Fleet­ing blos­soms and brief encounters

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - LUCY CAL­LAGHAN

The late-win­ter air is so icy my eyes water. Try­ing to read the map is fu­tile so I crum­ple it into my pocket and head to­wards where I think Ky­oto’s old Gion district will be. I’m soon lost but it’s not an un­pleas­ant kind of lost. I think of poet Robert Frost as sweeps of easy wind send downy flakes over silent houses and bare trees.

Walk­ing along a paved street di­vided by an el­e­vated gar­den, I hear ex­cited voices and shuf­fling feet above. Two women in flo­ral ki­mono emerge and be­tween them is a bride in a tra­di­tional white wed­ding ki­mono and a large white head­dress with an in­verted-V shape cut from the front to re­veal her face. It looks like a lamp­shade. Be­neath it I see a de­mure smile. The trio glides over to a man wear­ing a black ki­mono. He raises a para­sol as his bride moves in be­side him for pho­tographs. I wrap my coat across my chest and con­tinue my soli­tary wan­der.

Through luck or de­sign, I find Shi­rakawa-Mi­nami­dori — “south white river” street — my in­tended des­ti­na­tion. I step on to a bridge over the Shi­rakawa canal, tread­ing firmly to avoid slip­ping on slushy cob­ble­stones. There’s a Ja­panese busi­ness­man just ahead of me. Cam­era raised, he’s cap­tur­ing an early show­ing of cherry blos­soms. He ac­knowl­edges me with a barely dis­cernible nod. I smile, mov­ing closer so I can frame gen­tly arched boughs be­yond the curve of the bridge. As I raise my cam­era, he asks, “Will you per­mit me to take your photo- graph for you?” I thank him and he’s smil­ing now too. His large, even teeth shine above the col­lar of his over­coat turned up against the wind. Snowflakes set­tle on the black gloss of his hair. A crow swoops past and lands in the tree. Its harsh cries echo off the water. We both laugh. “Ka-ka ... crow,” he says. I look at the bird and then turn back to­wards him. Click. He hands back my cam­era and I thank him. The bird sits silently. “Where are you from?” he asks. “Mel­bourne. Aus­tralia.”

“How long will you stay in Ja­pan?” “Five weeks. Gifu, Ky­oto, then Tokyo. And you?” He says he is in Ky­oto for his brother’s wed­ding. “I have just one day here.” Larger snowflakes fall be­tween us and he blinks one away from his eye­lashes. His gaze is fixed on me and I won­der what he might say next. He reaches into a depart­ment store carry-bag and pulls out a small cloth roll se­cured with cord and a ce­ramic bead. “Th­ese are my chop­sticks. They are new. I want you to have them as a sou­venir of Ja­pan.” Arms ex­tended, he holds the slen­der cylin­der to­wards me.

“No. I can­not take them; that is too kind.” He in­sists. I hes­i­tate. There’s only a damp map in my pocket. I have noth­ing to of­fer him. “Take them, please.” He bows as I ac­cept his gift. I un­roll a pair of beau­ti­ful pol­ished hard­wood chop­sticks. I look at him un­sure what to say. Snowflakes set­tle on his shoul­ders. Touched by his kind­ness, I re­alise I’m go­ing to cry and I fum­ble for a tis­sue.

For­get­ting ev­ery­thing I’ve learned about Ja­panese eti­quette, I reach out to shake his hand. “Thank you. Ari­gato. You are very gen­er­ous,” I say. “When you are in Ja­pan, do not for­get about me,” he replies. We both bow and walk away. I glance at my cam­era and the last pic­ture is still on its small screen. There I am, look­ing back over my shoul­der, laugh­ing, with the blos­soms and the bird be­hind me.

Nar­row street in Ky­oto’s old quar­ter

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