Cherry blossom and the art of waiting

Submitted into Contest #191 in response to: Make Japan (or Japanese culture) an element of your story.... view prompt


Adventure Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

I love the Middle East! Yes, I do! And I am sure many people who know me have secretly thought secretly: why don´t you move there already? Because I talk about it so often. Well, what the heart is full of...I love it so much that one day I will be buried there. But not today. No, I'd rather wait a while.

If there is one thing I learned there, it's to wait. If you don't elevate waiting to an art over there: then you suffer.

However, there is another country where that art came in handy as a way to preserve my mental health: Japan.

The land of the rising sun is a land committed to waiting as well. Waiting in lines. A lot of lines. Long lines. So: I'm going to correct myself here: Japan is a country where it's better to learn to make waiting in line an art.

I had never been there before, but I knew immediately upon entering that it was a magical country. An enchanting land with a unique alchemy of culture from the past and the present.

In the capital Tokyo I found a phenomenal magic of extremes. It's a fast, busy, chaotic place, but turn a corner and suddenly all the urgency falls away.

The city is a pattern of sounds and movement, as well as silences. I was in Tokyo before the end of Sakura season when the bountiful cherry trees cover the city streets in pink.

The season was a week ahead of schedule. I sat on a stone parapet of a bridge over a canal in a stunningly beautiful neighborhood, waiting for the sun to shine on a giant cherry tree to shoot the perfect picture.

The tree was almost unreal. So lush with pink and heavy with blossoms, I held my breath for fear it might topple over. The tree was surrounded by people, teenagers taking selfies. Young couples taking turns to shoot elaborately serious Instagram portraits, and a few people who, like me, were looking for a bit of peace and had fled the epicenter of the city.

When I first turned the corner and saw the tree, it was obscured by the shadow of a surrounding building. 

As I let myself relax and tried to transform into a being who waits, with everything I had learned on the subject in Dubai, I realized that when you are near roaring traffic, or in an underground station during the hellish bustle of the rush hour, a form of silence arises in the waiting. My restlessness recedes and my breathing slows down. I feel a calm coming on, an ease that holds neither contentment nor boredom. Patience becomes an emotion, as it were.

When the cherry blossoms begin to open, people in Japan start planning their annual family visits. The Sakura season is an important cultural tradition. The cherry blossom generates several billion in related revenue.

There is a word in Japanese, don't ask me to spell it, I forgot the word (and if this annoys you, I'm sure you can find it with a little imagination on google translate), in any case, that word roughly translates as stoic tolerance of the unbearable. A value that is deeply ingrained in Japan, or let me translate that into Western terms: the idea that you suck it up no matter what.

Japan has many problems: anxiety and depression, the population is plummeting and aging, and then there's the fact that people are working themselves to death. (A third of Japan's suicides are attributed to overwork.)

You are expected to reveal nothing and pretend everything is peachy. Just peachy!

But there is a pressure relief valve: lease or rent a friend. I am dead serious! It's not a panacea, but with a hired friend, you can talk about your feelings without worrying about what people will say or think.

In Japan, everything revolves around the exterior, the facade. Here people don't know how to talk from their guts, and they don't ask for help. They simply cannot. Too many people are stuck and alone with their problems. It is not that people don't have friends. Scroll around on any social media platform and you'll find an empire bursting with friendships and parties. But that's not real.

In Japan, the real me must wear a mask. I believe there is even a word for this lonely chasm.

Anyway, back to my tree. It started to rain lightly, but it soon exploded in lashing sheets. I took shelter under an awning but then decided to just get wet.

I'm grateful for the elements: the smell of waffles and pancakes, the talk of people in a language I don't understand a word of, the wet sidewalk and paving stones…

 And now imagine this: it's midnight, and you've just left a karaoke joint, where a few die-hards continue to go on a rampage with the machine. But not you of course, you are wise enough to leave before you get a migraine attack, and you 

found a friendly person who starts an interesting conversation with you. Someone who will explain, or rather, tell you everything you need to know, before you leave the neon strip, about how to stay or book a room in a love hotel. In case the need arises.

In the land of the rising sun, the existence of love hotels is as natural as praying in the local shrine. Incidentally, the Japanese are the least sexually active people in the world. Truly. No kidding. According to renowned scientific research, I forget when, but I believe it was sponsored by an equally renowned condom brand.

Okay, even though the country is under sexed, there is a big rise in love hotels. The Japanese apartments have very thin walls, so it's not unusual to hear the "activities" of the neighbors at night - if that's not a reason for a love hotel. Stop! Of course, I made that last part up.

Seriously now, whether you're looking for sizzling love as described in European romance novels, or rather want to romp like a hormone-crazed teenager: love hotels have something for everyone, so you can fulfill your erotic dreams undisturbed (or other fantasies that belong more in nightmares).

There is no reception. There is no need because checking in is very easy. Open rooms are ordered from a screen in the lobby: you simply press the room that most appeal to you.

Whether you are traveling alone, with a partner, or with a whole group, you should always be able to get a room. However, you may have to wait a while for a room with an outrageous theme.

And what about me? I'm just someone waiting in Tokyo. (Admit it, you thought I was going to talk about something else, didn't you?)

As a rule, I do not like to stand in line. I've never stood in line for a donut, and at theme parks, I pay extra to access the fast lanes. It's impatience, of course, but also a form of brutal rationality: it's about the value of my time.

Queues are an important part of Japanese culture. And a big problem, but the latter is just the opinion of my neurotic personality.

Waiting in line is an exercise in the principles of discipline and etiquette. And in Japan, every child learns and is reinforced by every adult.

People wait patiently in line. Allow me to emphasize this; people line up patiently, showing no signs of impatience. Not only at ramen eateries but also at cash registers, to get on the subway, grab a taxi or get into the elevator.

Besides, my aversion to queues means nothing at all in Japan. Whether I like it or not, in Tokyo I have to wait.

  Once I waited for an hour in the dim light of the sunrise to pick up sushi. Another time I spent, again an hour in a slow-moving queue, only to be told politely 

by a doorman that the restaurant had run out of broth and that I might be better off coming back a bit earlier the next day.

Believe it or not, that's exactly what I did. I went back the next day, only to queue for two hours this time, mostly stationary and occasionally shuffling forward. I eavesdropped (one of my favorite pastimes) on the muttered flirtations of an Australian couple and read my emails on my phone.

At the end of all that waiting, magnificence was waiting for me. In other words: the richest, deepest, and most delicious dish I've ever had. (And whose name I can't remember either.)

There is even an expression for restaurants with a very long queue (by now you probably guessed it: you'll have to google it because I can't remember the word.)

Those queues are self-fulfilling prophecies, and for the Japanese, it's part of the value. For me, a laudable piece of endurance. I've been told that some merchants hire professionals to line up to pose as dedicated consumers. By the way, the faux queuers also have a name: Sakura. Yes, the same word as for the cherry blossom. They make things look good! (And that brings people in and makes the cash register happy.)

March 30, 2023 18:38

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