“Cherry blossoms fall
when the time is right
I too will fall
when it is time to go.”
Jisei no ku
Roy Isami Ebata (1919-1990)
On my late father’s 66thbirthday, 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 verse he composed—it was a jisei no ku (辞世の句) or simply jisei (辞世).
Jisei is a custom among literate Japanese of writing poetry in either Japanese (waka 和歌) or Chinese (kanshi 漢詩) at the moment of death. The poetry is known as a “parting-with-life verse” borrowing a term by the Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki. Westerners have come to know it popularly as “death poetry.”
I first learned of my father’s jisei while my eldest brother was preparing for his funeral service—he passed away at age 71, five years after he wrote his jisei. In composing his death poem, he chose the image of falling cherry blossoms as the subject metaphor to suggest his death.
My father’s verse conjures up explicit imagery of his death around the cherry blossoms’ profound symbolism and meaning. The image he created of the “cherry blossom petals falling” has a definite philosophical sense beyond its pure aesthetic beauty.
The jisei opened my eyes to something entirely unexpected from him, and it revealed a window into his soul, illuminating a part of himself that he kept concealed 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 verse. By doing so, I hoped to gain a deeper appreciation of my father, enabling me to connect the dots with the father—and the man—I didn’t know.
By Vince Takemi Ebata
Originally Posted on January 7, 2018
(Updated September 21, 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 encountered a nihonjin, or 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 the rice paddy fields sprawled throughout the country.
In fact, hanami (花見) or cherry blossom viewing originated as a ritual tool of farmers as early as 710 AD, long before the rise of feudalism in Japan. It was believed that the sakura (桜) or cherry trees, which signified agricultural production, represented the kami (神) of the mountain that transformed itself into the kami of the rice paddies in Japanese folk religion. Farmers would travel up to the mountain foothills to worship the cherry trees every spring to pray for a good harvest.
RICE-GROWING CYCLE TIED TO THE SEASONS
Since ancient times, the Japanese system of sustainable wet-rice farming has been a very sophisticated system. The rice-growing cycle begins around the time the long winter ends and when the cherry trees start to bloom in spring, which signaled to farmers to commence sowing the rice seedlings. The first rice plants of the season, called otaue (ota お田 means “rice field,” and ue 植え means “to plant”), is the reason for the numerous traditional seasonal rituals and festivals. In early summer (mid-June), the farmers transplant the seedlings to wet paddies and cultivate it under the summer sun to produce the rice grain, and then in autumn is inekari (稲刈り), the rice harvest. Local harvest festivals are held all over the country to celebrate the first rice harvest of the paddy fields. This rice-growing cycle has been repeated in the same way for many centuries according to the changing of the seasons. This attitude is the reason why the seasons are still intimately connected with contemporary Japanese life.
Long ago, farmers expressed their gratitude to the deities for the newly harvested rice crop by first offering steamed rice made from the freshly harvested rice grains to the rice kami before they could partake in eating it. This “first taste” celebration is called niinamesai (新嘗祭), which refers to a ceremonial offering of the newly harvested rice crop or the “tasting of the first rice crop.”
This day is for everyone to reflect for a moment to express their gratitude for all the work done throughout the year and for the fruits received from nature. Everyone joins in a grand celebration, and there’s dancing, singing, and waving of fans. In the countryside, everyone in the village participates in reveling the bountiful rice harvest, and in many places, floats carrying symbolic gods parade through the streets.
The niinamesai goes back over 1,300-years; the first recorded account is found in the Nihon-shoki (日本書紀) or The Chronicle of Japan—one of the oldest histories of Japan, dating from 720 AD—which says a simple form of niinamesai took place in November 673 AD during the time of Emperor Tenmu (672-686 AD), the 40th emperor. It even mentions a harvest ritual taking place during the reign of Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC), the 1st emperor, and more formalized harvest celebrations during the reign of Emperor Seinei (480-484 AD), the 22nd emperor. The origin of the ritual is much older, going back to when rice cultivation was first believed to have been brought to Japan more than 2,000 years ago during the Yayoi period.
Kinrou kansha no hi
For a long time, niinamesai used to be held on the second day of the “Day of the Rabbit” in the 11th lunar month (November) before the Meiji Restoration. Due to the conversion to the new solar calendar in 1873, the date changed to November 23.
After World War II, in 1948 (Showa period), the name of the niinamesai festival was changed to kinrou kansha no hi (勤労感謝の日) or Labor Thanksgiving Day. It’s a national holiday and takes place annually between November 23 and 24 to mark the fact that fundamental human rights were guaranteed, and rights of workers were greatly expanded in the postwar Constitution. It’s Japan’s version of the American Thanksgiving holiday.
Niinamesai is an essential Shinto ritual as a form of thanksgiving by the emperor to the kami of Heaven and Earth and continues to be celebrated today but only as a private function of the Imperial Family. It’s one of the taisai (大祭) or Major Rites in the Ninth Article of the 1908 “Prescriptions of the Imperial House Rituals.” At midnight within the Shinkaden Hall of the Imperial Palace, the emperor continues to privately conduct the offerings of steamed rice from the first harvested rice crop, rice porridge, and saké from the freshly harvested rice to the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. Two special daises, one for the deities and one for the emperor, are set up inside Shinkaden Hall, then the emperor makes the food offering, once at dusk on the 23rd and again on the 24th, and then he partakes in eating the rice himself. The new rice crop comes from various parts of the country and from rice harvested at the palace—the planting and harvesting are done with the emperor’s own hands. He goes to the rice paddies in the Imperial Palace, plants rice seedlings in late-May and then harvests them in late-September each year.
There’s also the custom of “looking at the moon” called tsukimi (月見), the tradition of holding parties to view the autumn harvest moon to show gratitude for a good harvest and hopes for similar bounty in the future. On the old lunar calendar, the full moon appeared on the fifteenth night of each month, called juugoya (十五夜). The moon on juugoya may not always be full, but the best night of the year to observe the full moon when it’s at its brightest and most beautiful is on the night of the fifteenth of the eighth month (September) of the lunar calendar, known as juugoya no tsukimi (十五夜の月見) at the end of the harvest.
According to the old lunar calendar, autumn was from the seventh to the ninth months. During tsukimi, the exact midpoint of the season, the fifteenth night of the eighth month was called chuushuu (中秋), so the full moon night has a special name known as chuushuu no meigetsu (中秋の名月) or the mid-autumn moon, which means “the picturesque moon of mid-autumn.”
Tsukimi is believed to have been introduced to Japan by the Tang dynasty of China (618-907) a thousand years ago during the Nara period, although it didn’t gain popularity with the aristocrats of the Imperial court until the Heian period. The nobles would casually sail on boats under the moonlight where they could admire the moon’s beautiful reflection on the water’s surface and recite tanka poetry.
At home, families set up a table near an area facing the horizon to see the moon rising, and place offerings to the deity of the moon. These offerings included a vase holding susuki (Japanese pampas grass), which is at its tallest and most beautiful at this time, and a variety of food offerings, such as tsukimi dango (mochi dumplings shaped like rabbits), kuri (chestnuts), sataimo (taro), kaki (persimmons), edaname (soybeans), kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), plus saké as offerings to the moon to express gratitude for the autumn harvest.
Tsukimi is based on the popular Japanese folktale of tsuki no usagi (月の兎), “The Rabbit in the Moon.” It’s said this folktale is the reason Japanese believe that rabbits lived on the moon. Even today, the moon is often pictured with the scene of a rabbit making mochi. The story is associated with Buddhism, and there are many versions of this folktale. The most popular version is about the “Old Man of the Moon.”
Old Man of the Moon
One day, the Old Man looked down into a big forest on Earth and saw three friends sitting together around a fire. These friends were a rabbit (usagi), a monkey (saru), and a fox (kitsune). The Old Man wanted to know which of the three was the kindest, so he comes down to Earth and changes himself into a beggar.
He asks the three friends to help him as he was starving. On hearing this, they all run off to fund him some food. The monkey climbed a tree and brought back a lot of fruit, while the fox went to a stream and brought back a big fish.
The rabbit, however, is unable to find any food for the Old Man, and so asks the monkey to gather some firewood and the fox to build a big fire with the wood. Once the fire burned bright, the rabbit explained to the beggar that he didn’t have anything to give him, so he would put himself in the fire and when he is cooked the beggar could eat him.
