JQ Magazine: Petals Underfoot at Brooklyn’s Sakura Matsuri

The view from Sakura Matsuri at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, April 2012. (Preston Hatfield)

By Preston Hatfield (Kofu-shi, 2009-10) for JQ magazine. Preston moved to New York in January 2012 from San Francisco and works for Skyhorse Publishing. In addition to fantastic manuscripts, Preston is now accepting submissions from people who want to be his friend. Abduct him from his house in the middle of the night, or find him on Facebook and ask about his JET blog in which he details his exploits and misadventures in that crazy Land of the Rising Sun we all love.

In the end I find myself in Cherry Esplanade, sinking to the ground, my back comfortable against the broad face of a cherry tree whose gnarled and mostly barren branches still sported a few late blossoms flitting in the breeze, the petals of those that had come before it strewn across the grounds, specking the meadow in gentle shades of pink. It’s an act of defeat, really; an act of resignation.

I never did find that damn press table.

*           *           *

I arrived early, as planned, eager to take in the 31st Annual Sakura Matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was my first matsuri since moving to New York in January, my first trip to the Garden. I was stoked.

As instructed, I went to the entrance designated for performers, event staff and press and told the man at the front desk who I was. After consulting his clipboard and giving me a skeptical look, he let me in and gave me directions to the tent where I could pick up my press kit and thank the publicist for giving JQ magazine and myself the opportunity to cover the event. I set off, and once inside was instantly struck by how large the Brooklyn Botanic Garden really is. Droves of people had shown up for the event, a fair number of them in costume, though conspicuously, from where I stood just outside the visitor center, it was not readily apparent where the main event was being held. As I continued walking down the path, I was growing more and more sure that either the guy at the front desk either gave me poor instructions, or I was poor at following them (and this would not surprise most people who know me, least of all my mom or some of my elementary school arts and crafts teachers).

Leave it to me to let this bother me, to knock impatiently at the door of my mind so loudly that I was unable to really take in and appreciate my surroundings. Find the press table. That is the first priority. Enjoying myself can come later.

And so I wandered. Every curve of the path, every safari I took through a thicket or brush to see what lay beyond seemed to bring me no closer to my destination. But hark! In the distance I heard, and indeed all along had been hearing, the rumbling boom of taiko drums. Thought I, It may not be where the press table is, but there’ll at least be something to witness and report on.

*           *           *

The drummers are well into their last number now. At such close proximity, I feel the vibrations bumping me through the ground, practically shoving the air around me. For a different person, on a different day, this might be jarring, but for me it’s not. Strangely, I’m imagining this pounding in my ears and my chest as something reminiscent of a penetrating massage, and for the first time in far too long I exhale deeply and visualize the stress of New York City subsiding. Shoulders easy, chest deflates. Here in this moment I am lighter, but that weight isn’t far away; it’s only gone as far as the garden exit.

*           *           *

When I went off in search of the drummers, what I found first was not Cherry Esplanade, where the main stage and food tents are set up, but the Japanese garden. Walking through it brought forth a powerful kick of nostalgia. The garden is beautiful, a gem of landscape engineering (if that wasn’t a real term before, I hereby declare that henceforth it shall be). With the slightest bit of effort I knew I could convince my willing mind that I was back in my old haunts in the Yamanashi mountains, or touring the grounds at one of the gardens in Kyoto. But some of us are wise to abstain from playing make believe so recklessly.

The crash back into reality can be harsh. Still a stranger to New York, I feel more at home in the Garden than I have anywhere else. So many cozy memories of “better” times surface with the appearance of a maple leaf or a koi, or hearing the alien twang of a shamisen. Recklessly, I step, and suddenly the press table is forgotten. Back I go, spirits and memories taking flight, to a place where autumn breezes make playthings out of cherry blossoms and mountains burst with grass instead of trash and cigarette butts, where people are quick to apologize for the slightest of inconveniences, and preserving wa in society is paramount.

*           *           *

I come out of my reverie long enough to hear the MC introduce the Ryukyu Buyo and Nihon Buyo dancers. I’m in a freefall now. Terminal. I miss you, Japan. 2010 was a long time ago; 2008 longer still. I feel, as I so often do, the acute pangs of regret, that I could have, should have been with you in March, 2011.

