On Letting Go of a Tree Branch in Japan

There’s about 4,000 kids outside my apartment screaming about cherry blossoms. 

The gray and gloomy branches of last week have popped, sagging under the weight of white blossoms. I feel the weight of the cherry blossoms in my chest, hanging with hope to the trees before breezes send them streaming like confetti across the blue sky.

There is no choice but to get as drunk as we can in the meantime.

Petal Seasons

From all of these trees,
salads, the soups, everything
fills up with petals.
– Basho

It’s Sakura season. The Japanese Poet’s Meteorological Association, of course, is right on schedule, with its updated list of weather phenomenon now officially allowed to enter your haiku writing now that the winter haiku season has ended.

April 5 to May 5 is officially designated as “Late Spring,” though it feels a great deal like Early Spring, given the blooming of the sakura, one of the key symbols of Spring Haiku.

Along with horny cats:

The amorous cat
without body or world
has become yowl.
– Anjū Atsushi

Passing Time

The ending of spring?
Within the cherry blossom,
it’s lingering there.
– Buson

April is a complicated month in Japan. It’s a time of sakura and transition, one of the few times when the internal clock of foreigners and natives tick to the same tock.

April brings a new school year, and so the legions of foreign English teachers are either departing or watching staff members leave. Private contract ALTs have contracts that end in April, meaning it’s time to pack up and ship off. Teachers, however, rotate around to make sure no school keeps all the talent. Since every school should be balanced in its ratio of skilled-to-shit teachers, this means a lot of the best teachers get reassigned.

Meanwhile, new graduates are starting their first days at new companies, about to endure the team-building exercises that will mold them into proper participants in whatever corporate culture has adopted them.

Sakura blossom at this time of transition – or perhaps Japan has scheduled the time of transition to coincide with the sakura. Either way, the connection between that cherry blossom clinging to the past, and those petals all a-flutter, is a concrete one in Japanese culture: You’ll find the blossoms described in haiku as old women or young children, in equal measure, because it is both within a single flower.

It blooms. It is beautiful, and heavy, but the weight of it isn’t enough to save it from that wind. The weight makes the branch sloop. When I see a cherry blossom, it’s always shaking, swaying on tumultuous branches, looking scared of letting go, stuck in it’s attachment to an otherwise bland scrap of wood, or else it has let go and is flying about in a storm. It’s born to let go of living.

Which is what Zen calls “the principle of non-attachment,” the practice of letting things go. In the Zen view, the cherry blossom is a rapid cycle of birth, attachment, and surrender. We’re born wanting stuff, and the tragedies of our lives are built around not getting that stuff. The blossom wants to stay on the branch. But we know it won’t.

When it lets go, take it as a lesson.

Wabi Sabi
When Basho wrote about Haiku for the aspiring beatniks of his day, he told them: The core of the haiku is loneliness, sabi, half of that glorious phrase wabi-sabi, which I’ll half-heartedly describe as the mix of loneliness and ecstasy felt in those brief moments where you’re OK with the heaviest meaning of passing time: That fleeting sense that hey, we’re all gonna die someday, and it’s going to be alright.

Sakura is wabi-sabi’s high season.

I’ve heard wabi-sabi described as a joke on foreigners, something Japanese people rarely discuss unless explaining Japan to outsiders. My guess is it probably doesn’t come up much, just as I (or, well, a normal person) would never sit around talking in English about melancholy. It’s a personal, private thing, and talking about it defeats the purpose.

Unless you’re a poet. There are festivals in Japan – one in Daizafu’s Tenmangu shrine, in my neck of the country – where sake floats down a river, and you have to fetch the sake, compose a poem, read the poem, and take a shot. Then you put the written poem on the float and send it away. Wabi-Sabi!

Wabi-Sabi is particularly attractive, to me, for the same reason that Zen is: I’m an anxious person, and this stuff helps me relax. In my personal life, when faced with most major transitions, I, for one, never seem to believe that it will be better than what has come already. I make a lot of stuff up about the future – good and bad, hopeful and catastrophic – then yearn for those things to materialize. I gotta let go of the branch.

Uncertainty Season
Things are changing all the time. April in Japan crams all of that uncertainty into a single season, marked by the arrival and departure of sakura blossoms.

The cycle is comforting. Everything changes and then the cherry blossoms scatter and you start again until they bloom and fall again. The catastrophes that I’ve envisioned – the root of my anxieties – have come to pass, and yet here I am, again, drinking beer in a storm of petals.

If I get anxious about change, or how perfect life would be if things had gone some other way, it helps to remember that I’ve been through this cycle before. Then I draw some tea or go for a run. And in a few hours, or days, or months, I’m fine.

I’ve done another lap on another year’s anxieties, will do it again, and most likely I’ll continue to survive.

The moon, the blossoms
This and that and this and that,
That’s just how it goes.
– Issa

The cherry blossom is totally us, guys. You’re taken for a ride through the tension and the stomach drops and ecstasies and heartache and most of it is this terrifying onslaught of life followed by life followed by more brutal, shaky, beautiful life. We can look at those fuckin’ trees and if you could ask them they’d tell us, life and the rest of it is just as beautiful when you’re clenching your fists as when you’re letting it go.

If you love ephemera, you can “like” the fleeting nature of This Japanese Life’s Facebook feed. 

This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Homesickness, Thinking, Tradition, Zen and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Letting Go of a Tree Branch in Japan

  1. tanya says:


  2. Underground_侍 says:

    Very good read!

  3. Hai says:

    Thanks a lot for your beautiful writing. I have always had that feeling in sakura season, never been able to put it into words though.

  4. Mark says:

    Wow, that was very profound and eloquent. Thanks.

  5. Pingback: On Praying to a Fox in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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