Just before the rabbit jumped into the fire, the beggar turned back into the Old Man of the Moon and told the rabbit: “You are most kind, rabbit, but don’t do anything to harm yourself. Since you were the kindest of all to me, I’ll take you back to the moon to live with me.”
The Old Man carried the rabbit in his arms back to the moon, and he’s still there to this very day exactly where the Old Man left him. Just look at the moon in the night sky, and the rabbit is there!
At the New Year, the Shinto rites and practices have initially been festivals at which people prayed for a bountiful harvest in the coming year. Koshougatsu (小正月) or “Little New Year” starts with the first full moon of the year, which is around January 15. Farmers continue to celebrate rice-planting and other paddy-field crops throughout the country and involve prayers for a plentiful harvest. Women dressed in kimono, their sleeves tied back with red sashes, plant the rice, while musicians perform nearby with drums, flutes, and bells. The dance traditionally associated with such festivals gradually evolved as a part of Noh theater.
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. 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. 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. Thus, rice remains a spiritual yardstick in Japan, despite the country’s fascination with all things high-tech; the country remains rooted in the soil.
A favorite time of the year in Japan comes in early spring when the cherry trees burst forth into full bloom, and people want to go and see the cherry blossoms! Of, course, it’s sakura no kisetsu (桜の季節) or cherry blossom season!
The cherry blossoms have captivated the hearts of the Japanese people since olden times. 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 icon isn’t an exaggeration. It’s the best example of fuubutsushi (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 when nature awakens from its long winter slumber and sprouts with new life. It’s also a time of transition, renewal, and new beginnings. So, the cherry blossoms’ link to many social and cultural events is no accident.
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 is known as hanami (花見), which literally means “to look at flowers.” It’s a word that falls into a broad category of “looking at things” words—two other famous examples are tsukimi and fujimi (富士山見) or “Mount Fuji-viewing.” Hanami is an over a thousand years old custom and 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 start new things. The intensity and spirit of the cherry blossoms bring joy to so many people. It’s enough to inspire people to dream and be optimistic about the future.
For many Japanese, April is the real start of the year. The Japanese school year starts on April 1 and continues through March of the following year, coinciding with cherry blossom season. The blossoms are so connected to the school year that practically every school has cherry trees growing on their grounds. For Japanese students, the cherry blossom season can be filled with mixed emotions because it means saying goodbye to classmates each year while excited and full of expectations in starting a brand-new school year with newly assigned classmates. Japanese students spend a lot of time together studying and planning various school-club activities while developing lifelong friendships. The academic year is the same all through the elementary level to higher education nationwide. University graduation ceremonies take place in the last week of March.
Yes, the sakura has for ages been the favorite of our people and the emblem of our character… But, its nativity is not its sole claim to our affection. The refinement and grace of its beauty appeal to our aesthetic sense as no other flower can.
— Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), from “Bushido” (1900)
Government and businesses also start their fiscal years on April 1 as does the hiring of new university graduates into the workplace to begin 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 the beautiful sakura.
As you can tell, the Japanese hold a unique feeling for the cherry blossoms, and how they relate to many life-changing memories. Whether it’s the impermanence of youth, the fleeting beauty of adolescence, a reminder to live in the moment, or a sign of renewal, growth, and new beginnings, the cherry blossoms are filled with symbolism and meaning.
Hamani is a custom for the reawakening of nature in the springtime after its long winter sleep and marks the first flowering of the sakura. This view is a sentiment usually associated with the Buddhist view of the fleetingness of life, but Shinto shares a similar outlook.
It was the eminent 18th century Shinto scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), who came up with the compelling idea of mono no aware (物の哀れ), or just aware (哀れ), as an underlying current on Japanese culture. Mono no aware one of those untranslatable Japanese words and trying to explain it is a challenging task. It combines the words aware (“sensitivity” or “sadness”) and mono (“things”) and implies a “sadness of things”—i.e., the meaning summed-up by a pathos derived from having a refined sensitivity or awareness toward the sorrowful and transitory nature of beauty (and of life). This is sentiment is captured in the opening of the classic 14th Century Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Heike:
The sound of the Gion shōja bells echoes the
impermanence of all things…
The proud do not endure, they are like a dream
on a spring night.
Cherry blossoms are the ideal example of aware sensibility—it’s about the deeper meaning, not the superficial reactions we have to something that affects us. It’s what we feel when we experience something that makes us exclaim “oh!” and express our feelings in poetry, prose, art or song. 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.
— Motoori Norinaga
The custom of hanami then has its origins as a Shinto religious ritual and originated long before the rise of feudalism in Japan. Hanami started as a tool for farmers and then developed into a ritualized activity of the nobility. It was in fact established as a ritual from China as early as the Nara period (710-794 AD) when the Imperial Court in Kyoto wanted to emulate the Tang Dynasty of China. In 708 AD Empress Genmei (reign 707-715 AD) ordered the capital moved from Fujiwara-kyou in Yamato Province in ancient Kinai to Heijou-kyou 平城京 (present-day Nara); the capital was modeled after Chang’an, the capital city of Tang, China.
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 古事記 or “Records of Ancient Matters” (711-712 AD), a three-volume compilation of oral accounts of the mythological origins of Japan; it’s Japan’s oldest historical record.
Japan is unique in that it was the birthplace of the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami; thus, the origins of the place name Nihon or Nippon (日本), which means “the sun’s origin.” This connection is said to endow both the 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 representative of Japan’s uniqueness. Except for a brief period (740-745 AD), when the capital moved again, Heijou-kyou remained the capital of Japan. Emperor Kanmu (reign 781-806 AD), the 50th emperor of Japan, established a new capital, 長岡京 Nagaoka-kyou in 784 (784-794 AD) before moving to Heian-kyou 平安京 (present-day Kyoto) a decade later in 794. Kanmu’s accomplishments laid the foundation for the Heian period (794-1185 AD), a period named after the capital city of Heian-kyou. 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 Trees over Cherry Trees
At this point, hanami referred to the custom of umemi (梅見) or plum blossom viewing. This appreciation for ume (plum) trees originated from China and made its way to Japan through diplomatic ties 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.
Kyoto’s nobility favored the blossom of the ume tree because it was a symbol of foreign culture and sophistication, and it became synonymous with the word hana (花) or flower.
In the oldest existing collection of Japanese poems, called the Man’yoshuu (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), the number of times plum blossoms are referenced far outnumber any references to cherry blossoms. 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 even before the nobles, and upper-class of the Imperial Court were embracing the imported aesthetics of the plum blossoms.
Cherry Trees’ Status is Raised
Although each year lavish umemi parties were held, the problem was that the plum trees usually flower in February when it’s still cold, too cold for flower viewing in Japan.
The cherry trees, on the other hand, weren’t only 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’ flowering inspired blossom viewing rituals and traditions that the Japanese emperors and their court had established by the 9th century. Emperor Saga (reign 809-823 AD), the 52ndemperor in the Heian period, was said to have a love for the sakura and the first on written record to adopt cherry blossom viewing.
The Imperial family hosted a hanami party at Shinsenen garden (Sacred Spring 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 Heian-kyou. Shinsenen garden served as a favored playground of the Heian nobility who also held moon-viewing and boating parties on the lake.
Hanami parties developed into elaborate affairs accompanied by all the eating, drinking, singing, and dancing under the cherry trees. But, 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 cultured people to demonstrate their ability in bun (文), referring to the pure art of composing 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; meanwhile, the court in Kyoto 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 used to be a plum tree planted at the main hall of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, but between 834 and 848 AD, a mountain cherry tree brought from Mount Yoshino near Nara replaced the plum tree, indicating the firm establishment of the cherry trees’ association with the imperial household. 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
Like never before, Japanese culture prospered during the Heian period, which only occurred again centuries later during the Edo period in pre-modern Japan. Conflicts for the throne halted, but Japan still didn’t 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. It was in the novel that the term hanami was first used to mean “cherry blossom viewing.”
In the Heian period, hanami were majestic celebrations in the Imperial court.
“…the festival of the cherry blossoms took place in the Grand Hall. The empress and the crown prince were seated to the left and right of the throne…Adept at Chinese poetry, princes and high courtiers and others, drew lots to fix the rhyme schemes for their poems.
