Fleeting blossoms and brief encounters
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