On my late father’s 66th birthday, he handwrote his living will on a couple of pages from a Mead composition notebook, the pages now yellowed by time. On these pages, he stated his wishes for his death, and on the top margin of the second page was a four-line poem he composed—it was a jisei no ku 辞世の句 or simply jisei.[i] Westerners know it popularly as a “deathpoem.”
I learned of my father’s jiseiwhile my family prepared for his funeral service—he passed away five years later at age 71. In composing his jisei, he chose the image of falling cherry blossoms as the jisei’s subject metaphor.
My father’s jisei suggests a specific image of his death around the falling cherry blossoms’ profound symbolism. The image of the falling cherry blossoms can have a more philosophical meaning beyond its pure aesthetic beauty.
His jisei opened my eyes to something entirely unexpected from him, and it opened a window into his soul, revealing a part of himself he kept hidden from view and, therefore, a side of my father who was a stranger to me.
My father’s jisei inspired me to learn about the significance and meaning of the cherry blossoms and to learn why he chose it for his jisei.By doing so, I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of my father, enabling me to connect the dots with the father—and the man—I didn’t know.
By Vince Takemi Ebata
January 7, 2018
Despite a country where 80% of its population live in urban areas, the Japanese people are said to have a sincere appreciation for nature and the changing of the seasons. If you’ve ever visited Japan, you may have had a native Japanese person praise the fact that you have visited their city at the most beautiful time of the year.
This sense of the seasons is called kisetsu 季節, and it means “a season” or “the time of the year,” and it’s rooted in Japan’s agrarian past. Nowhere is this sense of the seasons more evident than in wet-field rice farming.
RICE-GROWING CYCLE TIED TO THE SEASONS
Since ancient times, the Japanese system of sustainable wet-rice farming was a very sophisticated system.[ii] The rice-growing cycle begins around the time the long winter ends and when the cherry blossom trees start to bloom in spring, which was a sign used by farmers to begin sowing the rice seedlings. In the early summer, they transplant the seedlings to wet paddies, cultivate it under the summer sun and produces grain, and then the grain gets harvested in autumn.
This cycle has been repeated in the same way for many centuries according to the changing of the seasons.[iii] This attitude is why the seasons are still intimately connected with contemporary Japanese life.
In autumn, local harvest festivals are celebrated all over the country, and in many places, floats carrying symbolic gods parade throughout the streets celebrating the bountiful rice harvest. Long ago, the newly harvested rice crop couldn’t be eaten until after an offering was made first to the rice gods. Everyone joined in a great feast, and there was dancing, singing, and waving of fans.
There’s also the custom called tsukimi 月見, the tradition of holding parties to view the autumn harvest moon, observed on September 15 at the time of the full moon. Everyone sets up a table facing the horizon to see the moon rising, and place offerings on these tables to the god of the moon. These offerings included a vase holding susuki (Japanese pampas grass), cooked vegetables, sweet potato and tsukimi dango, plus saké as offerings to the moon to pray for an abundant harvest.
At the Imperial Palace, the “first taste” ceremony is called niiname sai 新嘗祭. It’s an essential Shinto ritual as a form of thanksgiving by the emperor to the gods of Heaven and Earth by presenting offerings of the newly harvested rice crop to the gods.This day has since become a national holiday, and it takes place annually on November 23.[iv] The name of the festival has also changed, it’s now called kinrōkanshahi 勤労感謝の日 or Labor Thanksgiving Day. It’s Japan’s version of the American Thanksgiving holiday.
The Shintō rites at New Year’s were originally festivals at which people prayed for a bountiful harvest in the coming year. Koshogatsu 小正月 (“Little New Year”) starts with the first full moon of the year, which is around January 15. The main events of koshogatsu are the rites and practices praying for a plentiful harvest.
Rice-planting and other paddy-field crops still celebrated throughout the country also involve prayers for a good harvest. Women dressed in kimono, their sleeves tied back with red sashes, planted the rice, while musicians performed nearby with drums, flutes, and bells. The dance traditionally associated with such festivals gradually evolved as a part of the noh theater.[v]
As a result, rice agriculture was the center of life in ancient Japan, and people lived throughout the year with the seasons and the climate in harmony with the rice growing schedule.[vi] Modern Japanese have inherited these beliefs from their ancestors, and this sense of the seasons has had a significant influence on contemporary Japanese lifestyles, culture, cuisine, literature, and arts.
Rice is a spiritual yardstick in Japan, despite the country’s fascination with all things high-tech; the country remains rooted in the soil. References to rice fill even the country’s mythology and the written character for “rice paddy” or ta 田 forms part of many Japanese family names.[vii]
A favorite time of the year in Japan comes in early spring when the cherry trees burst forth into full bloom—it’s cherry blossom season or sakura no kisetsu 桜の季節—and people want to go and see the cherry blossoms!
The cherry blossoms or sakura 桜 have captivated the hearts of the Japanese people since olden times.[viii] There’s nothing more highly-esteemed and sacred and symbolizes the national characteristic of Japan than the cherry blossoms.
To say the cherry blossoms are a passion of the Japanese people and a treasured national symbol isn’t an exaggeration. It’s probably the best example of fūbutsushi 風物詩, meaning “things which remind people of a particular season.” In this case, the cherry blossoms instantly remind people of spring in Japan.
The Japanese celebrate springtime as a time when nature awakens up from its long winter slumber and sprouts with new life. It’s also a time of transition, renewal, and new beginnings. So, it’s no fluke that cherry blossoms link to many social and cultural events.
A favorite pastime of the Japanese and one of the happiest events in Japan is enjoying the magnificence of the cherry trees in the springtime. This practice of cherry blossom viewing is known as hanami 花見, which means “to look at flowers.”[x] It’s a custom that’s over a 1,000-years-old and is an excellent example of the Japanese view of the beauty and transience of nature.
The fully bloomed cherry trees are synonymous with spring, and it makes people celebrate and think of new beginnings and brand-new starts.The intensity and spirit of the cherry blossoms bring so much joy to people, and it’s enough to inspire one to dream and hope for better things in the future and to be optimistic.[xi]
For many Japanese, April is the true start of the year. The Japanese school year starts in April 1 and continues through March of the following year, coinciding with cherry blossom season. The period of academic year is the same all through elementary level to higher education nationwide. University graduation ceremonies take place in the last week of March.
The fiscal year for government and businesses also starts in April 1 as does the hiring of new university graduates into the workplace to start their careers or other workers change jobs.
Schools and companies often hold welcoming parties with hanami parties. Subsequently, when people think about gaining entrance to schools and starting their careers, they usually conjure up images of these beautiful blossoms.
So, you can see why the Japanese have such a unique feeling for the cherry blossoms, and they relate to life-changing memories.
Hamani is a custom for the reawakening of nature in the springtime after its long winter sleep and marks the first flowering of the cherry trees. This view is a sentiment usually associated with the Buddhist view of the transience of life, but Shintō shares a similar outlook.
It was the eminent 18th century Shintō scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), who came up with the compelling notion of mono no aware 物の哀れ as an underlying current on Japanese culture. It’s difficult to explain, but it implies the “sadness of things,” or a refined sensitivity toward the sorrowful and impermanent nature of beauty.[xii] Cherry blossoms are the ideal example of mono no aware sensibility. It was Motoori who wrote the poem:
“If someone asks
about the spirit of a true Japanese,
point to the wild cherry blossom
shining in the sun.”[xiii]
The custom of hanami then has its origins as a Shintō religious ritual and originatedlong before the rise of feudal Japan. It was in fact established as a ritualfrom China as early as the Nara Period (710-794 AD) when the Imperial Court in Kyōto wanted to emulate the Tang Dynasty of China. In 708 AD Empress Genmei (reign 707-715 AD) ordered the capital moved from Fujiwara-kyō in Yamato Province in ancient Kinai to Heījo-kyō (present-day Nara), which was modeled after Chang’an, the capital city of Tang, China.[xiv]
At the time, the Tang Dynasty of China was at its height of cultural, economic, and military influence. Empress Genmei felt threatened by Chinese seeping into the country and sought to establish a unique Japanese identity that proved Japanese culture developed autonomously to other regions. So, the Empress commissioned the completion of the Kojiki (711-712 AD), a three-volume compilation of oral accounts of the mythological origins of Japan.
Japan was said to be unique in that it was the birthplace of the sun goddess Amaterasu Ōmikami; thus, the origins of the place name Nihonor Nippon 日本, which means “the sun’s origin.”[xv] This connection was said to endow both Japanese nature and the spirit of the Japanese people with unique qualities. Thus, the book described what later came to be known as the “Japanese spirit,” and the cherry blossoms were said to be symbolic of Japan’s uniqueness.
Except for a brief period (740-745 AD), when the capital moved again, Heījo-kyō remained the capital of Japan. Emperor Kanmu (reign 781-806 AD), the 50th emperor of Japan, established a new capital, Nagaoka-kyō in 784 AD before moving to Heian-kyō (present-day Kyōto) a decade later in 794 AD. Kanmu’s accomplishments laid the foundation for the Heian Period (794-1185 AD), a period named after the capital city of Heian-kyō.
It was the last classical period in Japanese history with unprecedented peace and security prevailing over the country under the rule of the Heian dynasty for over three centuries.
