Since Saturday, Osaka has been alive with the smell of kinmokusei. Google tells me that the English word for this shrub is “sweet olive tree,” and I suppose the leaves could pass for olive leaves (besides, it’s certainly more plausible than “kanagi rhinoceros,” which is the best my iBook Sherlock translator could manage). Since I’ve only ever seen it here, though, I’ve only ever known it as kinmokusei. For eleven months of the year, the kinmokusei is fairly innocuous, used as a border hedge around many apartments or as a decorative shrub, because it’s virtually indestructible and its roots don’t spread and make a nuisance for the gardeners. Early in October, though, when the temperature drops just low enough, the usual exhaust fumes and overworked drains of suburban Osaka are drowned out by a delicate but all-pervasive perfume, which sends me into reveries because it was the smell that was all over the neighbourhood the night I arrived here in October of 1989. The flower itself is tiny, and you smell it days before you see it. This is the time of the year when I am full-on happy to be living here.
Six years ago (appropriately April Fools Day), I scaled the side of a steep hill in Ikoma to plant a kinmokusei for my friend Tom, whose hill it was. I was tied to his fence, and Tom assured me that the rope was sound, and I believed him (I did, however, have visions of the fence giving way and me and it rolling down the hill into the brook below). So, with Tom lowering by rope the extra soil, the little tree itself, and the implements for getting it planted , I dug up the stony earth, half uprooting a little maple tree and tipping it over to give the kinmokusei a bit more support. I expected it all to die or be washed away by the end of rainy season. I’m pleased to say that not only is the kinmokusei flourishing and flowering on the steep hillside in Ikoma, but the little half-uprooted maple tree somehow followed the sun, got its remaining roots deep into the earth and is also alive and well, if a bit twisted. So unless the zoning laws change or some overly zealous brush-clearers make it to the base of Tom’s fence (you’d be surprised by some of the people who roam the hills of Nara Prefecture on weekends), the maple and the kinmokusei will be giving pleasure to the neighbours for some years to come. As good a legacy as any, I guess.
I can take a picture of the tree, I can describe the effect in words, but a smell is a smell, good or bad, and unfortunately there’s no way to experience it but to inhale in the right direction (the best I can do to describe it is to say it’s not unlike a mayflower; if you’re not from rural Nova Scotia, though, that’s not much help). If you live in Osaka, open your window right now and take a deep breath. Unless you’re living near the fish market in Naniwa-ku, or the tannery in Nishinari, it’s the only time of the year you won’t regret you did.