“I have drawn ‘spring,’ said Genji, his voice finely resonant in even so brief a statement.
”…The emperor had, of course, ordered the concert to be planned with the greatest care. ‘Spring Warbler,‘ which came as the sun was setting, was uncommonly fine.”
— Court lady Murasaki Shikibu in her novel The Tale of Genji(11thcentury)
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 found in 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.
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 nature’s beauty.
Poets of the Heian period praised the undeniable beauty of the delicate cherry blossom flower through poems. 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
In another poem, he wrote that if the cherry blossoms didn’t exist, he wouldn’t have been excited by the arrival of spring at all; instead, he would’ve been able to enjoy a very peaceful, if not dull, life.
If sakura did not exist
How quiet it would be
How calm could I have lived this season.
— Ariwara no Narihita
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
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 its petals fell at its most magnificent beauty, which was reflective of 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 blossom 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 of how precious and fleeting a gift of Life is.
Samurai regard the Cherry Blossom as 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.
In Japan, the meaning of cherry blossoms runs so profoundly deep that it’s a cultural emblem revered for its awe-inspiring beauty and similitude between the cycle of life of the cherry tree and the nature of the blossoming flowers with human life in general—life, death, and renewal (or rebirth); it’s a timeless metaphor for human existence. It’s tied to the Buddhist themes of impermanence (mujou 無常), mindfulness and living in the present. The blooming season is efficacious, glorious, and intoxicating, but tragically brief—a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting. The Japanese people saw how their lives paralleled that of the drama staged by the natural process of the tree. Time was passing with the falling cherry blossoms, and people watched it with a sense of mortality—like the cherry blossoms, human life was limited by time.
Each spring, the Japanese people gather under the canopy of the cherry tree branches to watch the cherry flowers wither and die. They are reminded of the fragility of beauty and that our lives are short. I wonder why, then, more people don’t marvel at our passing of time on earth with the same joy and passion as we do for the cherry blossoms. Why do we neglect to celebrate life when it can end at any moment?
Hanami is like an annual renewal of vows to “remember that life is short, and we must cherish every moment of life.” The cherry blossoms epitomize this human condition. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes the loss of a loved one or an unexpected tragedy or loss from a natural disaster to remind us of our humanity and mortality. It’s time the cherry blossoms tell us, that’s life is too short to waste away, and that people should live their lives well every day and be grateful for the gift of life.
There’s a true story of a man named Terumi Takaoka who developed a new variety of cherry tree called “Yoko Sakura,” which means “Sunlight Cherry Blossom.” Following in the footsteps of his late father, Terumi cultivated his own variety of the tree and sent seedlings all over the world as symbols of resilience, peace, and friendship between nations.
Sunlight Cherry Blossom
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 war and Japan’s defeat 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 sent them off to war; he knew that the students’ odds of returning alive were slim and that their return was sadly unlikely.
There was a large cherry tree in the school’s garden and, to give his young students some hope, Masaaki made 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 became tormented 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 a vision began to form in his mind.
To comfort the spirits of his dead 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 Yoko Sakura 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 Yoko Sakura.
Masaaki sent Youkouseeds 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 that had seen the demise of so many young people. These trees have bloomed not only in World War areas, but other areas such as Myanmar and Vietnam are also now home to Youkoutrees. 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, I’m sure some aren’t just thinking about the flowers’ aesthetics of the flowers themselves. They’re also observing the broader meaning and more rooted cultural tradition of the cherry tree—remembering the loss of loved ones and reflecting on their own precious lives with a sense of wonder and not wasting it.
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 Saigyo (1118-1190). He epitomized the Japanese artistic culture with his love of the cherry blossoms, which he praised in many of his verses. He spoke of his passion for viewing the cherry blossoms on his expedition to Mount Yoshino, and how his heart was still there on the mountain at springtime even though he was 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!
At the same time, Saigyo 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!
By the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603), hanami parties grew in popularity; gradually spreading to the samurai nobility and under the Edo bakufu (江戸幕府), also known as the Tokugawa shogunate, it became a customary practice for all Japanese. It was a well-known fact that Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1573-1598), a daimyou (大名) 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.
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 elevations so that the trees would come into bloom and be 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 Kyoto, after unifying the entire country under his control and just six months before his death.
Cherry blossoms bloom
Hideyoshi began carefully planning this outing from the year before when he first had an opportunity to accompany Tokugawa Ieyasu and several other daimyou to view the cherry blossoms at Daigoji and was delighted with the beauty of the flowers. He even ordered 700 cherry trees to be transplanted 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 daimyo 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 Osaka region and became the talk of the town. Known as “Daigo no Hanami,” this spring event is recreated each year at Daigoji Temple.
HANAMI IN THE EDO PERIOD
When the Tokugawa shogunate was established in Edo in 1603, hanami parties took off, and it had already become an inherent part of samurai culture. But, the shogunate 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. Daimyouthroughout the country copied this trend in their domains, thus, 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 ordinary people reached its zenith during the Edo period. Ordinary people in the capital developed a tradition of hanami that became their annual event—an event with costume and feasting, as well as their genre of poems called senyruu 川柳, a form of unrhymed short poetry (3-lines) structurally like haiku but treating human nature usually in an ironical or satirical manner. But senyruu can also take a more serious side that expresses the misfortunes, hardships, and grief of humanity.
The Edo period experienced political stability and economic growth for more than two centuries. During this time, the government-built roads, farms became more productive, and (limited) international trade flourished, nurturing a vibrant urban 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), considered the golden age of the Edo period. For a hundred years, peace and isolation in Japan had created relative economic stability. It was a time of prosperity and drastic change in Japan’s popular urban culture; a renaissance period when aristocratic and common arts flourished. It was the highest point of the vibrant culture of the merchant class of the Edo period,
By this time, 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 bushido (武士道) 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.
It’s believed that the tradition of viewing cherry blossoms at night, called yozakura (夜桜), originated in the pleasure quarters in the early Edo period 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.
“When the night breeze blows the blossoms, it is a very striking view to see white petals falling down like snowflakes over the lanterns. Towards evening, the male and female on their way back from picnic in Ueno and Mukojima (the two places famous for cherry flowers) pour in here to see the night cherry flowers of Yoshiwara. Specially wives and girls like to visit Yoshiwara in this season, because it is the best opportunity for them to have a full observation on brothels and harlots, as they can go ‘round the brothel streets in company with their men.”
— T. Fujimoto
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 shougun, 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 famous cherry blossom viewing area in Tokyo.
Today, hanami still involves drunken revelry, but it’s lost much of its original meaning; it has come to be more like an excuse to have enkai (宴会) or drinking parties.
Picnics are the most prominent way for people to enjoy hanami today. Groups of families, friends, and company co-workers go to the parks to keep the best spots and gather on blue poly tarps under the flowering cherry trees with their hanami-themed foods and drinks. Since drinking alcohol in public is allowed, there’s usually a lot of saké and beer and other libations, and they sit under the trees to have a good ol’ party, sometimes these parties go on until late at night.
In fact, there’s an old proverb known as hana yori dango (花より団子) or “(sweet rice) dumplings over flowers, which came to be associated with people’s attitudes at hanami. This saying mocks people and hints at their real priorities, suggesting that once a party starts, people become so absorbed in eating and drinking instead of enjoying the aesthetics or contemplating mono no aware of the cherry blossoms.
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). Encircling these trees with thick, twisted ropes called shimenawa (しめ縄) denotes its sacredness. 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 (ritual suicide), 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.
The Cherry Tree of the Milk Nurse
Three hundred years ago, in the village of Asamimura, in the district called Onsengori, in the province of Iyô, there lived a good man named Tokubei. He was a wealthy man and the muraosa, or headman, of his village. 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 the affliction of their childlessness, made many prayers to the divinity Fudô Myō-Ō, who had a famous temple called Saihôji in Asamimura.
At last, their prayers were heard. The wife of Tokubei gave birth to a daughter. The child was beautiful and received the name of O-Tsuyu. As the mother’s milk was deficient, a milk-nurse called O-Sodéwas hired to nurse the child.
O-Tsuyu grew up to be a lovely 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-Sodé, who loved O-Tsuyu with a birth mother’s love, went to the temple Saihôji, and fervently prayed to Fudô-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 wholly recovered.
