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Saturday, March 20, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Here comes the never-ending season


The season is here . . . again. As if it ever ended.

I do not refer to Japanese baseball, which absorbs too much attention even through the "so-called" off months, when info-starved sports junkies suck up every bare morsel of non-news. If, for example, Ichiro should sneeze in the summer, nobody cares. But if he does so in January, it's screamed out as a headline.

But, no, not baseball. Japanese baseball is too tube-tied anyway. Most fans get their fix off TV rather than drag themselves to a ballpark.

The season I'm talking about has to be experienced in the flesh. It is, of course, none other than the flower-viewing season — hanami.

Which, contrary to common thought, does not end with the final fluttering of cherry blossoms in April. For other flowers soon burst into bloom and demand their own fair share of attention.

Plus we have hanabi — or fireworks viewing — in the summer. And then a rush for autumn leaves in the fall. And next people flocking off to city Christmas lights in December.

Japanese cannot get enough of such group gawking events. Just what is it that morphs the Japanese public into these never-ending parade lines!?

This is what we international couples talk about at night. My wife takes my opening pitch and swings . . .

"Oh it's simple," she says. "We just love nature. That's all."

Right. Nature as in . . . Fireworks forming smiley faces over Tokyo Bay. Or Christmas lights blinking away in natural hues of chrome yellow and electric lime. Or lanes of cherry trees packed with beer-swilling revelers. Or cameramen, eight rows deep, each one with more gear than an appliance shop, all waiting for that first autumn leaf to blush quietly into red.

"Listen, I don't doubt the Japanese passion for nature, but most of this isn't natural. It's a carnival."

"But the flowers, the fireworks, the lights, the leaves — they're all so beautiful!"

This I handle with a change-of-pace, outside the plate and away.

"Yet the world is full of beauty, isn't it?! Why not line up and gasp at other splendors as well?"

"Such as?"

I pause, then lob a screwball. Lots of screwballs.

"Such as . . . banana splits. Or toy poodles, or shiny red fire engines, or Jessica Alba. They are all eye-catching, in their way."

"But none of those have seasons."

"Oh no? Go see Jessica Alba when she's 60."

But this is a pitch she likes and she swings hard.

"The seasonal aspect is what's critical. It fortifies the rhythms of life. Here today, gone tomorrow, the temporality of existence, wabi-sabi, and so on. It's an all important aspect of our culture."

Time out.

I tell her of a guy I spied at Ueno Park during cherry season. He was large enough to wrestle bears. And this macho-man had settled in with friends to watch the dainty fall of the blossoms.

But he couldn't take his eyes from the beer can in his mitt. It was empty. A cruel lesson about the temporality of existence. I wonder if he even saw the cherries.

Time in.

"So what if there's a bit of a party atmosphere? What's wrong with that?"

"A bit? The colorful sights are often an afterthought. The culture leans more toward kampai than wabi-sabi."

"We enjoy being outdoors. We enjoy being together."

And now I fire the high hard one.

"But aren't people here together all the time? From crowded trains to crowded streets to crowded stores? Why dive in to join even more crowds during free time? And then do it from April onward throughout the year, in one mangled crush after another."

"What do you suggest then? That everyone stay home and it all be televised, like baseball? The turning of the leaves in high definition? Christmas lights blinking in slow motion replay?"

"Not a bad idea," I tell her. "Then if I didn't like the cherry blossoms, I could switch channels to plums. Or vice versa."

But she pounds this pitch into the gap.

"Nothing can be done about the crowds," she says. "We're a populous nation. Yet flower-viewing or watching summer fireworks or taking in the autumn leaves are events of our year. Just like Americans have Easter egg hunts in the spring or hold barbecues on July 4th or carve pumpkins at Halloween. We are a group society and this is our collective social calendar. It's a full calendar and fun for those who can appreciate it."

I watch my argument fly away and say, "Which is why the viewing events never end."

"Exactly."

"Sort of like these discussions."

"Which we can continue when we view the cherry blossoms."

"Or . . . how about a baseball game? I could get tickets."

"Nope," she says. "Baseball I can watch on TV."

"For the slo-mo, high definition replay? Should someone sneeze?"

"G'night."

"A good sneeze is full of wabi-sabi."

"You're full of something too."

OK, she wins — this time. But if I've learned one thing from flower viewing, or baseball, it's this:

There is always tomorrow.



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