Crows and Plums

There’s a crow that perches on the rooftop of the building next to my apartment. He’ll caw a few times, wait expectantly, then caw again. I do sometimes see him with a friend or two, but he’s often on his own, so I’ve started talking back to him if my window’s open.

Caw, caw.

“What?”

Pause.

Caw.

“What’s your problem?”

I have yet to get an answer, so maybe I should try reaching out in Japanese instead of English.

It’s mid-February! Isn’t that wild? I could have sworn it was March just a little bit ago. One of the nice things about the weather being mild is that it’s been a great chance to go out and see some plum blossoms, or ume… and to have an encounter or two, as well.


One of my go-to activities now is walking for 8, 9 miles at a time. It’s meditative, it’s cathartic, and it makes me feel less bad about the mountains of fudgy brownies I’ve been whipping up at home. So on a mutual day off, a friend and I decided to walk the Philosopher’s Path to see what was happening.

The Philosopher’s Path, or Tetsugaku no Michi (哲学の道), is a stone path in Kyoto that runs on either side of a little canal. On one side, you see houses with high gates and architecture that isn’t that commonly seen in other neighborhoods. (Read: rich people.) On the other, you see shops, restaurants, and other places that open during the busy seasons. It’s a lovely (albeit crowded) spot for cherry blossom viewing. If you feel adventurous and walk from Nanzenji toward Ginkakuji, you can also tackle the Daimon-ji mountain hike… but the usual ‘way’ is to go the opposite direction.

So, what was happening on this fine February day? The answer was… not much. There were a couple of cats in bread loaf mode that blinked sleepily at us from sunny spots, and there were a few other pockets of people out enjoying the day, but otherwise the place was dead. You could hear the sound of the water in the canal by the path just fine, as soft as it was. Many of the shops were closed.

I couldn’t help but wonder if they’ve all survived the pandemic and will be opening for the next busy season.

Presently, my friend and I came across an elderly man sitting on one of the bridges that stretched out over the canal. His hair was unbrushed and his coat was three sizes too big. He had a metal bucket in his lap, full of little yellow flowers. He held one small flower in his hand, and he was staring down at the canal in utter concentration.

Upon hearing footsteps, he looked up and brightened at the sight of me and my friend.

“Hello,” he called in English. “You!” He held up one of the flowers in his bucket. “Free!” he added helpfully.

We declined and moved along, but not without looking over our shoulders to see what he was up to. Once we’d passed by, he’d lost interest and was again staring at the canal. Carefully, he selected a flower from his bucket, then let it drop into the water.

The plum blossoms were few, but bright and beautiful, and blooming enough to give the air a pleasant smell even through our masks. I’m sure by the time you read this, even more of them will have fully bloomed.

The two of us ended our stroll by making our way over to the Imperial Palace Gardens, where there were significantly more people and significantly more plum blossoms available to view. We stood and watched from afar for a while, then decided that we desperately needed to sit down so off home we both went.

The touristy places are empty, from what my social media feeds are telling me. Arashiyama looks like a ghost town. The Gion area, usually so packed with people it’s impossible to move, is silent at certain times of day. So if you’re in the city and feel comfortable enough to venture out and see what’s going on, I encourage you to do so. The shops that are open could greatly use the revenue, even if you only pick up a takeaway coffee.

…Maybe even consider accepting a flower from an old man. They’re free, after all.

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