There was great rejoicing in the House of Tokubei; 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-Sodéwas 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 Fudô-sama that I might be permitted to die in the place of O-Tsuyu; this great favor has been granted to me. Therefore, you must not grieve my death…But I have one request to make.”
I promised Fudô-sama that I would have a cherry tree planted in the garden of Saihôji, 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-Sodé, a young cherry tree—the finest that could be found—was planted in the garden of Saihôji by the parents of O-Tsuyu. The tree grew and flourished; on the sixteenth day of the second month of the following year (by the old lunar calendar)—the anniversary of O-Sodé’s death—it blossomed wonderfully.
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.
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 initially—its own. There’s the ghost of a lonely samurai in that tree.
Cherry Tree of the Sixteenth Day
In the district of Wakegori dwelled an elderly samurai He was a samurai of Iyo; the tree grew in his garden; 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 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.
The tree used to bloom at the beginning of April, like all the cherry trees in the area. One summer of a particular year, the samurai saw the dear tree wither and die!
Exceedingly, the old man sorrowed for his tree. Then kind neighbors, moved by the sorrow of the samurai, gave him a gift of 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 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 to save the perishing tree. (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 sixteenth day of the next January, he was under that tree, and he spread a white cloth at the foot of the cherry tree, 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 then, the cherry tree is said to bloom each January 16 in the season of snow.
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 fragile earthly life. This long name means “Princess [Cherry] Blossoms of the Trees.” This princess was so named because she dropped from heaven upon a cherry tree. She’s the daughter of the mountain kami Oho-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.
Princess [Cherry] Blossoms of the Trees
Sakuya-hime is the wife of the godNinigi 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, Kyushu. 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 doorless hut, which she then set fire to, declaring that the child wouldn’t be hurt if it were indeed the offspring of Ninigi. Inside the hut, Sakuya-hime had three sons, Hoderi, Hosuseri and Hoori. 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 at Kirishima have repeatedly been destroyed by volcanic eruptions. 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.”
The Story of the Old Man
Who Made Withered Trees to Blossom
Once upon a time in a remote village in Japan, there lived an honest old man and his wife. The old man was out plowing his field one day when a little white puppy came fleeing toward him, crying.
The puppy had been mistreated by a greedy old man who lived in the next field over. “Oh, you poor thing,” exclaimed the honest old man, and taking him in, gave the puppy the name “Shiro.” (Shiro in Japanese means “white.”)
The honest old man and his wife loved Shiro very much. Shiro, in turn, became devoted to the old couple and helped the honest old man with his work in the field every day. Shiro ate and ate, and quickly grew into a big dog.
One day, Shiro led the honest old man up a nearby mountain. When they reached the top, Shiro barked, “Arf, Arf…dig here!” As the honest old man began to dig, to his amazement, sparkling gold coins started pouring up from the ground.
“Let me borrow Shiro!” The greedy old neighbor and his wife heard about the gold coins and thought the dog must be able to find treasure and grabbed Shiro, forcing him to take them to the mountain. “Where’s the gold?” the greedy old man demanded. Frightened, Shiro began to whimper. “Ah, so it’s here,” said the greedy old man, and began to dig. But instead of gold coins, garbage began pouring up from the ground. “How dare you!” exclaimed the greedy old man. Furious, he killed Shiro.
When the honest old couple found out about this, they grieved and buried Shiro. Upon burying Shiro, a sapling sprouted from the ground above his grave. By the next day, it had grown into a towering tree.
“Shiro liked steamed rice cakes,” recalled the honest old man. “Let’s make some to take up his grave.” He chopped down the tree that sprung from Shiro’s grave and made a mortar. Then he and his wife began to prepare the rice cakes. As the honest old man pounded the rice into the mortar, it began to turn into gold coins.
Upon seeing this, the greedy old couple rushed over. “Give us that mortar.” Stealing the mortar, they returned to their house and began to make rice cakes. When they pounded the rice, however, it turned into black mud right before their eyes. “What on earth?” cried the greedy old man. Furious, he took an axe and chopped the mortar to pieces. Then he tossed the pieces of wood into the stove and burned them. The honest old man was disheartened. He gathered up the ashes from the mortar, put them in a box and carried the box carefully back to his house.
“Let’s sprinkle these ashes over the field and grow the radish that Shiro lived so much.” When the honest old man sprinkled the ashes, a wind swirled up and blew the ashes into a dead tree. Amazingly, the dead tree began to bloom beautiful cherry blossoms. He then went and happily sprinkled ashes onto one dead tree after another, each which thereafter bloomed brilliant cherry flowers. News of the honest old man’s miracle reached the town and before long, even the ears of the king, who promptly end for the honest old man.
The honest old man was brought before the king, carrying his box of ashes. “Now, I’ll make the flowers bloom” He sprinkled the ashes onto the nearby trees, and immediately, beautiful white cherry flowers appeared.
“Splendid!” exclaimed the king, who was very pleased. “Well done. You are the greatest flower bloomer in all of Japan. You will be rewarded.”
At the moment, the greedy old man came running, carrying the leftover ashes which he had gathered from the stove. “Wait! I’m the greatest flower bloomer in Japan.” With that, he began to sprinkle his ashes. Instead of landing on the flowers, however, the ash flew into the eyes and nose of the king, choking him. “You impudent!” the king stormed and promptly threw the greedy old man into prison.
The Jirohei Cherry Tree
In the northern part of Kyoto is a Shinto shrine called Hirano. The shrine is famous for its cherry trees and has been the site for a cherry blossom festival every April since 985 AD. In the past, a lot of cherry trees were donated to this shrine by some nobles to pry for the prosperity of their families. The long history of festivals at the shrine began during the reign of Emperor Kazan, and it has become the oldest regularly held festival in Kyoto. Today, there are 400 cherry trees of sixty different types on the shrine grounds. Among them is an old dead tree called “Jirohei,” and is still cared for; but the story attached to this dead tree is little known.
Jirohei Cherry Tree
Close to the Jirohei cherry tree, many years ago, was a large and prosperous tea house, once owned by Jirohei, who had started in quite a small way. So rapidly did he make money, he attributed his success to the virtue of the old cherry tree, which he accordingly venerated.
Jirohei paid the greatest respect to the tree, attending to its wants. He prevented boys from climbing it and breaking its branches. The tree prospered, and so did he.
One morning a samurai (of the blood-and-thunder kind) walked up to the Hirano Shrine, and sat down at Jirohei’s tea-house, to take a long look at the cherry blossom. He was a powerful, dark-skinned, evil-faced man about five feet eight in height.
“Are you the landlord of this tea-house?” asked he.
“Yes, sir,” Jirohei answered meekly: ‘I am. What can I bring you, sir?”
“Nothing: I thank you,” said the samurai. “What a fine tree you have here opposite your tea-house!”
“Yes, sir: it is to the fineness of the tree that I owe my prosperity. Thank you, sir, for expressing your appreciation of it.”
“I want a branch off the tree,” said the samurai, “for a geisha.”
“Deeply as I regret it, I am obliged to refuse your request. I must refuse everybody. The temple priests gave orders to this effect before they let me erect this place. No matter who it may be that asks, I must refuse. Flowers may not even be picked off the tree, though they may be gathered when they fall. Please, sir, remember that there is an old proverb which tells us to cut the plum tree for our vases, but not the cherry!”
“You seem to be an unpleasantly argumentative person for your station in life,” said the samurai. “When I say that I want a thing I mean to have it: so you had better go and cut it.”
“However much you may be determined, I must refuse,” said Jirohei, quietly and politely.
“And, however much you may refuse, the more determined am I to have it. I was a samurai said I should have it. Do you think that you can turn me from my purpose? If you have not the politeness to get it, I will take it by force.’ Suiting his action to his words, the samurai drew a sword about three feet long, and was about to cut off the best branch of all. Jirohei clung to the sleeve of his sword arm, crying:
“I have asked you to leave the tree alone; but you would not. Please take my life instead.”
“You are an insolent and annoying fool: I gladly follow your request;” and saying this the samurai stabbed Jirohei slightly, to make him let go of the sleeve. Jirohei did let go; but he ran to the tree, where in a further struggle over the branch, which was cut in spite of Jirohei’s defense, he was stabbed again, this time fatally. The samurai, seeing that the man must die, got away as quickly as possible, leaving the cut branch in full bloom on the ground.