Plum blossoms favored over cherry blossoms
At this point, hanami referred to the custom of umemi 梅見 or plum blossom viewing. This appreciation for plum trees originated from China and made its way to Japan through diplomatic contacts between the two imperial courts during the Nara Period. The plum blossoms delighted the Japanese envoys to the Tang Dynasty and enchanted the Japanese nobility by its many different hues that were so pleasing to the eye.
The flower had a sharp fragrance and could hold its blossoms for nearly a month. The plum blossoms entranced the nobles—not only did it bloom before the cherry blossom, they felt it was elegant and graceful. They also loved eating the plums after enjoying the flowers.
Kyōto’s nobility favored the blossom of the plum tree because it was a symbol of foreign culture and became synonymous with the word hana 花 or flower.[xvi]
In the oldest existing collection of Japanese poems, called the Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the number of times plum blossoms are referenced far outnumber any references to cherry blossoms.[xvii] References to cherry blossoms appear in poems by unknown poets and poets from rural Japan, indicating the importance of cherry blossoms among these people at the time.
Commoners, namely rice farmers in the countryside, also celebrated the cherry trees, but they practiced it in a unique way that was tied to Japanese folk religion when the nobles and upper-class of the Imperial Court were still embracing the imported aesthetics of the plum blossoms.
Although each year lavish umemi parties were held, the problem was that the plum trees usually blossom in February when it’s still cold in Japan, too cold for flower viewing.[xviii]
Cherry trees’ status is raised
The cherry trees, on the other hand, not only were indigenous to Japan, but the trees blossomed in the more pleasant springtime. So, while the Chinese prized the plum blossoms, Japan’s nobility raised the status of the cherry blossoms to new heights.
The “…remarkable qualities of the cherry blossom trees’ blooming inspired blossom viewing rituals and traditions that the Japanese emperors and their court had established by the 9th century…”[xix] Emperor Saga (reign 809-823 AD), the 52ndemperor in the Heian Period, was said to have been the first to adopt cherry blossom viewing.
The imperial family hosted a hanami party at Shinsenen garden for the first time in 812 AD. The imperial family would welcome this time with parties underneath the blossoming branches of the cherry trees at the Imperial Court in Kyōto.
Hanami parties developed into an elaborate affair accompanied by all the eating, drinking, singing, and dancing under the cherry trees. The highlight of these affairs was the composition and reciting of poetry about cherry blossoms by the host and their guests. Hanami became the occasion for literate people to demonstrate their ability in bun 文, which refers to the pure quality of writing poetry. In those days, hanami was a custom initially observed only by the nobles and upper classes of the Imperial Court.
By 894 AD, Japan stopped sending formal envoys to Tang, China, cutting off Japan from Chinese influence. This action helped to cultivate their own culture based on the local climate and nature, while the court in Kyōto became more appreciative of local culture and things indigenous to Japan.
With that, the plum trees fell out of favor to the cherry trees at the start of the Heian Period. There once was a plum tree planted at the main hall of the Imperial Palace in Kyōto, but between 834 and 848 AD, the plum tree was replaced by a mountain cherry tree brought from Mount Yoshino near Nara, indicating the firm establishment of the cherry trees’ association with the imperial household.[xx] With the presence of the cherry tree at the imperial palace, a growing appreciation developed for the cherry trees as the number of poems about the trees increased.
HANAMI IN THE HEIAN ERA
Japanese culture prospered as never before during the Heian Period, which only occurred again centuries later during the Edo Period in pre-modern Japan.[xxi] Conflicts for the throne halted, but Japan still didn’t wholly unite under a central government. Instead, power accumulated under a single family, the Fujiwara.
Now that there was stability under the Fujiwara, the new imperial court prospered and began to develop a culture autonomous of the Chinese culture, which up to that point had formed the cultural life of imperial Japan. The Japanese developed their writing system since Chinese writing was adopted, and a court culture uniquely Japanese developed rather than derived from Imperial China.
In this period, Japanese culture became famous by the classic Japanese literature, the Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), penned in the early 11th century by a woman named Murasaki Shikibu, the court name of the author, who was distantly related to the Fujiwara family.[xxii] It was in the novel that the term hanami was first used to mean “cherry blossom viewing.”
From then on, in tanka and haiku poetry, the term “flower” became synonymous with the cherry blossoms and attracted more attention, and the term “flower party” became synonymous with hanami.
The first known reference of the cherry blossoms is the Kojiki, published in the early 8th century. By the 12th century when the samurai class rises to political power, cherry blossoms exemplified the noble character of the “Japanese soul”—that is, men who didn’t fear death.
Minamoto no Yoritomo (ruled: 1192-1199) and the Minamoto clan seized power from the nobility to establish the Kamakura bakufu. The Minamoto defeated the Taira clan in the famous Gempei War (1180-1185) to capture control of specific functions of the government and aristocracy. Minamoto became the first shōgun of the Kamakura Period (1192-1199) and established a feudal system, and the samurai class was born.
Cherry blossoms and poetry
Cherry blossoms became the most important flower in the Heian Period. For the Japanese, the cherry blossom became such a frequent topic that the mere mention of the word “blossoms” in poems immediately assumed that they were referring to cherry blossoms. The poetry of the period was very refined and elegant in the beauty of nature.
Poets of the Heian Period praised the undeniable beauty of the delicate cherry blossom flower through poems. For example, the famous waka poet of the early Heian Period, Ariwara no Narihara (825-880 AD) wrote about how much more comfortable things would be in spring without the cherry blossoms because their existence reminded him that life on earth is very short.
“If there were no cherry blossoms in this world
How much more tranquil our hearts would be in Spring.”
−Ariwara no Narihita[xxiii]
The cherry blossom flower signifies springtime and serves as an enduring metaphor for the nature of life itself. When the cherry trees bloom each year in brilliant force, it’s a joyful sight to see, but they disappear in just a few days. It’s a cue of the transient nature of life and mortality, since cherry blossoms have such a short lifespan.
Shining spring day
Falling cherry blossoms with my calm mind
− Kino Tomonari[xxiv]
This brief view of life is associated with the Buddhist view. The very popularity of the cherry blossoms in Japanese culture is considered an admirable form of existence—the samurai identified with the cherry blossoms because it fell at its greatest beauty, which was an ideal death. The samurai held the flower in high regard because they were also known to have relatively short lives, and the falling cherry blossoms or petals symbolized the end of their short lives.
“For a Samurai, his greatest ambition is to die an honorable death on the battlefield. His highest goal in life is…an honorable death. In contemplating Death, one has to admit one’s own mortality. This awakens the realization how precious and fleeting a gift of Life is.
“Samurai regard the Cherry Blossom the perfect symbol of this insight. Cherry Blossoms bloom for a brief period…and…at their very height of beauty of perfection they…fall. This is a melancholy reminder of death amidst life. It is of Great Beauty…and Great Sadness.”[xxv]
In Japan, the meaning of cherry blossoms runs so deep that it’s a cultural icon revered for its awe-inspiring beauty and similitude between the cycle of life of the cherry tree and the cycle of human life in general—life, death, and renewal (or rebirth); it’s a timeless metaphor for human existence.[xxvi]
Tied to the Buddhist themes of impermanence (mujō 無常), mindfulness and living in the present.[xxvii] The blooming season is efficacious, glorious, and intoxicating, but tragically brief—a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting.People saw their lives were like the cherry blossoms. Time was passing with the falling cherry blossoms, and people watched it with a sense of mortality.
I wonder why, then, people don’t marvel more at our passing of time on earth with the same joy and passion as we do for the cherry blossoms. I mean, why do we neglect to celebrate life when it can end at any moment. Each spring, the Japanese people gather under the canopy of the cherry tree branches to watch the cherry blossoms wither and die and reminded of the fragility of beauty and that our lives are short.
Hanami is like an annual renewal of vows to “remember that life is short, and we must cherish every moment of life.”[xxviii] The cherry blossoms epitomize this human condition. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes the loss of a loved one or an unexpected tragedy to remind us of our humanity and mortality. It’s time, the cherry blossoms tell us, that’s too short to waste away and that people should live our lives well every day and be grateful for the gift of life.[xxix]
There’s a true story of a man named Terumi Takaoka who developed a new variety of cherry tree called “Yōkō Sakura,” which means “Sunlight Cherry Blossom.”[xxx] Following in the footsteps of his late father, Terumi cultivated his own variety of the tree and sends seedlings all over the world as symbols of resilience, peace and friendship between nations.
In 1940, Masaaki Takaoka, Terumi’s father, worked as a high school teacher at a small agricultural school in a small village in the mountains of Ehime Prefecture (on the island of Shikoku). He taught students 16-19-years-old the ways of agriculture and gardening—until World War II struck.
In the waning days of the warand Japan’s defeat appears inevitable, all of Masaaki’s students are drafted for military service in a futile last-ditched effort.Despite his deeply held anti-war sentiments, he must send them off to war; he knows that the students’ odds of returning alive are slim and that their return is sadly unlikely.
There was a large cherry tree in the school’s garden and, to give his young students some hope, Masaaki makes his students promise to return to this very cherry tree upon their safe return. War raged on and in the end, not even half of the students from his former class made it back.
