Cherry Blossoms

June 11th, 2009 | Posted in Articles, Personal | Comments Off on Cherry Blossoms

Beginning in the morning and continuing throughout the day was my dogged pursuit of the perfect photograph of falling cherry blossoms. The season is ending, the trees are losing their flowers and every gust of wind brings drifting flecks of pink. I imagine it would affirm my skill as a photographer to capture the blossoms as a backdrop to the crowds everywhere, but the prize somehow eludes me. I began my quest at a huge park near my hotel. After wandering through paths crammed with cherry trees, I found a temple with a Buddhist priest chanting before an altar. The sound of the drum and his voice made me forget about my aching knee and my failure as an artist.

I went to Yasukuni-Jinja which is a shrine to World War II dead. It is the scene at which Japanese politicians annually offer their respects, a piece of political theater, either tone-deaf or intentionally provocative, that never fails to deeply offend other nations in the region. It is a beautiful spot that today is alive with crowds watching a parade of sumo wrestlers led by Shinto priests. They perform a solemn ceremony at the shrine, a practice that predates 20th century fascism.

The free part of the museum has a lovingly restored Zero fighter. During the war, it was the Lexus of carrier based fighters, an beautifully efficient engine of death for which the allies had no answer. There are artillery pieces, the last remnant of the defenders of Okinawa, the barrels scarred by the rounds of American fire. A very young man in a business suit salutes. My father and his shipmates brought the troops that captured the cannon and sent the heroes to their reward. My father saw only fanaticism and aggression in the army that is honored here. The museum is a tribute to their honor and bravery. It is a moment to consider how objectivity is the first victim of war on both sides.
Cherry Blossoms Image

Later, I see the same young man in the suit shouting at the heroes of modern sumo. It seems to be fan appreciation day. I sneak into a line of fans who are led to dirt area around a covered sumo arena. The fans are animated and engaged. From their cheers it appears that these are indeed the best of the best. Each match is preceded by an elaborate ceremony in which the athletes toss handfuls of salt onto the dirt ring. Some make subtle variations in the routine to play to the crowd. The actual match usually begins with a violent collision of a quarter ton of nearly naked flesh. The wrestlers then use all their strength, balance, girth and guile to push, twist or bamboozle their opponent out of the ring.

There are a surprising number of westerners who are wrestlers. My son tells me many are from Eastern Europe. One lifts his counterpart by his belt so his feet kick helplessly in the air as he is carried out of the ring. Another is less successful. He made a headlong rush which was countered by his Japanese opponent with a surprisingly deft sidestep maneuver that left him sprinting out of the ring and nearly into the first row of spectators.
Cherry Blossom2

Later, I sat in rows of tables next to the booths of food vendors by the shrine. I found myself next to a group of old men, who had probably just left the match, and another group of teenage girls in their school uniforms. The men drank small cans of something brewed by Kirin called “Strong Seven” which appears to refer to the alcohol content. They also downed small, though potent, glasses of sake. This left them in a frame of mind to discuss in depth the aerodynamics of falling cherry blossoms. The girls trade funny pictures of each other on their cellphones. Finally one of the old men enlists one of the girls to take their pictures on his camera to preserve the memory of a fine afternoon with friends.

After some making some more efforts to capture flowering trees at the national garden on my camera, I stumbled on an exhibit of photographs by Werner Bischof taken in Japan in 1950 and 1951. In addition to wonderfully intimate photographs of the people he saw, it documented the unimaginable transition taking place then. However, I can only conclude he couldn’t get a decent photograph of the cherry blossoms either.

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