Hearing the noise, the servants came out of the house, followed by Jirohei’s poor old wife.
Jirohei, himself, was seen dead, but he clung to the tree as firmly as in life, and it was entirely an hour before they were able to get him away.
From this time things went badly with the teahouse. Very few people came, and such as did come were poor and spent but little money. Besides, from the day of the murder of Jirohei the tree had begun to fade and die; in less than a year, it was absolutely dead. The teahouse had to be closed for want of funds to keep it open. The old wife of Jirohei had hanged herself on the dead tree a few days after her husband had been killed.
People said that ghosts had been seen about the tree and were afraid to go there at night. Even nearby teahouses suffered, and so did the temple, which for a time became unpopular.
The samurai who had been the cause of all this kept his secret, telling no one but his own father what he had done; and he expressed to his father his intention of going to the temple to verify the statements about the ghosts. Thus, on the third day of March in the third year of Keio (that is, forty-two years ago) he started one night alone and well-armed, in spite of his father’s attempts to stop him. He went straight to the old dead tree and hid behind a stone lantern.
To his astonishment, at midnight the dead tree suddenly came out into full bloom and looked just as it had been when he cut the branch and killed Jirohei.
On seeing this, he fiercely attacked the tree with his keen-edged sword. He attacked it with mad fury, cutting and slashing; and he heard a fearful scream which seemed to him to come from inside the tree.
After half an hour he became exhausted but resolved to wait until daybreak, to see what damage he had wrought. When day dawned, the samurai found his father lying on the ground, hacked to pieces, and of course dead. Doubtless, the father had followed to try and see that no harm came to the son.
The samurai was stricken with grief and shame. Nothing was left but to go and pray to the gods for forgiveness, and to offer his life to them, which he did by disemboweling himself.
From that day the ghost appeared no more, and people came as before to view the cherry-bloom by night as well as by day; so, they do even now. No one has ever been able to say whether the ghost which appeared was the ghost of Jirohei, or that of his wife, or that of the cherry tree which had died when its limb had been severed.
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—praying for plentiful harvests.
Farmers in the countryside revered the cherry blossoms, believing the rice paddy deity visited their villages.The rice paddy deity, called the ta no kami (田の神), is supposed 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 Shinto religion.
The ta no kami is believed to live deep within the satoyama(里山) mountains where it’s sacred. In the springtime, it descends the mountains to rice-paddy fields below for the rice planting season and then leaves the rice paddy fields after the harvest to return to the mountains in the autumn by transforming into the mountain deity, called the 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 this deity.
The yama no kami has always been the most important of all the deities 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 believe there’s a relationship between the cherry trees and the ta no kami. The Japanese see 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. Sakura meant a hallowed 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 deity of the rice-paddy. In Japanese folk religion, the protective ta no kami and the yama no kami are one of the same.
Since the cherry blossom embodied the ta no kami, the Japanese regard the tree itself as sacred. The trees hold a revered status because of En no Gyoja (634-706 AD), a 7th century sorcerer and founder of the ascetic mountain practice of shugendou (修験道), practiced by the gyouja or yamabushi (山伏); they were acetic hermits believed to possess supernatural powers. Legend has it that while performing mountain ascetic rituals, En no Gyoja had a vision of the Zao Gongen deity, a protective kami of shugendou, and carved what he saw into the bark of a cherry tree on Mount Yoshino and the tree became hallowed. 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 Gyoja’s 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 began blooming in the mountains, then 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 yama no kami descended from the satoyama mountains bringing with it nourishing water from the mountain streams supplied by the melting snow to feed the rice-paddies. The deity would remain on watch 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 praying for an abundant harvest in the coming autumn season. 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 today and, as a result, cherry blossom viewing began with religious rituals.
MY PRIVATE HANAMI
It’s time now for me to share my own hanami experience. It may not have been as grandiose and as extravagant as Hideyoshi’s or as aesthetically pleasing as Saigyo’s, but here it is.
My fascination with hanami was the result of discovering my father’s jisei and his choice of “falling cherry blossoms” as the verse’s subject metaphor. This discovery inspired me to learn more about the significance and importance of the cherry blossoms and the custom of hamani, eventually leading me to a serendipitous opportunity to experience my very first hanami.
My first hanami didn’t happen in Japan, as I had envisaged. It happened in San Francisco. It’s not the image had I in mind when I made a wish to one day see the cherry blossoms. In any case, my hanami turned out to be an “aha!” moment that turned into a genuinely spiritual instant for me.
I’m reminded of a story about Takeda Shingen, the lord of Kai (present-day Yamanashi Prefecture). Shingen was visiting a Buddhist temple in a remote part of Kai when an abbot of a nearby monastery invited him to stop by on his way home to view the cherry blossoms: “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.” It was the Sengoku period, and war was imminent, so Shingen had to decline the invitation. He sent his apologies saying that he was deep into war preparations and wouldn’t have time to visit the abbot just now.
The abbot insisted. “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. I hope you will not fail to appreciate the flowers,” the abbot wrote.
Shingen finally accepted: “It would not do to set my face against the cherries, and then I ought also to mind the pressing invitation of the abbot.” Later, in appreciation of the excellent opportunity to enjoy the flowers and an unworldly conversation with the abbot, Shingen wrote a thankful poem: “If I had not had this invitation from my friend, how greatly I would have missed this magnificent sight of the cherry blossoms.”
Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki, who related the incident in his book “Zen and Japanese Culture” (1959), commented, “Such a disinterested enjoyment of Nature as shown by Shingen…even in the midst of warlike activities, is known as fuuryuu (風流), and those without this feeling of fuuryuu are classed among the most uncultured in Japan.”
Fuuryuu describes a sensitivity and heightened awareness (connection) of the movement with nature that affords a glimpse of the instance of beauty. People are encouraged to pause to enjoy beauty before they disappear. In Japan, those who fail to have such experiences are traditionally thought to be uncultured.
The Osaka poet and novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) describes this lack of fuuryuu in one of his best-known novels concerning the pleasure quarters in Koushoku gonin onna (“Five Women Who Loved Love”):
“When cherry trees bloom at Onoe men’s wives bloom too with a new pride in their appearance, and pretty girls go strolling with their proud mothers, not so much to see the spring blossoms as to be seen themselves. That is the way people are these days…“
— Ihara Saikaku, Koushoku gonin onna (“Five Women Who Loved Love”), 1686
Like Shingen, I received an invitation to enjoy the sight of the cherry blossoms. It happened while dining at a Japanese 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 saké. 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.
But unlike Shingen, 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. Upon my arrival there, I could see first-hand the magnificent cherry trees in all its glorious full bloom. I found a fine seat waiting for me on a concrete bench underneath the main branches of a blossoming tree. “Ah, so beautiful,” 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 bentou, 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 spring breeze brushed against my cheeks, and it made me feel so exhilarated. 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. 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 a 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 spirit 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. The petals fell softly, swirling through the air as if unmindful of the death it would ultimately meet on the earth below, some landing on me. 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.
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 saké that you would have good health. Well, I didn’t have any sakéwith 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. I placed the delicate petals in-between the pages of a book I had so I could bring a beautiful memory back home. Sadly, in a matter of about a week, the cherry blossoms would disappear until the next spring.
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 a few 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 mono no aware 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. It wasn’t the flowers blooming but the falling of the flower petals that I enjoyed most. I’ll never forget how breathtaking it was to sit there on the bench watching the petals falling and it left me speechless—this is fuuryuu. In that instant, my senses seemed heightened, and 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.
This feeling of fuuryuu, strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, is hard to translate. It’s derived from two words: fuu 風 is “wind,” and ryuu 流 is “water,” and literally means “(flowing) wind and water.” Fuu, like the moving wind, can only be sensed, it cannot be seen. Ryuu 流 is water. It can also mean ‘flowing” or “to be washed away”—it’s about how things flow (like a stream).
Fuuryuu is believed to be a concept that’s solely Japanese; it’s an impression of beauty embraced by the samurai class that had a significant influence in the blossoming of fuuryuu as an ideal. The samurai, given their potentially violent and short-lived existence, were drawn to ideas like mono no aware and fuuryuu.
