The Cherries of Ueno
THE May sun is warm on the city of low gray roofs and groves of cryptomeria; here and there the green is broken by a flush of pink, and branches of pale blossoms appear in the bronze jars that stand in the tokonoma. The streets are more crowded than usual, and sombre gray and black are giving place to the gay gowns that come with the flowers in springtime. There is festival in the air ; one breathes it in with the breath. Winter moods are gone, and in their places come gayety, abandon, recklessness. The spring calls, and in Japan the calls of the seasons are ill gainsaid.
You may find cherries in Shiba and Sanno, on Kudan hill and along the river bank at Mukojima, where pleasure boats lag under low-hung branches ; you may find cherries in every street, but to see them in the triumph of their apotheosis yon must traverse the whole breadth of the wide city, cross the curved bridges of the Five Moats, and so come to the gates of Ueno.
Through the desert spaces of the old Castle, barren and sandy or blasted by importunate government buildings of hideous design, we plunge into the huddled quarter of Megare-bashi, where the kuruma thread their way through twisting alleys, crowded to the walls, and so into the wide, yellow street, clanging with tram cars and noisy with multitudinous traffic, that leads straight to the stone steps of the park.
The road curves outward toward the left, rising slightly, and shadowed by leaning cryptomeria. The crowd is dense, insistent, pressing on toward the unseen goal. Again to the left the wall of trees is broken, and down mossy steps you may see how the copper floor of Lake Shinobazu gleams ruddy in the sunlight, scored with the leafless stalks of dead lotus.
The shafts of our kuruma are lowered beside the great granite torii, through which we can see the avenue of stone lanterns stretching on toward a red and gold shrine under enormous cedars with mossy gray trunks and thick foliage like wrought bronze. Stepping down we leave the sturdy little kurumaya wrapping themselves in the carriage rugs, and joining the multi - colored, chattering crowd we stroll on toward the common goal where the scattered cherry trees, that here lean across the wide road, concentrate into a low cloud of sunshot morning mist poised close above the ground in the midst of the sullen cryptomeria.
The sun is drooping toward the west, and the light is level and mellow, not golden yet with sunset, but pale amber, turning the thin mist to vaporous opal.
The crowd is merry with the spring exultation of cherry-time : brown-skinned, bare-headed little men in long kimono of gray silk, with black hakima over their shoulders drawn together in front by heavy knotted silk cords ; ivory-like girls resplendent in blazing gowns of silk and chintz and thin clinging crêpe with huge sashes of bright brocade, their black lustrous hair, gleaming with almond oil, piled above their nodding heads in wonderful designs, like crowns of carved ebony; nice old ladies in black and blue and gray, toddling along on toppling clogs that clack and clatter, scoring the damp earth with innumerable cross-lines ; fat brown babies, with shaven heads and round little dangling legs, slung in shawls on many backs, and others tumbling along in rainbow-colored kimono, one hand clinging to a guiding hand, the other clutching strange toys that whir and tug, — toys of light rice paper and gaudy feathers; and everywhere coolies with bare, brown, stalwart legs, their dull blue coats stamped on the back with enormous Chinese ideographs, the badge of some workmen’s guild.
And the men laugh and riot in innocent practical jokes, the girls giggle and twitter, and dart here and there like giddy birds; only the babies are silent and solemn, staring with round black eyes and rolling their shaven heads.
Over all is the indefinable murmur of Asia: the purr of low-pitched voices struck through by lines of crisp laughter, the rustle of thin fabrics, the clackclack of gaeta, the cluck of straw zori.
Here the cherry trees are huge and immemorial, gnarled and rugged, but clutching sunrise clouds caught by the covetous hands of black branches, and held dancing and fluttering against the misty blue of the sky. Here and there a weeping cherry holds down its prize of pink vapor, until it almost brushes the heads of those who pass; here and there the background of bronze cryptomeria is flecked with puffs of pink, as though now and then the captive clouds had burst from the holding of crabbed branches only to be caught in their escape toward the upper air and prisoned by the tenacious fingers of the cedar.
At the end of the road the path blurs in odorous mist, and in a moment we are enveloped in the rosy clouds. As far as the eye can reach stretches the low-hung canopy of thin petals; the trunks of the trees are small and gray, and one forgets them, or never thinks to associate them with the mist of pale vapor overhead, hung in the soft air, impalpable, evanescent, a gauzy cloud, lifted at dawn and poised breathless close over the earth.
A little wind ripples above, and the air trembles with a snow of pink petals swerving and sliding down to the carpet of thin fallen blossoms, while darting children in scarlet and saffron and lavender crow and chatter, catching at the rosy flakes with brown fingers.
The light here is pale and pearly as it filters through the sky of opal blossoms, and it transmutes the small dusky people into the semblance of butterflies and birds, now gathering into glimmering swarms of flickering color, now darting off with shrieks of delight over the carpet of fallen petals. Here a slim girl with ivory skin lias thrown off her outer kimono, and, clothed only in a clinging gown of vermilion crêpe opening low on her bosom, barefooted, a great dancing butterfly of purple rice paper clinging to her black hair, is swaying rhythmically in an ecstatic dance, pausing now and then to flutter away like a red bird up the shadowy slope, until her flaming gown gleams among stone lanterns half lost in the gloom of great trees. Here a ring of shrieking children, wrinkled old women, and halfnaked coolies are circling hand in hand in some absurd little game, and here, there, and everywhere whole families are clustered on red blankets, eating endless rice and drinking illimitable sake, while the tinkle of the samisen is in the air, and strange cool voices sing wistful songs in a haunting minor key. It is a kaleidoscope of flickering color, a transformation scene of pearl and amber, opal and vermilion.
