Of Place and Wind 10: Reverberating flowers

Tetsuya Kaida admires the beautiful New Year fireworks which reverberate through time and space.

Speaking of momentary settings, there is a special moment that can be experienced only once a year. The New Year countdown.

I celebrated this year’s countdown at W Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Splendid fireworks lit up the night sky over the forest of buildings on Hong Kong Island, painting the start of 2010 in lavish colors.

This is the way I would have liked to write about my New Year. But in reality I stepped into 2010 watching in silence how the ships of many different sizes and shapes were returning to the harbor to rest not their wings, but their propellers. Maybe my hotel room did not have a view of the right side of the city or maybe in Hong Kong they celebrate the lunar New Year (laugh). Last year, I spent the interim between years in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, with countless fireworks bursting into a rain of light in the tropical night sky all over the city. Two years ago, I happened to visit Edinburgh in the UK on the National Day of Scotland and I remember the crowds on the main streets, rooted on the spot as they gazed in fascination at the fireworks that colored the Edinburgh Castle in every possible hue. Since we got stuck in the middle of the street, we had no choice but to wait for the fireworks to end.

Right. All around the world, fireworks are the outstanding supporting performers that electrify the atmosphere of special moments and events.

Let us now turn our attention to Japanese fireworks. You may have heard of the fireworks festivals held all over Japan as a signature summer tradition, meant for the pure enjoyment of fireworks. The city of Gifu where I was born, a place famous for its historical association with Saito Dosan and Oda Nobunaga, the powerful lords of the so-called Warring States period (1467-1573), has two large fireworks displays in one week in August. For more than an hour, tens of thousands of flowers of light are shot into the night sky, transforming the landscape of the city center around Nagara River into a different world. (Nowhere other than Japan have I seen fireworks that last longer than an hour).

On the streets running along the two banks of the river, couples, families and groups of friends arrive early from everywhere to secure a good spot. They spread straw mats and sheets on the ground, remove their shoes and enjoy the superb view. Everyone brings his or her own boxed meal, drink and fruit and a myriad of food stalls mushroom out of nowhere. As they sit or lie down, eating together, and watching the fireworks, the experience is absorbed through all the five senses.

- Witnessing the brief life of the fireworks from the moment they lift off the ground to when they stop glowing in the air;
- Hearing the detonations that reach you after a moment of silence, depending on how far away you are;
- Feeling the explosion transmitted through the ground and air in your body and face;
- Sensing the smell of gunpowder carried by the wind;
- Savoring a variety of tastes.

Cherry blossom viewing in early spring is another Japanese seasonal tradition. Just like the midsummer fireworks, it provides a ‘place’ for people to gather and let their five senses be flooded with the ephemeral beauty of the blossoms scattering in the wind. Every now and then, a petal spiraling down through the air is caught in a sake cup… (Contrary to what you might expect, I am not a big alcohol fan and, having developed an allergy to the pollen that also happens to be dancing in the air during this season, have no particularly romantic memories of cherry blossoms.)

Fireworks are known in Japan as ‘flower fire’ and the custom of enjoying the beauty of cherry blossoms as ‘flower viewing’.

These two Japanese traditions are rooted in the quivering of the heart touched by the wind of time, as it blows ceaselessly through life’s transient things, effacing them in an instant. It is in such ‘reverberations’ that the Japanese spirit manifests itself. As I briefly mentioned in the previous chapter, this word – ‘reverberations’ – comes to my mind every time I think about Japanese culture. Perhaps it could also be translated into English as ‘lingering echo’. The linguistic magicians in my team have long been scratching their heads over an appropriate English equivalent.

On the way back home from the ‘flower fire’ or from ‘flower viewing’, you feel their reverberations still echoing in your heart. Time is silent.

I guess these ‘reverberations’ simply deny translation.

Someone from Korea told me once that neither his country, nor neighboring China had so many local and seasonal festivals as Japan.

Due to my father’s job, we had to move quite frequently when I was growing up and I was fortunate to experience many different festivals in the villages and towns where I lived. Wearing a happi festival coat and a headband, I mixed in with the crowd that carried the portable shrines. I beat on traditional drums in a hakama divided skirt and half-coat, my face covered with makeup, and danced till daylight to welcome the ancestors’ spirits at the time of the Bon Festival. As this involved several days of intense practice, I could not help having inappropriate thoughts of wanting it to end as soon as possible. It is thanks to these memories that now, as an adult, I do my best to stay away from the inner workings of festivals (laugh).

It seems I’ve digressed. A festival is a one-time event with its own uniqueness, which will never return. Again, my concern is with the feelings arising on your way home, after you have left the ‘place’ of the festival – a reluctance to walk away, as if something was pulling at you to return. Once the festival crowds have dispersed, the streets and people remain enveloped in loneliness, in a sort of residual fragrance. At the same time, you feel a wind that blows towards tomorrow, refreshing your heart. The ‘reverberations’ of the now gone ‘flower’ of the festival keep following you for a while.

I wonder if the word ‘festival’ accurately conveys in English the meaning of the Japanese ‘matsuri’ or whether ‘carnival’ would be more adequate. Matsuri combine the calendrical celebration characteristic of festivals with the emotional liberation and freedom of expression associated with carnival time. Unfortunately, I have never had a chance to see what the world’s most famous carnival in Rio de Janeiro feels like when experienced firsthand. I’ll definitely have to find an occasion to see what new insights it has to offer into the issue of ‘reverberations of festivals’.

In a group interview we held in Shanghai, a student shared with us his impressions of animation films. “After watching a Disney film I usually think about what to do next. Play a game? Or maybe go out? My thoughts jump immediately to something else. But when I watch a Ghibli film like Princess Mononoke, I dream about it for an entire week. It leaves an imprint on your consciousness”. I guess this is another type of ‘reverberation’.

I could spend the rest of my life writing and still would not be able to produce a text that ‘reverberates’ (laugh). This year, I might return to my hometown Gifu and watch the fireworks again.

By Tetsuya Kaida

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