Autumnal Nara a balm for sorrow

Each autumn Nara is decorated by a bright and beautiful seasonal bloom.
Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Ronan O'Connell receives sad news on his train ride to Japan's ancient capital.

It was my low sob, which I tried to contain, which drew the attention of my fellow passenger on a train near Osaka. At first the elderly Japanese man looked bewildered as to why a large Western man was crying in public in a foreign country. 

Then, I imagine, it dawned on him that only something truly significant, and devastating, could elicit such uncontrollable sadness. His eyes softened. 

He didn’t speak but, with kindness in his gaze, did his best to communicate. 

Moments later I raised myself from my seat and alighted at my destination, Nara railway station. As I walked away, I looked back through a window stained by light reflections, for one last look at a man whose face I will never again see, yet who was privy to one of the pivotal moments of my life. 

Just now, on the other side of the world, my father had died.

WHEN THE CALL CAME

I had attracted glares from fellow passengers when I answered my phone on that train. Making or receiving calls on trains or buses is considered very rude in Japan, such is the effort made by Japanese not to impinge on one another in public. But this was a conversation that could not be delayed. My mum was calling and I knew why. It was now the late morning and I had been up since about 3am, when I was woken by my bawling wife, who handed me her phone.

Her voice faltering, my mum explained that my dad had suffered a blood clot in Ireland and had been told by doctors he had just a few hours to live.

Remarkably, he was very lucid and was able to take the phone and say goodbye to his only son. Hours later, as a new day dawned, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was in Osaka to write stories and take photographs. As a freelance journalist, I needed the money.

My wife and I by now had booked flights back to Ireland but they did not depart until the late evening. Rather than sitting in our hotel room all day, wallowing in grief, I decided to work. Hopefully, I thought, it will be a helpful distraction. So we got on a train to Nara, one of the most serene and beautiful places in Asia.

Now here I am, having just received that phone call on the train, walking around this city trying to capture its majesty through my camera lens. The first permanent capital of Japan, back in the 8th century, Nara is an extraordinary place. It is laced with historic sites, including several renowned classical gardens, a UNESCO- listed primeval forest, and five famous Buddhist temples, including the monumental Todaiji, reputedly one of the world’s largest wooden structures. These places are scattered across the 8sqkm Nara Park, a gorgeous wooded area populated by hundreds of friendly deer.

Nara is stunning at all times of year. This is my fourth visit and it never disappoints. But today it looks extra special. It is November and Nara’s trees are drenched in colour. Never before has the fragile, fleeting beauty of its autumnal bloom been more evocative, more symbolic, more heartbreaking. For just a few weeks each year this city is embellished by a bright palette of natural hues. 

It is a short but glorious period followed by a dull, grey existence as winter arrives to strip Nara bare. 

But with both this brief bloom and my father’s life, I’m not depressed at what’s to come. Rather I’m honoured to have witnessed the majesty before it disappeared.

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