Shocked, he becomes wracked over the deaths of so many of his students and contemplated why he remained alive but not them—while looking at the cherry tree in the school’s garden he had a vision began to form in his mind.
To comfort the spirits of his death students, he wanted to create a hybrid variety of cherry tree—a kind that could withstand cold as well as hot climates, one that would blossom anywhere virtually on Earth. This way, the YōkōSakura was created in remembrance of his fallen students all over the world, no matter where they are planted.
After a lot of trial and error, Masaaki Takaoka was on the verge of giving up. It seemed impossible to create such a resilient crossbreed. And yet, just as he was about to give up, he remembered the promise that he made to his students—to meet again under the cherry blossom.
His passion was invigorated once more. After devoting 30 years of experiments with over 200 distinct species of cherry trees, Masaaki finally found a combination that worked. A crossbreed between the Taiwan Cherry and the Amagi-yoshino is what gave birth to the YōkōSakura.
Masaaki sent Yōkōseeds to all the places where battles of World War II took place and where youths just like his students fought—in China, South Korea, and the Philippines, to name a few. After Masaaki Takaoka’s death, his son Terumi kept his father’s vision alive, donating seeds to places in more than ten different countries and so much more to follow.
Today, the bright pink petals have become a symbol of peace, blossoming in places that were once battlefields which have seen the demise of so many people. These trees have blossomed not only in World War areas, but other areas such as Myanmar and Vietnam are also now home to Yōkōtrees. The Sunlight Sakura reminds us of what was lost during darker times—but also represents peace, friendship, and solidarity.
Thus, when it’s time for Japanese people to come together to view the cherry blossoms and be awed by their beauty, some aren’t just thinking about the flowers themselves, but also the broader meaning and more rooted cultural tradition of the cherry tree.
Hana means sakura
In tanka and haiku poetry, the word flower came to mean “cherry blossom,” and hanami was used only to describe “cherry blossom viewing.”
By the late Heian and early Kamakura periods, a renowned Japanese poet was a Buddhist monk named Saigyō (1118-1190). He epitomized the Japanese aesthetic culture with his love of the cherry blossoms, which he praised in many of his poems. He spoke of his passion for viewing the cherry blossoms on his expedition to Mount Yoshino, and how his heart is still there on the mountain at springtime even though he is miles away. He wrote in one poem how he would gladly give up nighttime to see the cherry blossoms all the time in the spring:
If only I could
not miss a single tree
see the blossoms at their best
on all ten thousand mountains![xxxi]
At the same time, Saigyō saw the beautiful flowers as an aspect of nature and its inevitabilities:
Gazing at them,
I’ve grown so very close
to these blossoms;
to part with them when they fall
seems bitter indeed![xxxii]
By the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603), hanami parties grew in popularity; gradually spreading to the samurai nobility and under the Edo bakufu (shōgunate), it became a customary practice for all Japanese.[xxxiii] It was a well-known fact that Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1573-1598), a daimyō who played a significant role in the unification of Japan, flaunted his power by holding lavish public hanami parties that reached new heights of extravagance and elaboration.
One such hanami party was held for 5,000 people at Yoshimizu Jinja at Mount Yoshino in 1594. Shortly after he arrived, it rained and didn’t let up for three straight days. Hideyoshi reportedly became so infuriated with the rain he threatened to set fire to the entire mountain if the monks didn’t make the rain stop. Fortunately for the monks, their prayers got answered; the party began the next day.[xxxiv]
These days as Japan’s most famous cherry blossom spot on Mount Yoshino, Yoshimizu Jinja is renowned for its hitome senbon zakura一目千本桜桜 or “thousand cherry trees in a glance” view of several groves at different altitudes so that the trees would come into bloom and enjoyed at different times of spring.
Another hanami party Hideyoshi held was in 1598 in which he led a grand procession on a flower-viewing excursion to Daigoji Temple in Kyōto, just five months before his death.[xxxv] Hideyoshi began carefully planning this outing from the year before when he first had an opportunity to accompany Tokugawa Ieyasu and several other daimyō to view the cherry blossoms at Daigoji and was delighted with the beauty of the flowers. He even had 700 cherry trees planted throughout the temple grounds.
Hideyoshi wished to show the blossoms to his son Hideyori, wife Nene and mistress Chacha as well as for over a thousand guests. But, the flower-viewing excursion extended far beyond an intimate family outing and included the wives, daughters, and wet nurses from prominent daimyō families. They were, in turn, the highlight of a significant procession that featured well over a thousand women dressed in a fashion show of robes and sashes. The reputation of Hideyoshi’s hanami parties quickly spread throughout the Ōsaka region and became the talk of the town. This hanami is recreated each year at Daigoji Temple.
HANAMI IN THE EDO PERIOD
Hanami parties took off in the Edo Period, and it had already become an inherent part of samurai culture. But, the shōgunate took things a bit further by planting cherry trees in public places. It meant not only aristocrats and elite samurai could enjoy hamani, but also the townspeople who lived in Edo. Daimyō throughout the country copied this trend in their domains, popularizing hanami all over Japan.
But, during the late the Azuchi-Momoyama Period and early Edo Period, some scroll paintings depicted hanami by commoners. Although the nobles held their hanami parties in their gardens at their private manors, they also visited places famous for cherry blossoms and shared the pleasure with commoners, albeit often separating their areas with curtains. Hanami among the ordinary people reached its zenith during the Edo Period when everyday people in Edo developed a tradition of hanami that became their annual event – an event with costume and feasting, as well as their genre of poems called senyrū 川柳, a form of short poetry like haiku.[xxxvi]
The Edo Period experienced political stability and economic growth in Japan for more than two centuries. During this time, the government-built roads, farms became more productive, and (limited) international trade flourished, nurturing a vibrant culture of its own. Festivals and events such as hanami were vital to keeping the increasingly affluent merchants and farmers happy.
Eventually, hanami parties spread to the merchant class toward the end of the Genroku Period (1688-1704), the Golden Age of the Edo Period.[xxxvii] Prosperity and drastic change marked the Genroku Period in Japan’s popular urban culture. For nearly a hundred years, peace and seclusion in Japan had created relative economic stability. It was the highest point of the vibrant culture of the merchant class of the Edo Period, a time of great renaissance in Japanese popular culture when aristocratic and common arts flourished.
Already the samurai class was deep in debt to the merchants into whose hands the wealth of the nation was beginning to pass. Free of the rigid bushidō code that restricted samurai, merchants were free to spend their leisure time pursuing pleasure, while their profits created a cultural explosion. Consequently, this was a time of cheerful self-expression and self-indulgence on the part of the merchant class.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi at one of his final hanami events (1598) at Daigoji Temple in Kyōto before his death.
It’s believed that the tradition of viewing cherry blossoms at night, called yozakura 夜桜, originated in the pleasure quarters because businesses stayed open late and used lanterns to maximize the lighting effects to make their shops more attractive at night, particularly during the short cherry blossom season. While men usually frequented the pleasure quarters, it wasn’t unusual for wives and children to come along to enjoy the illuminated cherry trees.[xxxviii]
By the conclusion of the Edo Period, commoners living in Edo began to take part in hanami, partly because of Tokugawa Yoshimune (1716-1745), the 8th shōgun, ordered 100 cherry trees from the mountains to be transplanted in the towns where people lived to encourage the popularization of the custom. In 1720, he had over 1,000 cherry trees planted and created Asukayama Park in Edo. Today, the park remains a popular cherry blossom viewing area in Tōkyō.
CHERRY TREES IN JAPANESE FOLKLORE
The cherry trees and their blossoms intimately connect to beliefs in Japanese folk religion.
Japan is a country that’s rich in Buddhist and Shinto folklore about nature. Trees—cherry trees in particular—have special significance. Sacred trees are often a theme in Buddhist and Shinto folk tales. Spirits or kami are said to live in old or beautiful trees and these trees are called kodama (木霊). To denote their sacredness, they are encircled with large, like twisted ropes called shimenawa (しめ縄). It’s said that misfortune will come to anyone who cuts down or mistreats one of these trees.
Many kodama are cherry trees. Some trees are purported to bloom on anniversaries, like when a samurai committed seppuku, or even possess people’s souls.
Cherry Tree of the Milk Nurse
One of the most famous cherry tree folklore is that of the Uba-zakura, or “The Cherry Tree of the Milk Nurse.”
The tree was said to blossom on the anniversary of the death of a devoted wet-nurse who gave her soul (and life) to save a child she cared for. She’s said to live on in the form of this tree.
There was a good man named Tokubei. He was a wealthy man and headman of his village in Asamimura. In most matters, he was fortunate; but at the age of forty he still had not known the happiness of being a father.
Therefore, he and his wife, in affliction of their childlessness, made many prayers to the divinity Fudo Myō-ō, who had a famous temple called Saihoji in Asamimura.
At last, their prayers were heard. The wife of Tokubei gave birth to a daughter. The child was very pretty and received the name of O-Tsuyu. As the mother’s milk was deficient, a milk-nurse called O-Sode was hired to nurse the child.
O-Tsuyu grew up to be a very beautiful girl; but at the age of fifteen she fell sick, and the doctors thought she was going to die. In that time, the milk-nurse O-Sode, who loved O-Tsuyu with a real mother’s love, went to the temple Saihoji, and fervently prayed to Fudo-sama on behalf of the girl.
