Cherry Blossom Time/ memoir by Penny Freel

In the early days of my Tokyo life, I was often alone. I had left behind relatives and friends and the comfort of knowing exactly my place in my small world to live in a big city, not understanding the language or the cultural subtleties nor the rhythm of life in such a metropolis. I wandered through neighborhoods and business districts, becoming totally lost, walking around and around in circles. But in those first few spring days in Tokyo, I had stumbled upon a park near my apartment. It would become my respite. It would become a saving grace.  

On one of those early living abroad April Saturdays, I found myself once again at Arisugawa Park, a green world for city dwellers and for yours truly, a lost soul. I’d walked past elderly gents patiently fishing in the inky hued lake; I’d stopped to look over watercolorists’ shoulders trying diligently to capture the colors of the speckled koi and lily pond flowers, and I’d skirt around children chasing bedraggled pigeons. As I would begin my climb to the top of the extremely steep hill, city noises dimmed. Step after step took me away from the hustle and bustle of Gaien Nishi-dori and into a world of pink and white changeling blossoms. Sakura. Ohanami.  Cherry blossom time.

The top of the park is home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Library, and along with the bronze statue of Prince Arisugawa-no-miya Taruhito, there were playgrounds, water fountains, and park benches.  It is at one of these benches I would sit. I would munch on a onigiri, a triangular rice ball wrapped in seaweed (Pickled plum—umeboshi—my favorite) that I would buy from the local convenience store, finding it a satisfying no fuss lunch. I would practice my Katakana and Hiragana. It is under the cherry blossoms where I opened my first few letters from family and friends, and under the cherry blossoms, I brought my journal to write about my new life. Mostly though, I sat and watched people carrying on with their lives while I tried to figure out mine.  

Ohanami is a time for gaiety and for contemplation. The park would be humming with people. Colorful blankets, tarps, and sheets marked territory for the picnic goers celebrating the spring season.  People would be walking their dogs, walking their babies, walking with friends, enjoying their time together. They seemed to have a purpose. People on foot, on bikes; old people with canes, people sporting backpacks, kicking balls, people chasing after newspapers; people in all types of dress, in all types of coats, wearing different types of shoes; people uncorking wine bottles, sipping sodas, drinking from the water fountains; young lovers holding hands, mamas holding their grocery bags, elderly couples holding on to each other. I was holding on for dear life. 

As April turned into May and then June, I would continue to walk over to Arisugawa Park and sit under the cherry trees. My journal entries took on a happier note, though. I found myself growing more at ease, no longer so unsure of myself. Language lessons were paying off and navigating the city became less daunting. I met people; some would become dear life-long friends and later, I secured a teaching position. I was able to counter-balance the sadness of being away from family and old friends with the promise of fresh opportunities. I settled in. Tokyo eventually became my home away from home. 

I would have eight more years of Ohanami.  Each year I made sure to sit under those exquisite cherry blossoms whose beauty could soothe and comfort even those most disquieted. Although many years have passed since I climbed to the top of Arisugawa Park and sat under those cherry blossoms to watch and to write, I try to remember those moments of respite and grace. I try.

Penny Freel is a frequent contributor to Lightwood. A writer and writing teacher, lives in the Hudson Valley and Florida.

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