It was a beautiful autumn Thursday yesterday and due to a fortuitous coincidence in my schedule, I happened to be free for most of it. Somewhat on the road to recovering from the horrible cold that laid me out for a full week, I decided to make the most of the unexpectedly pleasant weather and go for a drive, camera in tote, and explore some of the lesser frequented areas of town stretching far up into the hills overlooking the main city.
Autumn has always been my favorite season no matter where I lived, and in Japan it’s a real treat. Tucked in between the oppressive humidity and sweltering heat of summer and the frigid, mushy sloshing of winter, it’s an ideal time to explore all that Japan has to offer. Temples are particularly beautiful as the bright leaves erupt into brilliant reds (other colors are present, but red in particular seems to be over-represented, primarily in the vibrant vermillion hues of the momiji (Japanese maple)) and watching the leaves twirl down amongst the somber gray stone slabs and weathered wooden facades, I get that subtle stirring of excitement deep down in my core, achingly familiar yet fleeting, when Japan touches something inside of you and makes you overlook all the other day to day dramas and weary grind, thinking only of how beautiful this moment, how crisp this air, how sharp the cooling edge as the wind evaporates the moisture from the tip of your tongue with every breath.
Japanese go on at length about the beauty of the sakura (cherry blossoms) that ripple across the landscape for one brief week every spring, writing delicate haikus, pensive tomes and crafting weighty analogies which compare the fleeting petals to anything from the beauty of a woman’s neck to the very essence of “Japanese-ness” itself. While I think they’re pretty enough, I never really “got” the Japanese fascination with those fluttering floral whisps, tattered and ripped from the trees almost as soon as they’re spawned.
I’ve had Japanese friends try to explain to me a particular fascination with the “impermanence” captured within their fleeting, fragile existence, drawing parallels with the transitory nature of life (or at least how the Japanese see it), trying to capture one single still frame of the moment just as they fly from the branch and absorb that essence before they hit the ground to be scuffled away into a withered tatter moments later. But more than this, I prefer the reassuring solid thickness of autumn, the hefty wafting of a brilliantly colored leaf as it swirls to the ground carried on the dense cold currents of an autumn breeze, the unmoving weight of old gnarled oak trees, gray branches jutting into skies darkening ahead of a sinking sunlight, oranges and reds, greens turning into curling brown jagged edges that crinkle and crush understep, muffled footsteps and echoes absorbed by the endless piles of leaves and moss, dying grass and thick-barked roots, moist mud underfoot dampening all vibrations, the rich loamy smell of dying trees and blooming fungus juxtaposed with thin odors of sharp hints of winter soon to come.
Autumn leaves fall and even as their falling invites you to reflect upon the impermanence of the moment, the moment continue on even after they hit the ground. They pile up in voluminous ever shifting piles all around you, even as they hang on stubbornly in the branches arcing far up ahead, and it’s this permanence, this forced meditation under the immobile remonstrations of death and dying all around you that sets it apart from the seemingly insignificant fluttering of paper thin cherry blossoms. For autumn, reflection of the moment is all around you, surrounding you, enveloping and wrapping you in subtle layer upon layer of thick purple velvet, carrying itself into your nose on moist cool currents and you don’t feel sad, or tragic, nor do you bemoan the loss of each leaf, draw parallels to the thin spinning shimmering strands of your life like sakura are supposed to inspire. Rather it feels natural, comforting and the prolonged period of each cycle is ultimately so much more satisfying than the jarring transition of cherry blossom from branch to non-existence.
I find it surprising that the Japanese choose sakura as the focal point for their meditations on the impermanence of existence. I think it’s easier to think about the fragility of the human condition when you need only reflect on it for a moment or two, in the brief instant it takes the petal to fly from the sky and hit the ground. It’s much harder – but ultimately more satisfying, I think – when you have to confront the question of existence as the world slowly dies around you, not in an instance, not in a moment, not in a minute, or days or even a week, but in in slow, imutable weeks upon weeks stretching into months with a deliberate pace that carefully meters autumn’s somber splendor, transition without change, dying without death, leaves falling, but continuing to exist. The challenge is to reflect on the nature of impermanence even as time appears to have stopped in this deathly quiet no-man’s land between the acrid, glaring, baking summer sun and the cutting sharpness of winter snow.
It’s funny the way little things that we experience when we are kids can grow up to have such a profound effect upon us years later. When I was a kid my father used to drag the whole family up to northern Michigan every autumn to visit our relatives. I used to hate it so much, nothing to do, silent boring backward countryside towns filled with the geriatric shuffling through the latter end of their lives, but somewhere out there, driving down winding forest roads with the stunning massive oaks of the north woods stretching far up on hills rising above to nestle us on either side, vermillion autumnal hues fluttering across the windshield of the car, children running in fields far from any city lights or manmade sounds as we strove to beat the sunset home… somewhere deep down inside that planted a seed, and here, so many years later, there is nothing that makes me feel more at ease, more tranquil and serene than that familiar damp smell and cool breeze accompanying the brilliant vermillion cascades and autumnal hues of leaves fluttering down on all sides from thick gray oaks standing resolutely in the rapidly darking autumn sky.
In other news
That part might not yet be here, but it’s coming soon. For now, you can check out the rest of the pictures from yesterday in the Autumn Thursday photo gallery.
Somewhat on a whim, Tennis and I have decided to get in the car tomorrow morning and drive down to Nagoya to visit my good friend Risa who for reasons that I’m certain we will discuss openly and in that plain direct manner that only true friends can, decided to move back to Japan even after being offered the chance to achieve her lifelong dream and live in America. I have to admit to being hopeful that she will have some small nugget of insight to share that might help me in making the very difficult decision about my own future I have to deal with soon.
Of course, whether or not Tennis and I even make it, or else end up lost and perhaps on the wrong side of Japan remains yet to be seen, since this trip has been marked from the outset by a spectacular lack of planning and lack of serious thought. But isn’t that what makes for an exciting roadtrip?
Off of “Bloom: Remix Album”