14 April, Fukui: if we can’t avoid them, then we may as well view them. I accompany the Sensei up Asuwa-yama, the hill on the edge of town. Under the flowering trees, pensioners take selfies with their smart phones. This is a weekday, so crowds are moderate. Tomorrow, on Saturday, the police will be out here trying to unscramble the gridlocked roads. Such congestion is traditional:-
Hanami-kago gakute shōtotsu sakuragari
The sedan chairs jostle as they vie to view the blossom (Yūsei, 1680)
I’ve nothing against cherry blossoms, of course – without them, after all, there’d be no new cherry trees. It’s just their in-your-face evanescence that’s objectionable: surely, life is uncertain enough already without being confronted with the fact at every street crossing.
Now, here we go again – the breeze swirls the petals round us like a snow squall, as if to re-enact those famous words in Tale of the Heike: “The proud endure not; they are a mere dream on a spring evening and, no less, the mighty must fall, as blossom drives before the wind ….”
Fortunately, we have other business to occupy us. The name of William Eliott Griffis (1843-1928), a Meiji-era yatoi, will live forever in connection with Fukui. Embarrassingly, though, his actual stay was almost as transient as a cherry flower's. In 1871, not long after graduating from Rutgers University, the young American came to the feudal school as a science teacher on a salary of $2,400. The Fukui authorities even built him a Western-style house.
Alas, Griffis soon got itchy feet and, the following year, decamped to a more prestigious job in Tokyo. Although this irked his hosts, Fukui seems to have forgiven him, and the house was recently reconstructed. At the Sensei’s suggestion, we drop in to inspect it.
Surfing the exhibits, a minor meizanological discovery is made – Griffis may have been the first foreigner to climb Hakusan, the 2,702-metre dormant volcano that looms to the city’s east. At least, that was his ambition, as he phrases it in a letter to his sister Maggie dated August 20, 1871. The full story is found in his collected letters.
Outside the house, the museum curators have erected a hardboard cut-out of Griffis, complete with a puritanical hat, leaving a hole where his head should be for visitors to poke their faces through. A cheeky young soul does just that as we walk past. Yes, after more than a century, I think Fukui and Griffis have at last reached a satisfactory accommodation.