I find a distraction in the gaiety happening around me; so many jovial, happy families, friends and couples, all enjoying the weather and festivities under the cherry trees, many partaking in the overpriced bento lunches and seasonal Japanese sweets. Were it not for living on a shoestring budget I would seriously consider buying one for myself, if only to relive those late night stops at Family Mart on my way home from a night of careless revelry with my friends or office nomikais. I ate these lunches with a certain amount of relish when I was an exchange student at Tsuru University, sitting out on the school patio with the other members of my program, each of us with wooden chopsticks in one hand, flimsy plastic trays in the other.

Regrettably, it’s very clear to me at this point that I will fail to adequately do my job as a reporter of this event. I admit I did not interview any of the performers or try to get a quote in advance from the event publicist. Hell, I’ve hardly spoken to the other spectators. The one interaction I went out of my way to initiate was to offer to take a family picture of a Japanese couple and their daughter. “Shall I take a picture with the three of you?” I asked in their native tongue, which I had previously observed them using amongst themselves.

“Oh, your Japanese is very good,” the father told me in English. How many times did I have that conversation and get that same double take which resolved into unnecessary and self-defeating praise in English while I was in Japan? It used to annoy me, and I suppose it still does somewhat, but the difference is now when I tell them “Yes, I speak Japanese” it is with less and less certainty. Every day I sense my language ability atrophying. A part of me is dying. Like the Maza and Dota in Murakami’s 1Q84, being away from Japan, the other half of my cultural identity, it feels an essential piece of my being that I’ve worked so hard to foster these past seven years is dying. I don’t want to be left with this space left hollow, and yet it feels like an inevitability. A sad and terrifying one.

I’m a JET alum whose heart never left Japan. It never got packed and didn’t make it with me on the plane home to the States. Perhaps it’s still in my old room, forgotten behind the headboard of my bed along with the ukiyo-e prints I made while on a day trip to Shizuoka Prefecture with one of my JTEs. It doesn’t matter that I came back with three real prints which are now matted, framed and mounted on my dad’s study back home in California, I want those prints—and those memories—back.

There is an exhibit around here somewhere where they show people how to make these woodblock prints. They might even be using the very same Tokaido plates I used in Shizuoka. But alas, it wouldn’t be the same. Even though it hasn’t been working, I’m trying to live for the present now, to embrace all that New York has to offer instead of doting on the past. The one genuinely good thing this city has done for me so far is give me the opportunity to stay in touch with Japanese culture. True, some of this festival today may not be traditional in the strictest sense, but Japan, like all people and places, has many faces, each of which deserve to be celebrated. I only wish there were more Japanese people in attendance.

 *           *           *

I realize that sitting down under this tree was a symbolic act. I’ve anchored myself here in a place where I feel at peace. It was naïve of me, irresponsible to have thought I could write this article the way it should have been written. These words, cathartic though they have been for me to write, I fear are alienating the reader, and wholly missing the point of promoting a fantastic event that is now in its thirty-first year. The people who deserve recognition are on stage—the dancers, musicians, manga artists, cosplay models—and the staff who worked so hard to put the event together and execute it so well.

I salute each of you and offer my sincerest thanks and gratitude for bringing an incredible representation of Japanese culture to Brooklyn in what is, in all honesty, one of the mostly stunningly beautiful gardens I have ever had the privilege of walking. I urge readers (assuming people are, in fact, still reading this) to see this for yourselves and support this event so that it can continue for another thirty-one years. Finally, to the event coordinators, I say this: I promise that as long as you continue hosting Sakura Matsuri, I will keep attending.

 *           *           *

Some time and a number of acts of stage pass before I muster the fortitude to do what needs to be done. I stand, brush myself off, and take a breath. In the distance I can see apartment buildings jutting up over the trees, like children spying into their neighbor’s yard.

All eyes are on me, and I’ve still got a press table to find.

For Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri page, visit www.bbg.org/discover/cherries. Click here for a review of Sakura Sunday in Philadelphia by JET alum Daniel Moeller (Hiroshima-ken, 2009-11).