Life is just dressing and undressing – this morning was a bit miz; coming back to the hotel chilled to the bone, and with wet shoes to fly in. Packed and hit the street again with three layers on – but of course by then it had turned into a balmy summer’s day, which dried my shoes. Endeavored to get into the Imperial Palace, but every one of the huge wooden Kurosawa-like gates is shut tight, so I settle for another turn through the National Gardens. At the East Gate, I am drawn through into a shimmering world of cherry blossoms. A flagstone path leads under an arch of pink, and then along the moat.

Across it, the trees line the pedestrian walk with blossoms spilling like a waterfall down the old wall and steep slope to just touch the surface of the moat, perhaps a five-story drop. Gardeners must have been working for a hundred years to create this effect, and now to maintain it. I like the ones with the white flowers tinged in pink, rather than the other way round – each with five delicate serrated petals – a fitting symbol for Japan; I am so lucky to be here right at this time.

The moat leads me onto a long pedestrian avenue with occasional towering gates looking like a huge Ι sign. Vendors line the pathway, and I sample wares as I go, stepping between the mud and puddles. Dry they are, and I am powerfully thirsty – side effects of the otherwise brilliantly effective cold medicine – hats off to the taciturn pharmacist – but I don’t want a beer. I buy something that could be sake (having zero language makes one so stupid – and the Japanese, if they do not understand you, merely smile and go blank), but what I get turns out to be lemon soda.

At the end of this long arcade lies a scene out of Memoirs of a Geisha – the courtyard full of cherries, framing a large but simple shrine. This turns out to be the shrine to the Japanese war heroes – there are plenty of Japanese bowing and meditating, but I understand the Chinese are less than happy about some of the people being venerated here.

Beside is a display of ikebana in a climate-controlled case. Beautiful timeless arrangements accentuate each element. Who says Tom doesn’t stop to smell the flowers?

At the shrine I stop to buy some little painted votives as small gifts to carry home. The woman selling them strikes a flint against steel, making sparks over them to bless them before carefully wrapping them.

On the way back to get the bus to the airport, I happen on a Japanese cemetery – crowded and tiny like the rest of the city, tucked into a pocket on a steep street – with black granite stones with metal ski racks bolted to the back of them. Loosely inserted into the racks are wooden boards with writing painted on them in black. They are the size of small skis, but untreated wood like large ice-lolly sticks. Some have one or two; several have around a dozen of these votives.
The limousine (read: bus with uncomfortable seats) takes me to the airport, where the plane is going to be late, of course, and I am suddenly again in the presence of Americans: the lady behind me’s brain never has a thought her mouth can’t use. After resting in the comfortable and companionable silence with my Japanese hosts the last few days, her nasal twang going on and on about luggage is particularly jarring.

At the airport is all the Japanese kitsch that has been totally absent in my visit to Tokyo – stores for trinkets, tacky souvenirs, and cheap watches. But I am groggy from the cold medicine and the cold behind it and cannot muster a search for something worthwhile.


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