The notion of fuuryuu is of something being perceptible, yet, at the same time, indiscernible in the elegance it implies. Moreover, just like the flowing wind and water, fuuryuu points to a fleeting beauty that can only be experienced at the moment, for in the next instant it will no longer exist like the morning mist.
The word fuuryuu often appeared in the Man‛youshuu 万葉集 (“Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”), which was a collection of waka poems during the Nara period, and used in the poetry of the late Heian period to represent an aristocratic and nostalgic perspective of life. In modern Japanese, the word means “elegance,” “taste,” and “refinement.” So, it can be said that elegance and refinement are living in such a way that we flow with the way of things. It took on a reference to the refined, even elegant behavior of a sophisticated person. As time went on, the word applied to all things regarded as elegant, sophisticated, stylish, or artistic. Japan has many traditional experiences thought to be capable of calling forth the spirit of fuuryuu, such as hanami, tsukimi, kado 華道 (flower arrangements), koudou 香道 (incense ceremony), chadou 茶道 (tea ceremony), architecture or landscape gardens—such experiences are said to be “fuuryuu experiences.”
In his book Tea Life, Tea Mind, Sen Soshitsu XV, the head of the Urasenke tea school, recalled:
Once at the home of an American acquaintance, I found hanging in an open window a pair of metal chopsticks, the kind used for arranging a charcoal fire. When I asked my friend why they were there, I was told, “When the wind blows they strike each other and make the most beautiful sound.” I was delightfully amazed; they were his wind bell. A Japanese would never use them in any way other than to handle charcoal, but they were serving a completely different purpose. This insight was so perfectly furyu that I also did not take notice of it, and with that realization, I experienced a twofold surprise.”
Fuuryuuisn’t solely an appreciation of nature; it’s also a detached connection with nature. By detachment, it doesn’t imply disinterest but allows one to connect with all parts of the natural experience, and not just aspects commonly assumed to be pleasant. It was this component of fuuryuu that allowed cultured Japanese to sometimes write a jisei just before death, which was once a fairly common custom.
Also, fuuryuu isn’t just aesthetical but has spiritual significance. It describes an instant in which the mind experiences a keen sense of sadness or regret for a brief moment of indescribable, delicate beauty, that can be experienced only in that moment, for in the next instant it will vanish like the morning mist. Thus, fuuryuu suggests the impermanence of the beauty of nature, a fleeting moment so overwhelmingly and intensely emotional that words can barely hint at it to be verbalized or even intellectualized—i.e., sitting under the cherry trees, drinking saké, admiring the flower blossoms caught by the wind, and for the briefest moment… flowing… suspended in a cloud of pink…and having nothing to say. This is fuuryuu.
There’s a story about a woman who was kept a prisoner in the Koishikawa-rogoku (Koishikawa Prison), which was an isolated area in Edo in the days of the Tokugawa rule.
The woman prisoner was destined to be executed before the spring. She used to look out from her window, and observing a cherry-tree, she wished to see it bloom. When the sentence was given, she expressed her intense desire to see the tree in bloom before she was to be executed. The jailer was a kind-hearted man who understood fuuryuu, and he granted her last wish. It’s said that the woman met her death in the happiest spirit. The cherry tree came to be known by her name, Asatsuma.
They Are (Already) Perfect!
Again, I’m reminded of a scene from a movie. This time, it’s from the movie The Last Samurai (2003) 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 crucial 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 witnesses 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.
At that instant, the blossoms were at that perfect stage or either, Katsumoto ultimately realized, that the flowers, being in and of themselves, were already 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’re as they should be just at that moment. Katsumoto failed to understand fuuryuu, and it was only at that moment of death that he finally was able to experience that fleeting instance of indescribable, fragile beauty so awe-inspiring and powerful that the only words he could utter to describe what he saw was…Perfect.
Mono no aware
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 has deep connections with Buddhism.
According to the dharma, the tree conveyed the quintessential expression of Japanese aesthetic sensibility known as mono no aware. The association of the cherry blossoms with 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.
Another way to explain it is that mono no aware means to savor life more deeply. It 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, aware suggests sadness toward something (for lack of a better word)—it could be an inanimate object, a living thing, or an emotional response in another person. The heart of aware suggests the experience of being deeply moved by emotions that can include joy and grief, both feelings at the same time, but always highlighted by an acceptance of the fleeting or short-lived which elevates it into an aesthetic sensibility, a state of mind that appreciates this transiency.
There’s a sadness existent in 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 observe 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 it’s always tempered by the finite nature of things, or pain or sadness. The cherry blossom is a fitting example to understand this concept. Our awareness of its transiency elevates our appreciation of the cherry blossom’s beauty 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, it’s important to recognize that the Japanese ideal of beauty is a subjective experience, not an objective one, and is based on a state of being that’s internal rather than external. Based on classical Greek ideals, Westerners view beauty as the ultimate perfection of an external object, such as an awe-inspiring painting, a perfect sculpture, or intricate musical composition; a kind of beauty that can be described as only “skin-deep.”
The essence of the Japanese ideal towards beauty as a feeling for and an appreciation of objects or artwork—most commonly nature or the depiction of it in a pristine, untouched state. The Japanese consider falling or wilting autumn flowers more beautiful than one that’s in full bloom; a fading sound more attractive than one that can be heard clearly; the moon partially clouded more appealing than a full one.
An appreciation of beauty as a state that doesn’t last, the very delicacy and impermanence of the cherry blossoms have a very emotional and intensely philosophical appeal. The unpredictability and anticipation of the beautiful flowers blooming for just a brief time and the falling of the very fragile blossoms when it’s still attractive 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.
Sakura…the perfect example
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 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!” or “aha!” 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 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. 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 lifespan 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.”
The samurai personified this metaphor like no one else in history. Soon the cherry blossom petals became a well-known comparison of bushidōor 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 were 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. They carried these poems 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 (“Of flowers, the cherry blossom; of men, the warrior,” 花は桜木, 人は武士), which means “as for flowers, there is sakura—as for men, there are the samurai.”
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 obvious comparison between the life of a samurai and the cherry blossoms. His life might be beautiful, but his life may be cut short suddenly. Similarly, a strong storm or sudden frost might ruin the flowers, ending the season early.
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 Saigyo as he spoke of how his heart was still there on Mount Yoshino each springtime even though he was miles away. Like Saigyo, I feel my heart is there each springtime at the Peace Pagoda with the cherry trees even though I’m 2,400 miles away in Honolulu.
It wasn’t until I experienced my first hanami that I could say, “I get it!” concerning my late father’s jisei. First, I came to understand why my father chose the cherry blossoms as the subject for his jisei; secondly, I was able to decode the poem’s symbolism and meaning of the falling cherry blossoms; and thirdly, I have a good idea for what was in my father’s mind at the moment he wrote his jisei. The poem’s significance revealed itself to me, and I left Japantown having accomplished closure with my father and me.
My first hanami experience deeply moved me and led to an “aha!” moment. It was an instance when everything seemed right—I felt a sense of harmony within me and between my late father and me—and it felt as though I’d just gone through the most incredible spiritual experience of my life.
At first, the experience I’d just gone through was challenging trying to comprehend. My feelings were of a dreamlike fuzziness; meanwhile, words eluded me, and I was unable to articulate and verbalize what I felt in that instance. I was unprepared for such an emotional overload.
As I gradually got a hold of my emotions, a sense of peace overcame me, and then I experienced a moment of realization. By participating in the hamani and observing the falling cherry blossoms, I was able to recognize my father’s true feelings, and I left Japantown having gained greater clarity about my father, which transcended into love, empathy, and gratitude despite any differences in our past. As it turned out, the jisei was how my father could communicate to me—it was the only way he could express his deep feelings sincerely. But, if I was going to be able to recognize his true self, I had to experience hanami for myself to comprehend fuuryuu and, therefore, understand what was in his mind at the time he composed his jisei.
Chance, Coincidence, or Fate
Was it chance, choice, or fate, that I happened to be in San Francisco at the exact time of the year when the cherry trees were in bloom? What about going to a particular sushi restaurant, taking a seat at the sushi bar, and the chef inviting me to go and see the cherry blossoms? I don’t know the answers, but I know that if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have received the invitation to see the cherry blossoms in Japantown, and I wouldn’t have experienced my first hanami and connected with my father’s soul and uncover his true self. I could recognize and accept his love, the love a father of his generation must’ve felt but kept it hidden inside, unwilling to show it and making it seem (in my eyes, at least) that he was incapable to outwardly expressing any loving gesture.
