Spring brings blooming trees, first plum and then cherry. Gardens and shrines around the city hold festivals to celebrate, and people flood in with picnics, cameras, and toddlers. This garden, on the outskirts of Tokyo, is fairly small: a dense network of manicured paths crowning a hilltop, and wrapping around hundreds of blushing plum trees. The varieties range from white, to pale pink, to warm red, each type opening in succession through February and March.
Although the garden can be seen in a brisk twenty-minute walk, it can easily become an afternoon of sampling snacks, drinking tea, and lounging in the sun. The plum festival, or ume matsuri, brings out the street food and sweet sake vendors, and on this Sunday afternoon, included a musical act as well.
The woman is singing enka, a style of sentimental ballads that first became popular in the post-war period. The genre is well defined: slow vibrato and swooping melodies, swelling orchestra with just a touch of Japanese traditional instruments. Every enka song I have ever heard plays around with this same bittersweet scale, a minor pentatonic found in traditional Japanese songs. The style is old-fashioned; the woman was dressed in full kimono and sang to an elderly crowd, but this song is actually new. She composed it in this very garden, a plea for young folk to leave the city and return to their forgotten villages.
Springtime, of course, is also allergy season = break out the pollen glasses and surgical masks. I am safe for now; apparently it takes a few years to build up in your system before you react. Tokyu Hands, everyone’s favorite lifestyle everything store, had a full display of particulate protection products, including a line of PM2.5 masks specially designed to filter out toxic pollutants wafting over from China.