The city of Hakata — on the island of Kyushu — has been completely overrun by mainland Chinese.
We’d stopped there for a night on our way between Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And we’d just walked over to the new Canal City shopping complex in search of something to eat.
As you know by know, all journeys in Japan revolve around regional food, and this enormous collection of shops just happens to house several ramen restaurants on its top floor.
I was expecting a quiet weekday scattering of people. A few elderly mall walkers, perhaps. A student or two. And a few young mothers pushing around their screaming toddlers.
But even the streets around Canal City felt like another country. It was as though an entire province of farmers had put on their best city clothes and figured out how to board an airplane.
China’s new wealth is spreading outward, and shopping groups like these are jetting over to Japan on organized tours, where they barge through the malls in large quacking groups, throwing handfuls of cash at just about anything with a price tag.
Designer clothing is particularly popular — especially if the logo is visible from at least a city block away. It’s most important to the status of the wearer that everyone knows how much they paid for it.
Next up is appliances like rice cookers. And finally, every drug store we saw had frenzied crowds of Chinese shoppers indiscriminately clearing armfuls of goods off the shelves, and dumping them straight into bags for the flight home.
Some shops have actually established separate queues for Chinese tourists, because they’re disrupting normal business by shoving and cutting in front of the other customers.
We did eventually get to eat a bowl of delicious Hakata-ramen: a regional variation which has thinner noodles than normal ramen, and is served in a thick white soup made from pork bones, lovingly dusted with red ginger and sesame seeds.
But by the time we emerged from that horrible mall, I was in serious need of a little peace and quiet.
Fortunately, nature was blossoming all over the city.
Cherry trees bloom across Japan between March and May each year in a perfumed “front” that sweeps up the country, from Okinawa in the tropical south to Hokkaido in the chilly north. This pattern is tracked each evening as part of the local television weather forecast. And its the topic on everyone’s mind when the scent of spring fills the air.
Given the dislocated nature of our trip, we feared we might miss this spectacle entirely. But luck was with us in Hakata. After an early spell of warmer than average weather, the blooms had just arrived.
Cherry blossoms announced the start of the rice planting season in ancient Japan. But more importantly, they also served as a metaphor for mortal life itself: beautiful, fragile, and fleeting, and sometimes cut short by forces beyond our control.
The sakura, to give it its proper Japanese name, has inspired poetry, paintings, and a seasonal cuisine. And its beauty has even been known to make grown samurai shed a tear.
But don’t be misled into thinking it’s all haiku and Heian-era culture…
A modern hanami (“cherry blossom viewing”) party is a thoroughly boozy affair. Families, friends and company groups invade every public park and garden, spreading blankets on the ground and cooking elaborate meals on propane stoves, accompanied by the crack-hiss of beer cans.
When in full swing, this can quickly spiral into drunken carnage on an apocalyptic scale, making Canada Day in Ottawa’s Byward Market look like a Mennonite’s picnic.
Every square inch of level ground is covered in blue tarps, staked out at dawn by eager groups determined to reserve their space in a country that has none. Husbands and wives sway in unison as they stagger from one picnic area to another. Grandfathers and grandmothers lie passed out on the ground. And in an uncharacteristic gesture of rebellion, drunken salarymen loudly ignore signs banning portable karaoke devices.
But the season in Hakata was just getting started, and things were relatively calm.
The night threatened rain — which can lash the fragile flowers from the trees — and so it was with a sense of apprehension that we ducked into the subway and caught a train for Ohori Park.
Small groups of people were making there way through the massive wooden gates of Fukuoka castle, drawn to a distant spotlight glow like moths toward a candle. And sure enough, near the ruined inner walls we found a line of wooden stalls, and clusters of trees lush with delicate pink blossoms.
The air held a damp chill as we strolled among the vendors, scouting out the dishes we most wanted to eat, while making a mental note of the capacity of our stomachs.
There were the usual festival foods like takoyaki (octopus inside fluffy balls of batter), yakisoba (fried buckwheat noodles), and enormous grilled squid on a stick.
Fragrant smoke rose from the yakiniku (grilled meat) stand, where skewers of chicken, pork, and heart sizzled over coals and dripped grease onto the flames.
And further down, between the toy stalls, vendors sold traditional sweets filled with red bean paste, and bananas dipped in chocolate.
We also found a stall selling Japanese craft beer — a newcomer alongside the usual big brands like Asahi Super Dry and Kirin Ichiban Shibori.
These were all beers from the local region, in a variety of styles including floral wheats, hoppy IPA’s, and rich dark stouts. We sampled freely of these as we walked, discussing the emerging craft beer scene and making plans to explore it during our stay in Tokyo.
Beyond the stalls and tables, the trees were lit with floodlights from the castle walls, enclosing us in a strangely disorienting bubble of light.
Cheerful drunks posed for swaying photos…
A child dropped an ice cream, tragically face down….
And branches heavy with delicate petals hung over the moat, casting layers of pink reflections that bled into the water in pastel shades.
Spring is such a wonderful time to be in Japan.
And it’s also a time of nostalgia and gentle sadness, because these beautiful flowers which bloom so briefly reflect the fragile impermanence of all our lives.