It’s Springtime, and if you live in a place that has seasons, you will by now have noticed that things are coming, at last, to life. I’m probably a little late to sing the praises of the actual cherry blossoms — they’re only at their peak for a very few days — but the array of flowering trees here in Denver reminds me of one of my very first trips to Japan. I had been to Narita, of course, as all good flight attendants eventually must, but this was my first Osaka trip. I had just finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha like two weeks before, and was dying to see the Gion district in Kyoto, a short train ride away. It was April, so I sold one of my flying partners on the prospect of a cherry blossom photo safari, and shortly after breakfast, we set out.
This was well before I got to know My Kyoto: the Kyoto of the World’s Largest hundred yen store and the all-you-can-drink Karaoke Room; of Starbucks and stick-pics and the Shakey’s corn-and-mayonnaise pizza buffet. My wacky romance with Japan was barely budding, and the whole country still struck me as a different Universe. Oddly parallel to ours, with its Toyotas and vending machines and smiling people, but hopelessly — perhaps purposely — indecipherable. While we walked through ultra-modern Kyoto to get there, my memories of that day are all of Gion. Its wooden houses surely bursting with geishas and other ancient secrets, its tunnels of cherry trees sprinkling the streets with their blossoms as dutifully as the earnest little flower girl that makes the wedding of a friend of a friend surprisingly memorable.
Crossing the river, we made for the Imperial Palace. When the rain came — in sheets, mind you, and with no warning — we were smack in the middle of the Palace grounds, about as far as possible from shelter in any direction. Without an umbrella between us, there was nothing for it but to scurry across the park, the subway station as promising a refuge as any other, and when at last we slipped and slid onto the train, we were drenched.
It was no rush-hour mob scene, but the train was crowded enough, and we were lucky to get seats. As they will, passengers piled on at the next stop, including an elderly(ish) woman loaded down, not just with shopping bags and her carpetbag purse, but also an occupied birdcage. I stood and offered her my seat, but she shook her head. Smiling, she indicated with her armload of luggage that I should please sit again. I insisted, though, on account of the birdcage, and she sat gratefully, smiling and repeating what was surely the Japanese version of “You shouldn’t have.” My flying partner gave his seat to her husband, and we rode strap-hanging back to Kyoto station. Balancing the birdcage on her lap, our new friend sympathized with our soggy state. She pointed to our wet clothes, then mimed wringing out her own clothes with an understanding frown. She pointed to my friend’s hair, then dramatized for us what would be her own chagrin at being caught on the train with such an unsightly ‘do. We laughed and shrugged, What are you gonna do?, and she laughed with us. Eager to make conversation, she was deterred neither by our utter lack of Japanese nor by the insistent absence of her own English. We were wet; she was sitting down; something about the bird in the cage — all apparently hilarious topics, and along with her feathered friend, she chirped cheerfully for the ride into town.
As we rolled into Kyoto Station, she revisited the topic of our wet clothes, pressing her collapsible yellow umbrella into my hand. I made a face as if to say Yes, an umbrella would have been a good idea, and then handed it back to her, but she just laughed, refusing my return. She gestured again at our wet clothes, my friend’s hair. “Take the umbrella,” she must have said, or something like it. She cued her husband with an elbow, and he held up another umbrella. They had two, she was saying, and we had none, and if we shared, everybody could stay dry. I tried to refuse — can you just take an umbrella from an old lady on the train? — but she wouldn’t take it back. I had given up my seat, she would give up her umbrella; we had a problem, she had a solution. It was settled. I did not yet know that this desire to share — their food, their language, their umbrellas — was an indelible part of Japanese culture, but now there was a crack in the code, and I remember wondering if this Universe was really so indecipherable after all.