Every day for twenty-one days, she went to the temple and prayed; and at the end of that time, O-Tsuyu suddenly and completely recovered.
There was great rejoicing in the House of Tokubei; and he gave a feast to all his friends in celebration of the happy event. But on the night of the feast, the milk-nurse O-Sode was suddenly taken ill; on the following morning, the doctor, who had been summoned to attend to her, announced that she was dying.
The family, in great sorrow, gathered about her bed, to bid her farewell. But she said to them: It’s time that I should tell you something which you do not know.
My prayer has been heard. I beset Fudo-sama that I might be permitted to die in the place of O-Tsuyu; and this great favor has been granted to me. Therefore, you must not grieve about my death…But I have one request to make.
I promised Fudo-sama that I would have a cherry tree planted in the garden of Saihoji, for a thank-offering and a commemoration.
Now, I shall not be able myself to plant the tree there, so I must beg that you will fulfill that vow for me…Goodbye, dear friends; and remember that I was happy to die for O-Tsuyu’s sake.
After the funeral of O-Sode, a young cherry tree—the finest that could be found—was planted in the garden of Saihoji by the parents of O-Tsuyu. The tree grew and flourished; and on the sixteenth day of the second month of the following year (by the old lunar calendar)—the anniversary of O-Tsuyu’s death—it blossomed in a wonderful way.
So, the tree continued to blossom for two hundred and fifty-four years, always on the sixteenth day of the second month—and its flowers, pink and white, were like the nipples of a woman’s breast, bedewed with milk and the people called it—Uba-zakura—the cherry tree of the milk nurse.[xxxix]
Cherry Tree of the Sixteenth Day
This ancient cherry tree folktale concerns the ghost of a lonely samurai called Jiu-roku-zakura or “Cherry Tree of the Sixteenth Day.”
In Wakegori, a district of the province of Iyo, there’s a very ancient and famous cherry-tree called Jiu-roku-zakura because it blooms every year on the sixteenth day of the first month (by the old lunar calendar)—and only upon that day. Thus, the time of its flowering is the Period of Great Cold—though the natural habit of a cherry tree is to wait for the warmth of the spring season before venturing to blossom. But the Jiu-roku-zakura blossoms with a life that’s not—or, at least, that wasn’t originally—its own. There’s the ghost of a lonely samurai in that tree.
In the district of Wakegori dwelled an elderly samurai He was a samurai of Iyo; and the tree grew in his garden; and it used to flower at the usual time—that’s to say, about the end of March or the beginning of April.
He had played under that tree as a child, and it had been in the family for generations; and his parents and grandparents and ancestors had hung to its blossoming branches, season after season for more than a hundred years, bright strips of colored paper inscribed with poems of praise.
He himself became very old—outliving all his children and all his loved ones. As he grew older and lonelier, his only comfort in the world left for him to live was that cherry tree in his garden.
One summer of a certain year, the tree withered and died!
Exceedingly, the old man sorrowed for his tree. Then kind neighbors found for him a young and beautiful cherry tree and planted it in his garden—hoping to comfort him. And he thanked them and pretended to be glad.
But really his heart was full of pain; for he had loved the old tree so well that nothing could have consoled him for the loss of it.
At last there came to him a happy thought: he remembered a way by which the perishing tree might be saved. (It was the sixteenth day of the first month.) Along he went into his garden, and bowed down before the withered tree, and spoke to it,saying: “Now deign, I beseech you, once more to bloom—because I am going to die in your stead.” (For it’s believed that one can really give away one’s life to another person, or to a creature or even to a tree, by the favor of the gods—and thus to transfer one’s life is expressed by the term migawari ni tatsu, “to act as a substitute.”
Then on the 16thday of the next January, he was under that tree and he spread a white cloth, and divers coverings, and sat down upon the coverings, and performed seppuku after the fashion of a samurai. And then his -ghost entered the tree and made it bloom in that same hour.
And every year since, it’s said to blooms on the sixteenth day of the first month, in the season of snow.
His ghost entered the tree and made it bloom, and every year since, it’s said to bloom each January 16th.
Princess Blossoms of the Trees
According to Japanese folktale, the Princess Kono-hana-sakuya-hime (or just Sakuya-hime) is the blossom-princess and symbol of delicate earthly life. This long name means “Princess [Cherry] Blossoms of the Trees.” This princess was so named because, it’s said, she dropped from heaven upon a cherry tree.She’s the daughter of the mountain godOho-yama-tsumi (or Oho-yama), and is often considered an avatar of Japanese life, especially since her symbol is the sakura (cherry blossom). Kono-hana-sakuya-hime is also the goddess of Mount Fuji and all volcanoes—she is enshrined at the top of Mount Fuji.
Sakuya-hime is the wife of the god Ninigi no Mikoto (ninigi is said to represent rice at its maturity), grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. According to the Nihon shoki, Amaterasu handed Ninigi some ears of rice from a sacred rice field and told him to raise rice on earth and to worship the celestial gods.
Sakuya-hime made him descend to earth to the peak of Takachiho (meaning “high thousand ears”) in Miyazaki, Kyúshū. She met him on the seashore and they fell in love; Ninigi asked Oho-Yama, the father of Sakuya-hime for her hand in marriage. Oho-Yama proposed his older daughter, Iwa-Naga-hime, instead, but Ninigi had his heart set on Sakuya-hime. Oho-Yama reluctantly agreed and Ninigi and Sakuya-hime married. Because Ninigi refused Iwa-Naga, the rock-princess, human lives are said to be short and fleeting, like the sakura blossoms, instead of enduring and long lasting, like stones.
Sakuya-hime became pregnant and about to give birth in just one night, causing suspicion in Ninigi. He wondered if this was the child of another kami. Sakuya-hime was enraged at Ninigi’s accusation and entered a door less hut, which she then set fire to, declaring that the child wouldn’t be hurt if it were truly the offspring of Ninigi. Inside the hut, Sakuya-hime had three sons,Hoderi,HosuseriandHoori. One of them became the father of the legendary first emperor, Jimmu.
Shrines have been built on Mount Fuji for Sakuya-hime. It’s believed that she will keep Mount Fuji from erupting, but shrines to her atKirishimahave been repeatedly destroyed byvolcaniceruptions. She’s also known for having torn up theYatsugatake Mountains, because it was higher than Fuji-san.
The Story of the Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Blossom
Another Japanese folktale is Hana-saka-jiisan also called Hana-saka-jiijii. This tale is also known as ‘The Story of the Old Man Who Made Withered Trees to Blossom.”
An old childless couple loved their dog. One day, it dug in the garden, and they found a box of gold pieces there.
A greedy neighbor thought the dog must be able to find treasure and managed to borrow the dog. When it dug in his garden, there were only bones, and he killed the dog. He told the couple that the dog had just dropped dead.
They grieved and buried it under the fig tree where they had found the treasure. One night, the dog’s master dreamed that the dog told him to chop down the tree and make a mortar from it. He told his wife, who said they must do as the dog asked. When they did, the rice put into the mortar turned into gold.
The greedy neighbor borrowed it, but the rice turned to foul-smelling berries, and he and his wife smashed and burned the mortar.
That night, in a dream, the dog told his master to take the ashes and sprinkle them on old withered cherry trees. When he did, the withered cherry trees came into bloom, and the daimyō(feudal landlord), passing by, marveled and gave him many gifts.
The greedy neighbor tried to do the same and threw the ashes over the trees, but the ashes blew into the daimyō‘s eyes and nose, so he threw him into prison; when he was let out, his village would not let him live there anymore, and he couldn’t, with his wicked ways, find a new home.
SPRING MOUNTAIN TRIP
Ritual hanami practiced by the nobles and upper-classes of the imperial court began during the Nara Period, but farmers in the countryside had already been celebrating the cherry trees in their particular way.
Farmers in the countryside revered the cherry blossoms, believing the rice paddy deity visited their villages.[xl] The rice paddy deity, called the ta-no-kami 田の神, is believed to protect the rice plants and the rice harvest. The written character ta 田means “rice paddy,” and kami 神 referring to the “spirits or natural forces” worshipped by the Shintō religion. The ta-no-kami is thought to descend from the satoyama 里山 mountains in the springtime and leaves the rice paddy fields after the harvest to return to the mountains in the autumn by transforming back as the mountain deity or yama-no-kami 山の神. The ta-no-kami exists across the country, but there are regional variations that exist in specific names used to refer to the kami.[xli]
The kami are believed to live deep within the satoyama mountains where it’s sacred, and the yama-no-kami has always been the most important of all the kami of Japanese folk religion. Cherry trees in ancient times were all mountain cherry trees, known as yamazakura 山桜; therefore, cherry blossoms symbolized the mountains. Since the yama-no-kami’s duty during the warm season was to look after the rice paddies as the ta-no-kami, cherry blossoms, like rice, were thought to embody the divine spirit.
