the name Gion Shirakawa means 'white river', though what it refers to looks more like a canal. But there is indeed a white river here, and it seems to be blooming over our heads. One of the flowers looks brighter than the rest: It is the half-moon, half-hidden among the sakura.
A geisha sweeps past me, her painted neck rising like a pale stalk out of a pearly kimono. She hurries away, so fast she is almost running.
I'm running late as well as I make for Nijo castle on the other side of town.
Once there, it takes me a while to walk to the end of the ticket queue, where a staff member is waiting. His main job seems to be to wear a suit, hold up a sign saying 'The line starts here' and look apologetic. Still, the queue moves quickly enough and it doesn't take long before I'm entering a great gate.
I topple into darkness. All I can see is a line of little foot lanterns that guide us like lights on an airport runway. Perhaps because our eyes are getting used to the dark, the shining cherry trees dazzle us and the crowd responds with cries and cameras.
But then, Nijo castle was never about hiding one's light under a bushel. Built in the 17th century to serve as the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, it was designed to remind visitors who really ruled the country.
I continue in darkness to the next jewel box of lit-up sakura, spending long moments with a tree frothing a pale pink fountain. It belongs to the family of shidarezakura - sakura trees with dangling branches.
'It looks like fireworks,' says a woman beside me.
It does - but fireworks frozen at the moment of explosion, pressed up against a sky that can't bear to let them go.
There are even more fireworks at Heian Jingu, a shrine with about 250 sakura trees. Almost half of them are beni shidare - though the flowers look more pink than beni, or red.
For four nights in April, the shrine organises a night concert on the grounds. Between the music and the overflowing flower canopies, the crowd is lulled into an open-mouthed, glassy-eyed trance.
A young mother beside me seems rooted to the spot, her eyes fixed on the sakura above. 'Aren't you going to take photos?' asks her daughter.
The woman doesn't move. 'They're in my eyes - there are some pictures you take with your mind.'
In a few days, the flowers will go. Already the leaves are falling into the pink and white crowd, as every breath of passing wind blows more petals off.
But months from now, just about the time when pictures taken with the mind fade, they'll return. Then branches will explode into fireworks that freeze before they fall, pink trees will bloom in black water and a white petal river will flow overhead, flooding the night sky.