"I'm going to take you somewhere tomorrow. I'll pick you up at 9. It shouldn't take too long."
These were the only words I was given from my new friend who decided to take me out on a surprise. I wasn't too sure exactly what was going on, but willing and ready for any adventure. I interpreted "No too long" as a chance to wear a skirt and some jewelry. Right before nine I got another message saying, "It might be muddy because of last night's rain" and quickly changed in to thick jeans and hiking boots.
Living here 6 months already, I thought I knew everything about my town, but my new friend Andrea showed me I was wrong. She drove me to an area not 10 minutes from my house, on the other side of a hill, and we got out of the car in to the crisp spring morning air. On the hillside, little shoots were poking up called "Tsukushi" and "Warabi" which are both edible. The rice fields were full of purple flowers called "renge" which help to keep nutrients in the soil before the growing season. The sky was doing it's spring thing of both threatening to rain or become brilliantly hot and sunny at the same time.
We walked up a steep slope toward the mountains which was indeed muddy from the rain. But by then I could already see what the surprise was - a giant cherry tree burdened with white flowers hung its branches over the slope halfway up. When we arrived, no one else was there. It was just us, the giant tree, and its offspring which were planted around it with benches underneath for picnics and play. The view from under the trees overlooked the land all the way to Okayama city. It was a perfect surprise.
On the way down we took an alternative route and noticed a very nice woody smell. Following our noses, we arrived at a man's home where he was carving chairs from hardwood trees. He got excited to see foreigners and brought out all his tools to show us, including some handmade knives. He even showed us his workshop and furnace where he folds the steel, and was so excited to talk about his work. My friend offered to buy a chair and he laughed about how she would carry it back home to the U.S.A. I guess this isn't like Kansai where if you speak Japanese people kinda put two and two together and assume you live there. It took a while to convince him that she was serious about buying one. He didn't have one on sale at hand, but he offered to teach us how to make them ourselves. Hm... I think I'll stick with piano lessons and pass on a new hobby.
As we left, the guy pointed in the distance toward a hill that seemed dotten in pink and white cotton candy. He said it was an orchard of cherry trees and that the owners of that hill don't mind people walking through their property for sightseeing. We decided to check it out.
Back on the road, people were setting up tables and canopies. As we got closer, they shouted, "Hallo!" to us and then busied themselves discussing how to continue the conversation they'd started in English. Relieved when we told them we could speak Japanese, they invited us to try some grilled mochi and buy their home-grown mushrooms and vegetables. We told them how we lived nearby and how we'd both married Japanese men. But behind us, that cotton candy hill beckoned and I was eager to get moving. We told them we'd be back later and they laughed that we would come all the way from the US back to their small town. Did they miss the part where we're fluent in Japanese because we live here??
Next Andrea drove us to the property where the cherry tree hill was. Up close it was even more delightful and the sky cleared momentarily to a fresh, clean blue. Flowers from the garden and a view of Mt. Tsuneyama were like ornaments to the blooming trees. We romped around the hillside, exploring and taking pictures, until we got hungry.
Walking back to the car, a woman stopped on a scooter to take a picture of the hill from the road. She was a tiny woman, dressed in leggings and a thick mini-skirt. A scarf hid her head under her helmet, seeming to squish her thick cheeks against the helmet straps. Whisps of black hair stuck out in a childlike way. We greeted and then urged her to go on up the hill to see the blossoms up close. She said her body couldn't go up hill anymore. She was 80 years old and had stiff legs from a traffic accident. I was shocked. She didn't look 80 at all!
She told us the fathest she's ever been from home is Nara, and even then that was a long time ago. She was so pleased that we'd come all the way from the U.S.A. to her neighborhood and was happy to see us. After she took a picture of the hill, she went off on her scooter. What an encounter!
Our outing didn't end there. We ended up going out for lunch together, and then visiting each other's houses, and finally shopping for foreign food together. I couldn't have anticipated a better surprise day!
I decided to treat a friend to a similar surprise. I reserved a table at my friend Sachiko's restaurant. She grows all the food for the restaurant herself and she always sends me home with armfulls of vegetables. I knew the cherry tree in her yard would be in full bloom.
Unfortunately the friend couldn't come. I asked everyone I knew and then, at the very end of my shift at work, I found out a coworker had the same day off and was free until the evening. 10 hours before setting off, I'd finally found a companion!
It had just stopped raining when my coworker met me at the train station. I enjoyed looking out the train window at cherry trees in the valleys. Sachiko was supposed to pick us up at the station, but she had a lot of reservations that day and asked if we could rent bikes to get to her place. While I'm always up for adventure, I wasn't sure about my companion. We weren't quite friends and I didn't want her to feel pressured. But she said it sounded fun. In fact, it turns out this girl is a dancer and a little bike ride was no harm at all.
On the way to the restaurant, we crossed a river that was flowing with flower petals. Upstream, large cherry trees hung over the water and with every breeze, petals drifted down from their branches. We ended up stopping there to take photos and enjoy the sunshine. I was happy to share time with someone who didn't mind a detour to enjoy nature.
At the restaurant, Sachiko gave us a tour of her garden. Little spring plants were peeking up here and there and she taught me how to cook with them. Our meal included beet soup which was delicious.
My friend had to go home first, but I stayed a while to chat and then went on a second bike ride by myself. I went up and down a stream, and stopped in a few parks to admire the cherry trees before making my way back to the station. The woman tending the bike area was half asleep when I got back and the sun had set.
Since then I've been eating so many vegetables.