Cherry blossoms are the spring counterpart of rice crops in autumn, which the Japanese believed there was a relationship between the cherry trees and the rice-paddy kami. In ancient times, the Japanese saw the same spirit in the cherry blossoms and rice flowers, so it’s linked to Japan’s rice culture. Because of this relationship to rice, the tree is sacred. In fact, the name for cherry blossom in Japanese, which is sakura 桜, is based on ancient folklore.[xlii] Sakura ultimately meant a sacred place for the kami to live. The sa (za 座) in sakura refers to the yama-no-kami (mountain spirit) and the ta-no-kami (rice-paddy spirit), while the word kura 鞍 is an ancient term to mean the “seat of sa,” referring to the dwelling places of the kami of the rice-paddy (ta-no-kami). In Japanese folk religion, the protective ta-no-kami and the yama-no-kami are the same.
Since the cherry blossom embodied the ta-no-kami, the Japanese regard the tree itself as sacred.[xliii] The trees hold a sacred status because of En no Gyōja (634-706 AD), a 7th century sorcerer and founder of the ascetic mountain practice of shugendō 修験道.[xliv] Legend has it that while performing mountain ascetic rituals, En no Gyōja had a vision of the Zaō Gongen deity, a protective deity of shugendō, and carved what he saw into the bark of a cherry tree on Mount Yoshino and the tree became sacred. From that point onward, people believed that the ta-no-kami inhabited the cherry trees and embraced all facets of the natural world and that there was a relationship between the cherry blossoms and the ta-no-kami.
Given En no Gyōjas divine status, it was forbidden to cut down cherry trees for firewood, or to cut off even a single branch or else have a finger severed in retribution. This association with the divine led people to send cherry tree saplings or young cherry trees to plant on Mount Yoshino in remembrance of deceased loved ones to help them find peace in the afterlife. Those cherry trees naturally increased to where there are tens of thousands of trees today. Also, the Emperor Tenmu of the 7th century dreamt of a cherry tree blooming in the middle of winter on Mount Yoshino, and he thus proclaimed that the trees should be given particular care throughout the land.
Spring was the time when farmers bed out the rice plants in the paddy fields. Since there were no calendars at this time, farmers would know it was time to begin planting rice when the cherry trees started to flower. Farmers believed the yama-no-kami lived among the mountain cherry trees during the winter months. In spring when the trees begin blooming in the mountains, it slowly made its way down towards the rice paddies below on the petals of the falling cherry blossom, and then it would transform itself and appear as the ta-no-kami when the rice planting season started. The ta-no-kami descends the mountain bringing with it the nourishing mountain streams to feed the rice-paddies, watching over the precious rice crops until the autumn harvest.
The presence of the ta-no-kami in their villages marked the seasonal transition from winter to spring, and then shortly after it’s time to sow the rice plants. The appearance of the cherry blossoms in the mountains during the spring read as a “sign” forecasting the nature of the rice crop in the autumn. If the colors of the cherry blossoms were faded, the weather could be a bountiful one that summer. If the petals fell prematurely, it meant that it was an inauspicious sign for the coming harvest, or if there were many white flowers, the yield would be good. Along bloom became synonymous with a fruitful harvest. The flower was used to forecast that year’s rice harvest from the condition of the cherry blossom flower. The underpinning nature of the forecast was that the farmers believed that the ta-no-kami would give them a bountiful harvest.
Equating the cherry trees in full bloom to an abundant harvest, the farmers would go up into the nearby hills and mountains each spring to hold ritual feasts to honor the kami for their rice crops. Under the umbrella of the cherry trees and in the presence of the kami, this was a practice known as “spring mountain trip.” The trees were sacred since they were believed to carry the soul of the yama-no-kami down to the rice fields. Though the food was intended for the kami, they would partake in the food and drink before the busy rice-planting season, taking a break under the cherry trees and prayingfor a bountiful harvestin the coming autumn season.[xlv] Shortly after, farmers began having their custom of climbing nearby mountains in the springtime (between late March and early April), signaling the coming of the cherry blossom season. From this belief, cherry blossoms and rice cultivation became firmly intertwined in Japanese culture.
Following the harvest, the ta-no-kami ascends back up the mountains with appreciation from the farmers for a full harvest in the autumn and then transforms back into the yama-no-kami where it spends the winter. Thus, the farmers were tied closely to the cherry trees. All through the 8th century, farmers began to plant cherry trees from the mountains to their villages where people lived. This practice became combined with that of the nobles to form the urban culture of hanami and, therefore, cherry blossom viewing began from religious rituals.
MY PRIVATE HANAMI
Now, it’s time for me to share my own hanami experience. It may not have been as extravagant as Hideyoshi’s or as aesthetically pleasing as Saigyō’s, but here it is.
My interest in the cherry blossoms was the result of discovering the subject-matter choice for my father’s jisei, which was the cherry blossom. This discovery led me to a serendipitous opportunity resulting in my very first hanami and then drove me to experience an “oh!” moment that turned into a truly spiritual moment for me.
It reminds me of a story about Takeda Shingen, the lord of Kai (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture). Shingen was deep into war preparations when an abbot of a monastery in a remote part of Kai sent him an invitation to view the cherry blossoms.[xlvi] “The cherries are just beginning to bloom, and I have already set up a fine seat for you where you can enjoy the glorious spring,” the abbot wrote. War was imminent, and Shingen had to decline, so he sent his apologies. But the abbot insisted, and Shingen finally accepted. Later, Shingen wrote a thankful poem: “If I had not had this invitation from my friend, how greatly I should have missed this magnificent sight of the sakura.”[xlvii]
Like Shingen, I received an invitation to enjoy the sight of the cherry blossoms. It happened while having dinner at a sushi restaurant in San Francisco. I took up a seat at the sushi bar and began to enjoy some fresh sashimi and various nigirizushi along with some sakē. The chef and I started having a conversation, and he mentioned to me that the cherry trees were in bloom in Japantown and encouraged me to go and see it before I leave town.
Unlike Shingen, however, I didn’t hesitate to take up the chef’s suggestion to go and see the cherry blossoms. The next morning, I took a cab to visit the Peace Pagoda in Japantown.[xlviii] Upon my arrival there, I could see first-hand the magnificent cherry trees in all its glorious full bloom. I found a good seat waiting for me on a concrete bench underneath the main branches of a blossoming tree. “Ahh,” I said while shaking my head up-and-down in approval. I was so lucky and felt very fortunate indeed on my excellent timing to be in San Francisco at this time of the year. I was thankful to the chef who offered me the invitation as well.
Arriving at the Peace Pagoda, a five-tiered concrete pagoda erected as a Buddhist shrine, several families posed to take photographs in front of the cherry trees trying to preserve this perfect moment, while a young couple indulged themselves under the trees with their hanami bento, a Japanese box lunch made especially for the occasion.
It was an ideal day to experience my first hanami. The weather that April morning was gorgeous; it was a bright sunny morning and a comfortable 70˚. A gentle, pleasant spring breeze brushed against my cheeks, which felt invigorating. The sky above, colored with a blue hue with puffy white altocumulus clouds high above, gave a hint to a beautiful day.
Up until this time, I had only seen cherry blossoms in photographs or on television, but now I was able to view them first-hand and close-up; the flowers were even more exquisite to see with my very own eyes.
The morning sunlight sparkled brightly through the branches of the trees above me, filled with masses of somei yoshino cherry blossoms.[xlix] The trees looked nearly white from top to bottom, and it felt like as if I was sitting amongst the clouds. There was just a touch of green leaves that enhanced the white tint of the flower’s five petals and tinged with lovely subtle pink, especially the stem. The flowers grew in bunches of five or six together. I felt privileged and lucky to have the cherry trees bare themselves to me in their full glory, and so I thanked the kami of the cherry trees for it.
A light wind blew hundreds, maybe even thousands, of nearly pure-white cherry blossom petals off their branches. The petals showered down all around me like a flurry of fluffy white snowflakes in what is known as hanafubuki 花吹雪, falling cherry blossoms.[l] The petals fell softly, swirling through the air as if unmindful of the death it would ultimately meet in the earth below. It’s when the cherry trees are “snowing” that it looks the most beautiful, something to experience yourself to understand the real beauty of it.
Looking up and all around me at the falling petals, a sudden melancholy overtook me as the flowers bloom brilliantly, and then the petals fall with the wind, embodying the impermanence of life. The petals seemed to fall earthbound in slow motion as if time had purposely slowed it down to allow me to observe the flower petals using the wind and gravity to its advantage and purpose, bringing beauty and inspiration as I witnessed the petals falling to their impending death. It’s a profoundly enchanting sight to bear witness, and it felt like being in a dream.
I thought about my father and his jisei. I silently recited my father’s jisei to myself several times:
Cherry blossoms fall when the time is right.
I, too, will fall when it is time to go.
As I recited the jisei, I began to appreciate the aesthetic appeal and delight of hanami and came to truly understand why my father chose the falling cherry blossoms as the subject metaphor for his jisei. In that instant, it felt as though I was utterly soaking in pure joy like a flower soaking in the sunshine, savoring every second of that moment in time.
Part of the appeal of eating and drinking under the tree relates to an ancient belief that if a flower petal, or hanabira 花弁, happens to fall into your cup of sakē that you would have good health.[li] Well, I didn’t have any sakē with me, or a cup, so perhaps catching a few of the flower petals in my hand would bring me good health, I thought. So, I held out my hands together to make a cup and let the petals fall onto my palms.[lii] I placed the delicate petals in-between the pages of a book I had with me so I could bring a beautiful memory back home. Sadly, in a matter of about a week, the cherry blossoms would disappear.
