By Mary Lou Raposa (@themlfox)
As the year ends spring slowly transitions to summer. Despite the impending heat, the last tendrils of winter cling on. I have been to Cowra, New South Wales twice, the most memorable being in 2008. In both times, the spring early mornings had an undeniable chill. Among my possessions and the floral yukata I loaned were a cardigan and jacket.
Within the trove of elective subjects in my school, one was Japanese. Choosing it meant going on a three-day trip to Cowra for the sakura matsuri (cherry blossom festival). It was an experience. The teacher organised for us to perform traditional and modern Japanese songs. She presented us with a collection of beautiful yukata, urging us to choose one to wear for the festival. I picked this white, blue, fuchsia concoction that resembled flowers on a bed of snow.
From the Inner West, the drive to Cowra took almost four hours. We had morning tea in Katoomba and lunch in a rest stop close to Bathurst. The dense city faded to the green, open slopes of the country. Soon, there were more farm animals than people. The line of cars thinned as we left civilization behind. By early afternoon we reached our accommodation. In 2008 we stayed in Neville Siding, a little holiday facility in the town of Neville. It was the very definition of “small”, with a population of only a hundred or so.
Neville Siding was unique, with the cabins made up of old train carriages. Surreal and idyllic are two words to describe it. My classmates and I walked uphill to this little shack of a convenience store where it was all wood and brown. Age and history permeated the very walls. Every item up for sale almost seemed anachronistic. At sundown, we explored the train yard. We climbed up old and empty locomotive parts, snapping pictures under a purplish-orange sky.
Cowra was a quaint town, unmarred by the steel and concrete of urban structures. On the first day, we visited locations related to World War 2. One of the many things that made Cowra unique was its own distinct experience in the war. It was a stark, sombre reminder of the hurt and loss felt on every side. In the end, however, was hope. Hope for the future. Hope for peace. That hope was a pillar in the township of Cowra.
The Japanese garden was a literal slice of Japan in Australia. I will never forget this majestic, sturdy tree that blossomed snow-white, fragrant sakura. When the wind blew the petals danced. Standing in the middle of such a whirlwind, wearing my winter flower yukata, I felt like the main character in a shoujo anime. The matsuri offered countless activities, events, and educational sessions to enjoy. I remember sitting through a tea session where they offered a sample of matcha and a piece of traditional sweet. Traditionally prepared matcha is bitter. The sweets were to balance the overpowering taste.
Having to sing for people was nerve-wracking. Fortunately, I was at the back of the choir. The picturesque backdrop of the gardens made me feel calm. Our part in the festivities felt less like a performance. We were just a group of kids singing and people happened to be around to listen. Between performances we explored as much of the garden as we could. It was a day I wished would never end.
But it had to. The drive back wasn’t sad by any means, however. As with all return trips, we were tired and keen for the comfort of home.
But first, the canola fields.
It was a yellow sea. Never in my life had I seen such an endless expanse of gold. I stood at the edge, admiring the swaying blooms. Meanwhile, my classmates walked through the field. They were the pioneers of making chic poses amidst picturesque flower fields. If only Instagram existed back then.
Returning home felt like awakening from a long dream. The country and the open slopes receded behind us. Looming ever close was the familiar density of the city. I returned the yukata, thanked my teacher for the trip, and told my classmates I would see them soon at school. 2008 was the last time I ever stepped foot in Cowra and I have been wishing to return since.
13 years later and the world had changed. New South Wales warily opens up after a second lockdown. International borders will soon open, which I think is nice but I can’t help thinking of white sakura blossoms. I think of an out-of-time convenience store. I think of train yards, bitter teas, war, peace, and canola fields. I think of Cowra and how, perhaps, it is time to visit again.