It was like when he hid the symptoms of stomach cancer and suddenly had to be taken to the hospital ER room. It was only then that my family learned of his disease; it came as quite a shock. But, it was apparent that he concealed his pain from everyone for a long time.
While hospitalized, it was too late for the doctors to do anything to save my father’s life. Cancer inside him had spread too severely throughout his body and to major organs. He had been suffering silently and suffering alone for some time. My father was someone who would put the needs of others ahead of his own needs, so he made a lot of personal and financial sacrifices for the sake of his family, his children, even to his detriment.
A well-known Japanese poet, Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) stated, in one of his famous poems for which he’s universally known, Ame ni mo makezu (雨ニモマケズ, “Count yourself last in everything. Put others before you.”). But, this was one time where my father put himself last that I found so heartbreaking. In his stoic way, my father took the pain and didn’t show it outwardly, keeping it hidden from the family as long as he could until the pain became too severe and couldn’t hide it any longer.
The Japanese call this attitude gaman (我慢), which is a kind of stoicism, a “quiet endurance.” Gaman taught my father to maintain self-control and discipline even in distressed times and to endure the unbearable with patience and dignity. In that same poem by Miyazawa, he stated, “Be not defeated by rain.” The phrase extols the virtues of enduring harsh conditions with good grace.
A related term for gaman is the term gamanzuyoi (我慢強い), a compound with the word tsuyoi (強い), which means “strong” and “resilient.” It translates as “(very) patient” and “persevering.” In other words, gamanzuyoi refers to “suffering the unbearable” or having the high capacity for a calm endurance.
To my father’s generation, a man who showed his emotions on his face was considered weak; he didn’t show that he was hurting. There’s a scene from the movie Snow Falls on Cedar (1999) in which Zenichi (Kazuo Miyamoto’s issei father) and Kazuo (8-year-old nisei at the time and played by Seiji Inouye) are practicing kendo. Zenichi strikes a blow with his shinai, a kendo sword made of bamboo, and Kazuo repels the blow. Zenichi’s face—if he’s impressed—doesn’t show it. Kazuo lashes back fiercely, but Zenichi blocks each strike with ease. Zenichi then strikes Kazuo hard, flinging him to the ground. Kazuo bounces back up, snatching his shinai into the ready position, his face scrunched with pain. “Kazuo,” Zenichi yells out. “Never show your pain. Don’t ever show your feelings. On your face. Or anywhere.” Showing gaman was a sign of maturity and a demonstration of strength of character.
My father used to say to me how we must keep our private affairs private, problems and complaints to ourselves, as others may be worse off and have more significant issues than us. Interestingly, the word “jisei” when it’s written using the characters 自 and 省translates as “self-control” and “self-restraint.” I suppose that’s why my father hid the fact that he was suffering silently, concealing the symptoms of stomach cancer for as long as he could.
My father knew his life would end at any time. Despite this, on the morning before he died, he woke up from his hospital bed very cheerful. He said he felt fine and was in unusually high spirits. He then said to the family members present that morning, “I don’t have any regrets.”
My father said he could die without any regrets. Even at the end of his life, he practiced self-restraint, and could not reveal his true feelings. Gaman.
I want to go back to a tanka poem by Saigyo I cited earlier to impress upon an essential point, which went like this:
Gazing at them, immersed,
I become very intimate
with the blossoms;
and with the falling away
and scattering comes sorrow.
hana ni mo itaku
chiru wakere koso
This tanka poem can be a statement of attachment to the cherry blossoms as well as the suffering that inevitably results from it in an impermanent world. In the first line, the word nagamu (眺む) suggests gazing (to the broader view) and being deeply immersed in meditative thought. Saigyo may have been so absorbed in contemplation of the blossoms that he had become “very intimate” with them. One general type of meditation in Buddhism is called visualization meditation or just visualization which involves the concentration on a visual object.
The first three lines thus can be read to suggest an intense form of visual meditation which allowed Saigyo to merge with the blossoms, to lose his “self” and the subject/object split that’s at the root of delusion and desire. The fourth line is literally “with the falling away and scattering,” the word chiru (散る) associated with the scattering of blossoms and wakare (別れ) meaning their separation from the branches. One interpretation could be suggesting that while his meditation on the blossoms had engendered a contemplative union with them, as they fall, the meditative union brakes and there’s a separation between him and the blossoms, resulting in sorrow. But, remember that at least one kind of sorrow (as seen in terms such as mono no aware) presents an ideal state, a quiet sadness at the poignancy of life that comes with Saigyo’s Buddhist realization. The falling and separation refer not only to the scattering of blossoms but the shedding of the self, the full release of the ego and the delusion of separation from the world. If this is the case, with the falling away of the self comes the Buddhist insight, including the realization of the “sadness of things” or a refined sensibility toward the sorrowfulness and impermanent nature of beauty.
Thus, I left the cherry blossoms with a refined clarity about my father and understanding 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 fit in it—it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
He must have wanted us to remember that our lives paralleled that of the drama staged by the natural process of the cherry tree. Life is limited by time, and we must cherish each moment of life despite life’s drama. His death serves as a reminder of our humanity and mortality. It’s time that the cherry blossoms tell us that life is too short to waste away and that we should live life our way well every day and be grateful for the precious gift of human life. Be thankful for waking up every day and use all our energies to develop yourself and reach out your heart to others and achieve enlightenment so that everyone can benefit as much as possible.
As I reflected on my father and his jisei, it elevated my appreciation and gratitude of all that’s dear to me, including all these things about the cherry blossoms. My first hanami was an “aha!” moment for me, and it turned out to be the most spiritual experience of my life. When I think about it, I’ve come to the realization that, on some deep level, I have always understood the special symbolism and meaning of the cherry blossoms my father wanted to teach me. I just needed to be reminded that we ARE sakura. We all are…sakura!
I’ll leave you with this poem by Japanese author and Buddhist monk, Yoshida Kenko (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!”
Thejiseior “death poem” is a genre of poetry that developed 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 (sanbouin 三法印), specifically that the material world is transient and impermanent (mujou 無常), that attachment to it causes suffering (ku苦), and ultimately all reality is emptiness or absence of self-nature (kuu 空). 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 verse 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 jisei 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 (satori 悟り). Japanese Buddhism is closely associated with the memory of the deceased and the family shrines dedicated to the ancestors, and the butsudan (仏壇) 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 jisei was limited to the society’s educated class, ruling class, samurai, and monks. It was introduced to Westerners during the Pacific War of World War II when Japanese soldiers, encouraged by their culture’s samurai legacy, would write poems before suicidal missions or battles.
Jisei was written in kanshi (漢詩), waka (和歌), or haiku (俳句). Most were written in the tanka (短歌) or short-style form, but some were written in haiku. Generally speaking, kanshi (”Han poetry”) is the Japanese word for Chinese poetry as well as Japanese poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets; it was popular during the Heian period among the aristocrats. Waka is a type of poetry written in Japanese. Although waka in modern Japanese is written as 和歌 (“Japanese poem”), in the past it was also written as 倭歌 (wa for “Japan”), and a variant name is yamato-uta (大和歌).Waka originally included many different forms, but after the Heian period, waka came to refer only to tanka, which consists of five-lines (verse) totaling 31-mora (5-7-5-7-7). Haiku is a poem that consists of three-lines (verse) and 17-mora (5-7-5), which are different from the English syllable. Haiku relies on two images divided by a kireji (切れ字) or “cutting word.” It’s said to supply structural support to the verse. When placed at the end of a verse, it provides a dignified ending, concluding the verse with a heightened sense of closure. Used in the middle of a verse, it briefly cuts the stream of thought, indicating that the verse consists of two thoughts half independent of each other.
Navarro, Rene J. (2015, June 16). Jose Rizal, Martial arts warrior. Positively Filipino. Retrieved from http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/jose-rizal-martial-arts-warrior.