The very delicacy and impermanence of the cherry blossoms have a very emotional and intensely philosophical appeal. The unpredictability and anticipation of the flowers blooming for just a brief time and the falling of the very fragile blossoms when it’s still beautiful and robust echoes an ancient cultural belief symbolizing the short, fleeting nature of youth and with life itself. It’s a humbling reminder that when one reaches full maturity, it hints at the beginning of the decline of one’s life.
The cherry blossoms are testimony that this is the natural way of things and that it could even be beautiful and pure. My father must have understood this realization that life is as beautiful, delicate, and light as the falling cherry blossom petals and that there’s a natural inevitability for all beautiful things to end. This image is believed to have deep connections with Buddhism.
According to the dharma, the tree conveyed the quintessential expression of Japanese aesthetic sensibility known as mono no aware 物の哀れ or just aware. The association of the cherry blossoms withmono no aware dates back to the 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga. The phrase is a bit difficult to translate, but Norinaga said that people desire to express their deep feelings when they see, hear, or touch something.[liii]
Another way to explain it is that mono no ware means to savor life more deeply.[liv] Mono no aware comes from the word mono物, meaning “thing” and aware 哀れ, which was a Heian Period expression of surprise, such as “ah” or “oh.” It roughly translates as “pity (toward things), sorrow, grief, deep feeling (over things), sensitivity or compassion.” Thus, mono no aware translates as the “ahh-ness of things.”
A primary emotion that moves people, mono no aware suggests a “sensitivity” or “sadness” toward something—it could be an inanimate object, a living thing, or an emotional response in another person. It’s an acceptance of the transitory or short-lived nature of things and elevates it into an aesthetic sensibility, a state of mind that appreciates this transiency. It doesn’t mean that impermanence is welcomed or celebrated.
There’s still sadness present in mono no aware, a sense of sorrow at this transiency, of the loss of something precious to someone. However, this grief is a kind of pity or bittersweetness that takes on beauty. This sadness suffuses with quiet rejoicing in the fact that we had a chance to witness the beauty of life at all, no matter how fleeting.
This impermanence is integral to beauty, and that beauty depends on this kind of transiency. In Zen Buddhism, the preeminent symbol of mono no aware is the cherry blossom. The beauty of the cherry blossoms captures people’s attention briefly during the first bloom of spring, and then people feel a gentle sadness as the cherry blossom petals begin falling, but it’s more like a sigh rather than weeping.
The heart of mono no aware suggests the experience of being deeply moved by emotions that can include joy and love but always tempered by the finite nature of things, or pain or sadness.
The cherry blossom is a fitting example to understand this concept. Our appreciation of the cherry blossom’s beauty is elevated by our awareness of its transiency in such a way we would miss if its delicate flowers were a permanent feature of our landscape.
Reflecting on this intertwining of beauty and transiency, it can elevate our appreciation of all that is dear to us.
To understand mono no aware, one must recognize that to the Japanese the idea of beauty is a subjective experience and not an objective one, a state of being that’s ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely on classical Greek ideals, Westerner’s view beauty as the ultimate perfection of an external object, such as a sublime painting, a perfect sculpture, or intricate musical composition; a kind of beauty that’s said to be only skin-deep.
The Japanese ideal regards beauty as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork – most commonly nature or the depiction of it – in a pristine, untouched state. Falling or wilting autumn flowers, for example, is considered more beautiful than one that’s in full bloom; a fading sound more attractive than one heard; the moon partially clouded more appealing than full.
I’m reminded of a scene from the 2003 movie The Last Samurai when Algren (Tom Cruise) enters Katsumoto’s (Ken Watanabe) compound. The cherry blossoms have emerged, creating a scene of intense beauty, color, and serenity. Algren, who is hired to train the newly established Imperial Japanese army, approaches Katsumoto, the leader of a samurai-lead rebellion against Japan’s new emperor, who is standing in his garden and appears to be examining the cherry blossoms; he reaches out and gently touches one.
As Algren approaches closer, Katsumoto tells Algren that he’s writing a poem and has been searching for the last line for a long time. He says, “A perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your whole life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”
In the decisive battle scene between the samurai and the new Japanese imperial army, Katsumoto and Algren are cut down by gunfire, and their lives are drifting away from them. Katsumoto looks at Algren and tells him to let him die with honor. He manages to pull out his short sword. “You must help me. Hold it firmly,” he tells Algren, who supports Katsumoto as he holds the sword’s point to his stomach. Algren asks, “Are you ready?” In Katsumoto’s eyes, a resolute and calm acceptance of death. Katsumoto embraces Algren firmly—the small sword impales him.
As Katsumoto gasps for his last breaths, he glances over Algren’s shoulder out into the distance and sees a group of cherry blossom trees in full bloom. The wind is blowing the cherry blossom petals off the tree branches, creating a shower of petals gliding gracefully down to the earth. At that instant, with his final breaths, a look of joy and peace comes to his face as Katsumoto comes to the sudden realization about the cherry blossoms: “Perfect. They are all…perfect.” His eyes close. He is dead. The scene cuts to the cherry blossoms – a display of perfect beauty.
Perhaps at that moment, all the blossoms were at that perfect stage or either, Katsumoto realized, that the blossoms, being in and of themselves, were perfect. But, that’s what I prefer to think—that the blossoms, in whatever stage they are: bud, blooming, full-blown, faded . . . are perfect. They are as they should be just at that moment.
Mono no aware is about the hidden corners of things, the more in-depth meanings, not the superficial reactions to something that affects us. A mono no aware event isn’t sentimental or symbolic, but rather a genuine feeling that floats calmly through the mind and body.
It’s a rare moment when thoughts and feelings become fully formed, which is the heart of poetry, and what we feel when experiencing something that makes us say “oh!” and express our feelings in poetry, prose, art or song.
The cherry blossom is the perfect example of the conception of beauty; it describes beauty as an awareness of the transitory or short-lived nature of all things and a gentle quality that arouses pity or bittersweet sadness by natural beauty as one realizes the loss that it will soon occur, such as the cherry blossoms.
The flower’s nearly pure white, tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom, and then fall within a single week. In such moments, the sentiment is felt instinctively, for in it joy mingles with a kind of agreeable melancholy as one realizes that it will soon die.[lv]The Japanese have traditionally preferred a sense of uncertainty and impermanence and have had a special appreciation for perishability and mortality; that aesthetic beauty is vulnerable and finite. One can think of it as the “aha moment” of things, life, and love.
From feudal times, the way in which the cherry blossom petals fell at the height of its beauty before it slowly withers and becomes unsightly, its short life span assumed a beautiful and vital symbolism of mortality. One cannot view the cherry blossoms without acknowledging both the splendor and the pain of such a transient life—it’s “not just about the beauty of these flowers, but also about the sadness and pain. They reflect the complicated feelings that spring and the sakura evoke for the Japanese people.”[lvi]
The samurai personified this metaphor like no one else in history. Soon the cherry blossom petals became a well-known comparison of bushidō or the “samurai way of life” – a strict moral code of respect, honor, and discipline.
Like the cherry blossoms, the samurai ideals stated that a warrior should live passionately and was expected to have a short life and die young. It was a samurai’s duty to not only embody these values in life but to appreciate the inevitability of death without fearing it in battle, which often came too soon.
The samurai was always fully prepared to sacrifice their lives at any time in the cause of his lord or master. They were trained to detach themselves from their personal feelings from life and death encounters and to respond to any threats with a composed exterior, yet, with an inward passion. They were prepared to serve their lord to the highest degree, to go into battle at a moment’s notice as his lord required no matter the odds and to sacrifice his life in fighting for the good of the higher goal and honor of his lord and family.
So, it became that the cherry blossoms represented the fleeting nature of a samurai’s life and each falling cherry blossom petal is believed to symbolize a drop of blood, representing the end of their brief lives.
The samurai endeavored to understand the nature of life and death by meditating on the blossoms of the cherry trees up until the last moment by creating jisei that would serve as a testament and as a lesson for those left behind.
Many samurai would compose their jisei before going into battle. These poems would be carried with them and recited aloud during the ritual seppuku in case of defeat in battle. For the samurai, jisei served as a final testament and were used to reaffirm loyalties to their lord.
Thus,a proverb soon arose hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi 花は桜木, 人は武士, which means “as for flowers, there are sakura—as for men, there are the samurai.”[lvii]
On the surface, this means merely the greatest of flowers are cherry blossoms, and the greatest of men are the samurai. But, it’s also a reference to the samurai tradition and the expectation to commit seppuku for failing to live honorably.
A samurai’s life was noble and poetic—a thing of beauty—but he may be killed in battle or asked to give his life in service at any moment to his lord. Thus, the life of a samurai was compared to the cherry blossoms. His life might be beautiful, but it was fleeting. Similarly, a strong storm or sudden frost might ruin the blossoms, ending the season early.[lviii]
The heart of mono no aware suggests the experience of being deeply moved by emotions that can include joy and love but always tempered by the finite nature of things, or pain or sadness. The cherry blossom is the perfect example to understand this concept.
The cherry blossom was evidence that this was the natural way of things and could even be pure and beautiful. Life is as delicate and light as the falling petals, and there’s a natural time for all beautiful things to end.