In the distance a bugle flaunts a martial note through the merriment; an artillery company in black and red halts clanging in a sunken road; a word of command and the ranks break, and up the banks swarm the trim little soldiers, jolly and grinning. Then the color composition takes on a new note, for in a flash the games are full of spotless uniforms : hand in hand the boy-warriors stroll under the trees, romp with the squeaking children, or fling jokes at the butterfly girls as they chase them along the lanes of cherry stems. Do you see those dapper little fellows hand in hand, gazing with delight at the cherry clouds ? They were in the massacre of Port Arthur, and those hands reeked with the blood of righteous revenge, and now the avengers will carry babies pickaback, and play round games with the little ladies that flutter like birds and, with shrieks of laughter, try to catch the floating cherry petals in their red mouths.
Another bugle call, and the black and red company rushes in leaping units to the sunken road, the clang and mutter die away in the distance, the games begin afresh, and the gentle riot deepens as the rays of the sun sink lower, rosier, through the flowery cloud.
Here, a little to one side, there are fewer people, and the trees are more scattered. Yet one tree is very beautiful, standing as it does quite alone with a background of ancient cedars, between whose lofty trunks the sunlight streams in thin golden lines. We are not the first that have noted the singular beauty of the isolated tree, for two or three slips of rice paper flutter from its lower branches ; and if we could read the delicate characters, we should find some quatrain or couplet composed in honor of the perfect tree and hung on its branches as a tribute, yet not so high but that others may read and admire. Even on the moment a grave youth with round spectacles comes slowly along, his eyes fixed on the wonderful composition of branches and flowers. He pauses, reads one or two of the verses with studious deliberation, nods approvingly, and drawing a bit of inscribed paper from his sleeve twists it around a twig, and passes thoughtfully on his way.
A withered crone with blackened teeth is beckoning to us yonder, where the wide benches promise sweetmeats and sake, so we sit down while the fun grows faster and more reckless. Tea and hot sake and bean paste are brought by a solemn child in a blazing kimono, a child with big eyes that wonderingly survey the “ ejin san ” who look so out of place here in this epitome of Japan. But all social laws are abrogated in Ueno when the cherries bloom, and in a moment we are surrounded by polite but incorrigibly curious little people, who giggle and venture timorous remarks, and shriek with ecstasy when we reply in our best Japanese. A very, very old lady, with a gourd of sake slung round her neck, comes tottering up and reaches a cup to us with uncertain fingers, smiling the while with a friendliness that goes far toward making one forget the horror of her blackened teeth. Without a murmur we accept her courtesy with the proper etiquette, and reciprocate in kind, whereat the audience collapses in delight, and, recovering, draws closer and becomes confidential. And then a minute policeman, with big spectacles and a fierce little sword, drives the friendly mob, squeaking, away, and apologizes to us in remarkable English. Compliments are exchanged, and, smileless, the majesty of the law trots gravely off.
But this is not all of Ueno, here where the people are drinking and dancing and playing games under a canopy of tremulous blossoms. Out beyond the fearful buildings of the picture exhibition there are dark and narrow paths that lead to forests of stone lanterns, innumerable, bewildering, crowded together like enormous mushrooms, blotched with lichen, green with moss, and flecked with dancing lights and shadows. Again the trees gather, and open, and in the damp gloom is the red splendor of old lacquer, the glory of warm gold. These are the tombs of long dead shoguns and their attendant temples. Carven and gilded and resplendent with burnished lacquer, with great roofs lifting in curves as keen and supple as a bent rapier, they glow in the dusk like the embers of dying fires, — as indeed they are. Dying, or dead? Who can say? If the old Japan, the Japan of the Fujiwara and Ashikaga and Tokugawa shoguns, is only a tradition, if the tram car and electric light, “ progress ” and “ civilization,” have submerged a thousand years of glory in the tide of change, there is yet a dominant principle, the kernel of immutable nationality, that may not be destroyed. One by one the shining temples disappear, as the ancient and august religion yields to the powers of the state worship that calls itself Shinto. Every day the trees lean closer, guardingly, around the curving roofs and fretted walls. Only now and then one catches a glimpse from the highway of cinnabar lacquer and beaten gold. Yet within, untroubled of the outer turmoil, sleep the shoguns, and with them sleeps the soul of the real, the enduring Japan. Tram car and cyclorama, switchback railway and graveled race course, these things pass, and are not; but that wonderful thing that the shoguns builded, the chivalrous and gentle and mighty soul of a nation, this endures, even if at times it lies at rest in gilded tombs in the black shadows of immemorial trees.
Once more we come back to the cherry grove, but the multitude is dissolving, for it is growing late. We can sit for a last pot of tea, a last cup of hot sake, here where our old friend of the earlier afternoon welcomes us with bows and cheerful grins. This time it is cherry tea, and the cups are full of floating blossoms of the double cherry.
The shadow is deepening into misty violet, and from the west an orange light is pouring through breaks in the wall of cryptomeria, flushing the cherries with golden rose. The laughing crowd is dissolving like magic, and we are almost alone. With bows and smiles and compliments we leave the grateful old lady with the blackened teeth and the bowing little lady with the round eyes, and wander slowly down toward the granite torii, where Cho and Kame, back from their surreptitious visit to a convenient tea house, are sitting patiently between the shafts of their kuruma, smoking their bamboo pipes. As we roll homeward, Shinobadzu pond lies below us, dark and silent, and an enormous bell sends its thunder of sound beating out across the streaming crowd under the black trees.
Ralph Adams Cram.