Monday, February 19, 2018

Flower Power

Once upon a time, Shaggy sent me a postcard from the Boy Scout Jamboree (I think).  It had a picture of a sunflower and said, "I knew you'd like this postcard cause you like that flowery shit on everything."  Likewise, I appreciate how excited Japan gets over flowers.  It seems like it should be too early for flowers.  It's only mid-February, and yet, they are peeking out all over the place.  I've been admiring early spring bulbs - daffodils, hiacinths, crocus, and iris - for sale at shops while I was out walking around, and broke down and bought some last weekend to keep in my windows...and maybe plant in the little patch of ground next to my balcony so I can admire them again next year (I'm not sure if my landlord will be copacetic, but if I don't ask he probably won't notice).

In all honesty, though, I should have just waited.  Although sakura season's still a ways off, the early birds are already feasting on ume, plum blossoms.  My friend Sensei went to Setagaya last weekend, and the photos she posted on Facebook made me jealous.  When I read that Yushima Tenmangu was hosting an ongoing ume matsuri - plum festival - I knew where I would be going before my Nihonga lesson on Saturday.
Before I went, I found myself thinking it might be a good subject for my next Nihonga painting (and at this rate, I'll need a new festival every 2 weeks to supply myself with inspiration).  I thought I would do a sketch before I left the apartment, but instead of looking up shots of Yushima Tenmangu I watched an episode of my old Most Favorite Ever Anime, Noragami.  See, I've learned a thing or two about names of shrines, enough to know the place I was visiting was a shrine for one of the gods in the show, Tenjin.  He's a Japanese original, a scholar and poet who was deified after his political rivals died mysteriously in succession, to become the god of learning.  And he loved plum blossoms.

Yushima Tenmangu is near Ueno Park - I got off the train at Yushima Station and followed Google Maps to the foot of a very steep set of stairs, capped by a stone torii.  When I got to the top I was greeted by an assortment of food stalls, which I promised myself I would check out after seeing what was going on.  The line of petitioners waiting to throw in a coin and clap to announce their presence wasn't too long, but Tenjin's popularity was evident in mountains of ema.  Since I am trying to get better at adulting I'm attempting to "budget," so I decided not to buy an ema myself (also, I have at least ten I still haven't painted), but I did join the line to offer a coin and petition for academic success.  At the moment my 4.0 GPA looks safe for this semester, but I'm still a long ways from earning my master's.

Before I did that, though, I checked out the golden calf (bulls are one of Tenjin's symbols) and washed my hands at the ablution fountain.  As I rinsed out my mouth, I realized they were playing music and was thinking how nice it was, but it wasn't until I looked around the corner of the nearest food stall that I realized the music was live - a flute and a koto in the midst of a traditional Japanese garden.
If this isn't fitting of the shrine of a scholarly poet, I don't know what is.  As I was wandering my way through the trees, I began wondering what my shrine would be like.  I realize it's not likely that I will ever be deified - my family may be good at holding grudges, but if I came back as a ghost I'm pretty sure I'd be having too much fun messing with people to seek revenge.  Still, for the record, I'd like to become the patron of mangaka, specialize in protection from fire, and have cinnamon incense burned in my shrines, in the event it does happen.

I was just thinking about how I wanted some drums at my festival, no matter how much I loved the flute, when I came across a stage set up at the back of the temple.  Nearby a small ensemble was playing strings and accordion, and I had a surreal moment where I wasn't sure what country I was in or the festival I was at (Germany?  Oktoberfest??), but the stage in front of me had drums set up, so I found a seat and did a little sketching while the audience filled up.  Finally a group of kids and middle aged women carrying lanterns took the stage, and I got to hear my drums...although I soon found myself wanting to get up and move to the music.
During the last song the kids got up and distributed small gift envelopes with little panda erasers inside.  When it was over I made my way around the rest of the temple.  I found a small display of ume bonsai that made me consider going back on my oath to never kill another bonsai tree again (this was a sort of expensive hobby for me in college - I sucked at keeping them alive).  I finally decided to check out the food stalls in earnest and snacked on a small cup of kara-age (tasty, but cold), and my new festival favorite, yakisoba.  The lady dishing it up was in no small way part of the charm - she placed some into the plastic container, then put the container in a bag before tilting the container hinge-down and stuffing the rest of the noodles in.  "Like Subway," she explained, as she handed me my chopsticks.  Maybe, I thought, but Subway could never be quite that fresh.

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