As I stood up from the concrete bench to leave, I felt saddened in having to say goodbye to the cherry trees. I could empathize with the poet Saigyō as he spoke of how his heart was still there each spring on Mount Yoshino even though he was miles away. I think my heart is always there each spring at the Peace Pagoda underneath the cherry trees even though I’m 2,400 miles away in Honolulu. I guess you could say, just like Tony Bennett’s signature song, that I did leave my heart in San Francisco.
It wasn’t until I experienced first-hand my hanami that I finally “got it.” My first hanami experience deeply moved me and led to an “aha moment.” It was a moment when everything seemed to be just perfect—and it felt as though I’d just gone through the most amazing spiritual experience of my life.
At first, the meaning of the experience seemed unclear. My feelings were of a dreamlike fuzziness, while words eluded me unable to articulate what I felt in that instance. I felt unprepared for such an emotional overload.
However, as I gradually became more conscious of my emotions, a sense of peace overcame me, and then I experienced a moment of realization and comprehension. I began to gain some clarity about my father that transcended into an understanding of him despite our differences in the past. For the first time, I felt as if I was able to connect with my father’s soul to discover his true self.
I left the cherry blossoms with a more significant clarity about my father and why he chose the cherry blossom as the subject metaphor of his jisei. He had a special feeling for the cherry blossoms and may have intended to communicate his last testament, his lasting legacy through the symbolism of the falling cherry blossoms. I now understand how my father saw himself, how he viewed his life, and how he fits into it–it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
As I reflected on my father and his jisei, perhaps it elevated my appreciation and gratitude of all that is dear to me. My first hanami was an “aha moment” for me, and it turned out to be the most spiritual experience of my life.
I’ll leave you with this poem by Japanese author and Buddhist monk, Yoshida Kenkō (1283-1350):
“if man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino
never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama
but linger on forever in the world
how things would lose their power to move us!”
[i]The jisei or “death poem” is a genre of poetry that developed in East Asia—mostly in Japan as well as China and Korea. The poems tend to offer a reflection on death that’s usually coupled with an important observation on life. The practice of composing a death poem has its origins in Zen Buddhism. It’s derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically that the material world is transient and impermanent (無常 mujō), that attachment to it causes suffering (苦 ku), and ultimately all reality is emptiness or absence of self-nature (空 kū). These poems became associated with the literate, spiritual, and ruling segments of society, as they were customarily composed by a poet, warrior, noble person, or Buddhist monk.
The writing of a poem at the time of one’s death and reflecting on the nature of death in an impermanent, transitory world is unique to East Asia. It has close ties with Buddhism, and especially the mystical Zen Buddhism (of Japan), Chan Buddhism (of China) and Seon Buddhism (of Korea). From its inception, Buddhism stressed the importance of death because awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. A death poem exemplifies both the “eternal loneliness” found at the heart of Zen and the search for a new viewpoint, a new way of looking at life and things or a version of enlightenment (悟りsatori in Japanese). Japanese Buddhism is closely associated with the memory of the deceased and the family shrines dedicated to the ancestors, and the Butsudan or Buddhist altars still occupies a place of honor in homes. It’s been the tradition in modern Japan to have Shinto weddings, but to turn to Buddhism in times of loss and for funeral services.
The writing of a death poem was limited to the society’s educated class, ruling class, samurai, and monks. It was introduced to Western audiences during World War II when Japanese soldiers, encouraged by their culture’s samurai legacy, would write poems before suicidal missions or battles.
[ii]Dry-field rice may have been introduced to Japan as early as the early Jōmon Period (14,000-300 BC), about 6,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of wet-field rice farming dates to northern Kyūshū at the end of the Jōmon Period and the early Yayoi Period (300 BC-300 AD). Koreans, forced to migrate due to upheaval during the Warring States Period (403-221 BC) in China, arrived in Japan around the same time and may have introduced rice to Japan. Later, a number of Korean artifacts, dated between 800 and 600 BC, were unearth, which suggested an earlier timeframe. But, in the early 2000s, grains of wet-field rice were found in pottery from northern Kyūshū dating to 1,000 BC. This new evidence indicates that wet-field agriculture may date back even further, causing fresh speculation that rice farming was imported directly from China. This claim is backed up by similarities of 3,000-year-old skeletal remains found in Qinghai province in China and Yayoi bodies unearthed in northern Kyūshū and Yamaguchi prefectures.
[iii]The rice seasons in northern Japan last from May-June to September-October. In central Japan, it is from April-May to August-October. In southern Japan, the rice season is from April-May to August-September.
[iv]This occasion was established in 1948 after the end of World War II.
[v]NILS Language School (2017, October 13). Things Japanese people love to do in autumn. NILS Fukuoka Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nilsjapan.com/fukuoka-times/things-japanese-people-love-to-do-in-autumn/
[vi]International Year of Rice (2004). IYR 2004: All about rice: Japan. United Nations. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/rice2004/en/p8.htm. About 85% of the more than two million farms in Japan plant rice yearly.
[vii]Hays, Jeffrey (2013, January). Rice Farming in Japan: History, Paddies, Planting, Harvesting and Mechanization Blog. Retrieved from http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat24/sub159/item939.html
[viii]Takeda, Erin (2014, April 9). Significance of Sakura. Smithsonian Folklife Festival Blog. Retrieved from https://festival.si.edu/blog/2014/significance-of-sakura-cherry-blossom-traditions-in-japan/. The word sakura桜comes from the character saku咲く, meaning “to blossom/bloom.” The left character kuchi 口 indicates an “open-mouth.” The character ki 木 on the left-side of the character sakura 桜 means “tree” and developed from a pictogram of a tree, with the horizontal line as branches and diagonal lines as roots. While it’s widely believed that cherry trees originated from Eurasia-Himalayas, scholars speculate the trees came to Japan several thousand years ago, spreading throughout the land before the prehistoric age. Now, more than 300 varieties of cherry trees exist in Japan due to centuries of hybridization.
[ix]Variance, Blue (2017, March 23). This day in anime: Hanami. Itadakemasu Anime. Retrieved from: https://itadakimasuanime.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/this-day-in-anime-hanami/#more-5833
[x]The word hana 花 means “flower, ” and mi 見 means “looking” or “viewing,” which is a combination of the character for “eye” and “human,” derived from the pictogram of a human figure with two legs and a large eyeball for a head. The character mi 見 is an inflection of miru 見る, meaning “to look” or “to see.” Many couples go at night to enjoy the special romantic mood created by the cherry blossoms. Hanami at nighttime is called yozakura 夜桜 and means “night sakura.” Yo 夜 means “night,” and zakura 桜 is the same as sakura. So, it means “cherry blossoms at night.”
[xi]As one of Japan’s happiest events, people’s thoughts of hanami often bring immediate smiles to their faces. While sakura originates from the word saku 咲く, alternately saku can be written 笑い and means “to smile” or “to laugh.”
[xiii]Buchele, Grace (2013, June 13). What the sakura cherry blossoms and hanami say about Japanese love for beauty. Texan in Tokyo. Retrieved from: https://gracebuchele.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/what-the-sakura-cherry-blossoms-and-hanami-say-about-japanese-love-for-beauty/
[xiv]Empress Genmei (660-721 AD), also known as Empress Genmyō, was the fourth of eight women to take the role of an empress, and the 43rd monarch of Japan.Kinai was a name for the ancient provincesaround the capital Naraand Heian-kyō.The name is still used to describe a part of the Kansai regionbut corresponds only to the land of the old provinces. The area was one of the Gokishichidō (“Five provinces and seven roads”) during the Asuka Period(538-710), which consisted of Yamashiro, Yamato, Settsu, Kawachi, and Izumi provinces.
[xv]The kanji used to write “Japan” is 日本, which is pronounced Nihon or Nippon. Alternatively, the character 日means hi“sun” and 本 means moto 元 “beginning” or “origin.”
[xvi]Each year, on February 25th, the Plum Blossom Festival, called baikasai (梅花祭), is held at Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine in Kyōto, which was built in 947. The annual event commemorates Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a politician and scholar who loved the ume blossoms. He was deified after his death as Tenman Daijizai Tenjin, the god of learning. The festival marks the beginning of Spring.Kitano Tenman-gū is popular with students praying for success in exams because the deity was in his life a man of literature and knowledge.
[xvii]Cartwright, Mark (2017, May 2). Manyoshu. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Manyoshu/. The Man’yōshū contained some 4,500 poems, most in the tanka style, by some 450 writers and compiled over a period of 400 years up until 759 AD during the Nara Period.The Man’yōshū is regarded as a literary classic and held in the highest esteem and with the greatest affection in Japan today. Many scholars believe the Man’yōshū was compiled by the poet Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785). He included plenty of his own works, some 479 or 10% of the collection. Yakamochi was born into an aristocratic family and his father was also a poet.
[xviii]Keyes, Hilary (2018, February 6). Ume: Japan’s Most Beautiful Early Spring Blossoms. Savvy Tokyo. Retrieved from https://savvytokyo.com/ume-japans-beautiful-early-spring-blossoms/. From early February to March, the ume trees bloom before the cherry trees when it’s still cold, sometimes when it’s snowing in Japan. The trees have throughout history signaled the arrival spring and good fortune. The ume tree was originally introduced as an ornamental tree and were (and still are) planted in home gardens, parks, shrine, and temple grounds, usually facing northeast to ward off bad luck. Luckily, the ume tree fell out of favor with the Imperial Court, and for the general public, this meant that ume trees were more likely to be planted in public places.
