Sakura at Fushimi Inari

What did the Rolling Stones sing? Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time. Story of my life. Here I am in an autumnal blog sequence as the sakura (cherry blossoms) are hitting their stride in my home town. Just one more example of mono no aware (the pathos of things).

The grove surrounding Thunderbird Square in Abbotsford barely blushes at the moment, but with sunshine forecast this weekend the plaza is about to burst.

I am reminded of the week in mid-March I spent in Kyoto. I was ahead of the full show and would leave before it happened, but every day I could see the subtle gradient deepen along the banks of the Kamogawa (Kamo River) and tried to imagine what it might be like. Shoganai (nothing can be done). I decided to catch the train to Fushimi Inari and climb the mountain famous for its orange torii (Shinto gates).

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As I come to a leveling of the pathway during my steady ascent of the mountain I catch myself thinking like a child: Are we there yet?

Wry and patient the inner voice replies: No. We are here.  

I walk slowly and deliberately under the miles of orange torii snaking up the mountain in loops and diversions past numerous shrines, sacred stones, viewpoints, small restaurants, gangly camellias, and a grotto.

Above the torii arcs the larger canopy of forest, raven’s cry, and sky. Still farther off, the voices of students on the sports field, and muted rumble of a jet. The din of the mundane world is ever present in every sacred space.

At a turn in the path I climb to a shrine. I toss a coin, grasp the large rope, ring once and clap twice. I don’t usually pray, but this time I do. I ask for the right words. I can’t suppress a smirk. If a 5 yen coin can procure an affirmative answer to that request, I’m a convert.

As well as the thousands of torii, formidable walls and steps of massive hewn stones bear testament to the human imagination and determination that placed them on this hillside. The monks who envisioned and designed this site—an extended metaphor for life’s journey—impress me perhaps more than the gods they sought to honour. I say perhaps because I remember Arachne who boasted that her weaving skill surpassed Athena’s. It was true, but her fate suggests that with the gods diplomacy may be wiser than honesty. And though these are not my gods, they bless me all the same.

To my left a distant cloud of pink catches my attention—a lone tree, magnificent for its startling solitude in the evergreen forest still dark with the last days of winter. Is it an early sakura? It might be ume (plum). I decide to reach the summit first and look more closely on my descent.

Once achieved, the summit (like so many others) is anticlimactic. The view today smudged over by clouds. Delicate ferns thrust out of hard cracks between stone steps. A sad line of vending machines staggers rather drunkenly heavenward, and the place is littered with burnt out candles.

The descent proves the greater challenge. Having prepared for the climb by sitting on my posterior for several winters, my quads are on fire. Even though I nurse them on the way down, I know I will ache days for such folly.

The lone tree is an early variety of the long-awaited sakura, delicate reminders of life’s transience and mono no aware. Gazing at this specimen provides a sense of the wonder still to come along the Kamogawa.

Somehow, I don’t mind missing the traffic-jamming, cherry-viewing crowds and higher hotel prices. Not after having found this single tree—my first Japan-based glimpse of the real thing outside of poetry. Sometimes a cup of water is more than a river.

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