[xix]McClellan, A. (2005). The cherry blossom festival: Sakura celebration. Charleston: Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
[xx]Conan, Michael & Kress, W. John (2007). Botanical Progress, Horticultural Innovation and Cultural Changes. Washington, DC: Harvard University Press.
[xxi]The Edo Period (1603-1868) or Tokugawa Period, is the period in Japan’s history when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa bakufu (shōgunate), and the country’s 300 regional daimyō (feudal lords). Economic growth, strict social order, isolationists foreign policies, environmental protection policies, and general enjoyment of arts and culture characterized this period. Tokugawa Ieyasu officially established the bakufu in Edo on March 24, 1603. The era ended with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.
[xxii]Murasaki completed the Tale of Genjiin its present form by 1021 AD.
[xxiii]Bellincampi, Suzan (2017, May 11). Bursting cherry blossoms of spring. Vineyard Gazette. Retrieved from: https://vineyardgazette.com/news/2017/05/11/bursting-pink-cherr-blossoms
[xxiv]Awagi, Shigeru (n.d.). Sakura and the Japanese mind. Retrieved from: http://www.simplyhaiku.com/SHv2n4/features/Shigeru_Awagi.html
[xxv]Giletto, Joseph Basil (2017). Mystical Memories. Outskirts Press: Parker, CO.
[xxvi]Helen (2016, April 2). The Meaning of the Cherry Blossoms in Japan: Life Death and Renewal. Not Without My Passport Blog. Retrieved from http://notwithoutmypassport.com/cherry-blossom-meaning-in-japan/
[xxvii]Mujō無常 means “impermanence” in Japanese. According to Buddhist teachings, all things within our lives and our world are always changing; it’s important to remember that nothing is permanent. By maintaining awareness of this fundamental truth, we can let go of attachments and learn to relax into the continual flow of life.
[xxviii]Buchele, Grace (2013, June 13). What the sakura cherry blossoms and hanami say about Japanese love for beauty. Texan in Tokyo Blog. Retrieved from: https://gracebuchele.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/what-the-sakura-cherry-blossoms-and-hanami-say-about-japanese-love-for-beauty/
[xxix]Baluyo, Lauren (n.d.). What is the Meaning of the Cherry Blossom Flower?Hunker. Retrieved from https://www.hunker.com/13428710/what-is-the-meaning-of-cherry-blossom-flowers
[xxxii]McClellan, A. (2005). The cherry blossom festival: Sakura celebration. Charleston: Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
[xxxiii]The Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603) was at the end of the “Warring States Period” (also known as the Sengoku Period) in Japan when the political unification that preceded the establishment of the Tokugawa bakufu took place. It spans the years from 1573-1603, a time Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, imposed order upon the turmoil that had pervaded since the collapse of the Ashikaga bakufu. This period is also known as the Shokuhō Period 織豊 and is derived from the family names of the period’s two leaders: Shoku (for Oda) and Hō (for Toyotomi).
[xxxiv]Lindelauf, Perrin (2008, March 14). Hanami among the mountain gods. The Japan Times. Retrieved from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2008/03/14/travel/hanami-among-the-mountain-gods/#.Wj2IsyOZPRa
[xxxv]Star, Marky (2017, April 4). The history of hanami. Japan This! Retrieved from: https://japanthis.com/2017/04/04/history-of-hanami/
[xxxvi]Senyrū 川柳 poetry tends to be about human weaknesses or eccentricities, while haikutends to be about nature. Also, unlike haiku poetry, which is more solemn, senryū is a more pessimistic or darkly humorous. Unlike haiku, senryū doesn’t include a kireji (cutting word) and doesn’t add a kigo or season word.
[xxxvii]Genroku is a Japanese year name after Tōkyō and before Hōei. This period traversed the years from September 1688 through March 1704. The reigning emperor was Higashiyama-tennō.
[xxxviii]Star, Marky (2017, April 4). The history of hanami. Japan This! Retrieved from: https://japanthis.com/2017/04/04/history-of-hanami/
[xxxix]The Irish scholar and writer Lafcadio Hearn brought this story to the English-speaking world with his classic collection of folklore retellings, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.
[xl]The concept of kamimight work best to refer to the opinion of Motoori Norinaga. He wrote, “Whatever seemed strikingly impressive, possessed the quality of excellence and virtue, and inspired a feeling of awe was called Kami.” By “the quality of excellence,” Norinaga meant an enormous power that gives a significant influence on many things. It’s beyond human power or humans works. Retrieved from The Concept of Kamiin http://www.socsci.uci.edu/~rgarfias/aris/courses/japan/kami
[xli]Ta-no-kami 田の神, the kami of the rice paddies, is known throughout Japan under different regional names: nogami (Tohoku), sakugami (Nakano and Yamanashi), tsukuri-kami (Kyōto-Ōsaka), jigami (Inland Sea area), ushigami (Kyūshū).
[xlii]Myers, Jennifer (2017, April 10). What’s in a name? – The story of sakura. Into Japan. Retrieved from: https://intojapanwaraku.com/EN/culture/20170410/8048/p2
[xliii]Lindelauf, Perrin (2008, March 14). Hanami among the mountain gods. The Japan Times. Retrieve from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2008/03/14/travel/hanami-among-the-mountain-gods/#.WfZjkduZPyW
[xliv]Shugendō 修験道 can be loosely translated as “path of training to achieve spiritual powers.” Shugendō is a vital Shintō-Buddha combinatory sect that blends pre-Buddhist mountain worship, called Kannabi Shinkō 神奈備信仰, the notion that mountains are the home of the dead, and agricultural-spirits, shamanistic beliefs, animism, ascetic customs, Chinese Yin-Yang mysticism, and Taoist magic. It also blends the rituals and spells of Esoteric (Tantric) Buddhism in the hope of achieving magical skills, healing powers and long life. This sect emphasizes physical endurance as a way to enlightenment. Practitioners perform seclusion, fasting, meditation, magic spells, recite sutras and engage in modest feats of tolerance, such as standing or sitting under cold mountain waterfalls or in the snow.
[xlv]Myers, Jennifer (2017, March 24). How to enjoy ohanami, a Japanese-style picnic with sakura. Into Japan. Retrieved from: https://intojapanwaraku.com/EN/culture/20170324/7716
[xlvi]Hoffman, Michael. (2012, March 25). Sakura: Soul of Japan. The Japan Times. Tōkyo. Retrieved from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/03/25/general/sakura-soul-of-japan/#.WdILGNuZPyV
[xlvii]Hoffman, Michael. (2012, March 25). Sakura: Soul of Japan. The Japan Times. Retrieved from: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/03/25/general/sakura-soul-of-japan/#.WdII3NuZPyU. Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki, who relates the incident in “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959), comments, “Such a disinterested enjoyment of Nature as shown by Shingen … even in the midst of warlike activities, is known as furyu 振り, and those without this feeling of furyu are classes among the most uncultured in Japan.”
[xlviii]San Francisco’s Japantown is the most significant and oldest ethnic enclave in the United States, located in the Western Addition neighborhood and about a mile from Union Square.
[xlix]Cultivated during the Edo Period in Tōkyō, the somei yoshino 染井吉野 is the most abundant cherry tree in Japan. Somei yoshino cherry trees come with slightly pink, almost white, five-petal blossoms. The appearance of the flowers is particularly intense thanks in part to the fact that their fresh leaves don’t emerge until after the peak of the blooming season.
[l]Hana花means “flower,” and fubuki 吹雪 means “snowstorm,” so it means “flower snowstorm,” or more commonly, “storm of falling cherry blossoms.”
[li]There’s a famous passage from the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), which is the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, in 720: “Tenno Emperor riding a boat at the pond, Sakura petals falling to his sake cup.”
[lii]While there aren’t a lot of rules of etiquette for hanami, one thing you should never do is to pick cherry blossom petals or branches from the tree. People come to see and enjoy the cherry blossoms, and everyone hopes to enjoy the cherry blossoms for as long as possible.
[liii]Retrieved from: http://www.norinagakinenkan.com/norinaga/shiryo/about.html
[liv]Suntory Museum of Art (2013, April 17-June 16). “Mono no Aware” and Japanese Beauty. Part 2: The phrase mono no aware and Motoori Norinaga. Tokyo, Japan. Retrieved from: https://www.suntory.com/sma/exhibition/2013_2/display.html
[lv]Accompanying mono no ware are terms having to do with Japanese aesthetics. Terms such as yugen 幽玄, a profoundly emotional sentiment or mood so subtle, and so deeply beautiful that it’s beyond words to describe, wabi 侘び, the taste for the simple or understated elegance, and sabi 寂, a kind of beauty or serenity that only comes with age.
[lvi]Onishi, Y. (2013, January). Kyoto Obu Tea Plantation. Retrieved from: Cherry Blossoms: The Bittersweet Quality of Japan in Bloom: http://obubutea.com/4275/cherry-blossoms-the-bittersweet-quality-of-japan-in-bloom/