The term kami (神) are the deities that are worshipped in the Shinto religion. They can be elements of the landscape, forces of nature as well as beings and the qualities that these beings express; they can also be the spirits of venerated dead persons. In Shinto, kami aren’t separate from nature, but are of nature, possessing positive and negative, and good and evil characteristics. The word is translated in multiple ways in English, such as god, deity, divinity, or spirit, but no single English word expresses its full meaning. The ambiguity of the meaning of kami is necessary, as it conveys the ambiguous nature of kami themselves.
Dry-field rice may have been introduced to Japan as early as the early Joumon period (14,000-300 BC), about 6,000 years ago. The earliest evidence of wet-field rice farming dates to northern Kyushu in the late 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, many Korean artifacts, dated between 800 and 600 BC, were unearthed which suggested an earlier timeframe. But, in the early 2000s, grains of wet-field rice were found in pottery from northern Kyushu 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 Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefectures.
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.
Japan Experience (2017, December 7). Rice in Japan. Retrieved from https://www.japan-experience.com/to-know/chopsticks-at-the-ready/rice-in-japan. By the end of the 1960s, rice production in Japan has been strictly regulated and generously subsidized by the Japanese government. It’s almost entirely sold in the domestic market. But the vagaries of history and the adoption of more Western lifestyle changes of the Japanese population have resulted in a decline in rice consumption of more than 50% in 40 years. According to a recent study, the Japanese are the 50th biggest rice consumers, with a daily average of 119 grams per person. In the Japanese language, three different words are referring to rice. Ine (稲), referring to the “rice-plant” grown in rice fields; okome (お米) for the “harvested rice” (husked grains of rice)—the kanji 米 enters into the composition of the old character 氣: iki (spirit, heart); and finally, gohan or meshi (ご飯 or 晩御飯) for the “cooked rice” that we consume.Rice is so important in Japan that the word gohan also means “meal.” Adding the words meaning morning, noon and night (asa 朝, hiru 昼, ban 晩御飯) before gohan, means breakfast, lunch, and dinner, respectively. Breakfast is literally “morning rice,” and so on.
Office Holidays (n.d.). Labor Thanksgiving Day. Retrieved from https://www.officeholidays.com/countries/japan/labour.php. Unbeknownst to many people, the November 23 date was inherited from niinamesai. Under the American Occupation, General Douglas MacArthur abolished all holidays based on traditional Shinto myths, rituals, and ceremonies. Thus, a 1948 law officially erased the name niinamesai.
Yoshizuka, Setsuko (2018, January 25). Tsukimi (Japanese harvest moon festival): Autumn moon festival customs and traditional foods. The Spruce Eats. Retrieved from https://www.thespruceeats.com/tsukimi-japanese-harvest-moon-festival-2031040.
Asian Inspirations (n.d.). Culture: The Japanese mood festival legend. Retrieved from https://asianinspirations.com.au/asian-culture/japanese-moon-festival-legend.
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/
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.
Hays, Jeffrey (2013, January). Rice farming in Japan: History, paddies, planting, harvesting and mechanization [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat24/sub159/item939.html
Takeda, Erin (2014, April 9). Significance of sakura. Smithsonian Folklife Festival [Blog post]. 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.
As one of Japan’s happiest events, people’s thoughts of hanami often bring instant 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.”
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.”
Not only is spring when its cherry blossom season, but it’s the most suitable time for new starts; hence, an April start as a matter of course. The Japanese are sensitive to the changing of the seasons and believe that the American system of beginning in September in the fall with the cold winter already on its way as unnatural. According to Article 59 of the Ordinance for Enforcement of the School Education Law “The elementary school year shall start on April 1, and end on March 31 of the following year,” and junior high and high schools match the elementary school schedule. The standardization of the April-March system traces back to the Elementary School Law of 1900, but there appears to be no definitive record of where the idea came from originally. The most common explanation is that the school-year promulgated in 1872 modeled after the French school system which began in April.
Another explanation was that the school-year was established to match the fiscal year, which also runs from April to March. Under Article 11 of the Public Finance Law, “The state’s fiscal year shall start on April 1 every year and shall be concluded on March 31 of the following year.” Historically, the Meiji government started out with a fiscal year that matched the calendar year, beginning in January. Over time, the government switched to an October to September system, and then to a July to June system. It wasn’t until the 1880s that they settled on April to March, though once more the reasoning behind this decision is a mystery.
Kimura, Hiroko (2004, March 19). Blossom, blossom, briefly everywhere. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2004/03/19/travel/blossom-blossom-briefly-everywhere/#.W1Yym9hKjRY.
Lomas, Thomas (2016, February 22). Untranslatable Words: Mono no aware, and the aesthetics of impermanence. [Blog post]. HuffPost. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-lomas/untranslatable-words-mono_b_9292490.html.
Buchele, Grace (2013, June 13). Texan in Tokyo: What the sakura cherry blossoms and hanami say about Japanese love for beauty [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://gracebuchele.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/what-the-sakura-cherry-blossoms-and-hanami-say-about-japanese-love-for-beauty/
Empress Genmei (660-721 AD), also known as Empress Genmyo, 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 provinces around the capital Nara and Heian-kyou. The name is still used to describe a part of the Kansai region but corresponds only to the land of the old provinces. The area was one of the Gokishichidou (“Five provinces and seven roads”) during the Asuka period(538-710), which consisted of Yamashiro, Yamato, Settsu, Kawachi, and Izumi provinces.
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.”
Nagaoka-kyou 長岡京 referred to as “the forgotten capital;” it was established in 784 AD (784-794 AD); Emperor Kanmu declared of the new capital of Japan. But Nagaoka-kyou didn’t prosper as a capital. The area suffered from serious natural disasters and the death of the Imperial prince triggered people to think the new capital had bad omens. As a result, the emperor had no choice but to relocate the capital after only ten years.
Each year, on February 25th, the Plum Blossom Festival, called baikasai (梅花祭), is held at Kitano Tenman-guu Shrine in Kyoto, built in 947. The annual event commemorates Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a politician and scholar who loved the ume blossoms and deified after his death as Tenman Daijizai Tenjin, the god of learning. The festival marks the beginning of Spring.Kitano Tenman-guu is popular with students praying for success in exams because the deity was in his life a man of literature and knowledge.
Cartwright, Mark (2017, May 2). Man’youshuu. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Manyoshu/. The Man’youshuu 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’youshuu is regarded as a literary classic and held in the highest esteem and with the greatest affection in Japan today. Many scholars believe the poet Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785) compiled the Man’youshuu. 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.
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.
Chi, Ma (2015, March 30). Cherry blossom originated in China. China Daily. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-03/30/content_19952048.htm. Pineda, Dianne (2017, April 13). Where did cherry blossoms first originate, Korea, Japan or…China? 10 Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.10mag.com/cherry-blossoms-first-originate-korea-japan-china/. J-Cast (2014, March 20). Did Japan’s hallowed cherry trees actually originate from South Korea? The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/20/national/media-national/did-japans-hallowed-cherry-trees-actually-originate-in-south-korea/#.W1a0LdhKjRZ.
South Korean media claimed the cherry tree is native to their land, originating from the royal cherry trees on Jeju Island. “Japanese cherry trees are actually Jeju’s royal cherry trees. Japanese just took them and cultivated them,” South Korean media reported. This claim by some South Korean media comes from the history of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held every year in Washington DC. Japanese media denounced this claim. Dr. Takeshi Kinoshita, a Teikyo University professor who specializes in ethnobotany, questioned this claim on his website. Kinoshita lists the reasons why he thinks the theory of somei yoshino originating in South Korea regularly appear in the country’s mainstream media, even though there is scientific evidence proving otherwise.
In 1912, Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo gifted 3,000 somei yoshino cherry trees to the US capital as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. First, Kinoshita writes, in prewar times in 1933, Japanese scholar Genichiro Koizumi of Kyoto Imperial University based the Korean origin theory on a misunderstanding, and yet South Korea continues to repeat it. But, the trees were almost cut down during WWII because of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, if not for exiled Korean statesman Syngman Rhee. Rhee, who eventually became Korea’s first president, was said to have saved the trees by saying that their origin was from Korea and that the Japanese only told the US that they came from Japan because Korea was under their colonial rule at the time. Then there was the movement to cut down cherry trees in South Korea that gained steam when the anti-Japanese Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-2008) formed. Groups who wanted to protect the trees, including Japanese people, revived the Korean origin theory as a persuasion tactic. Finally, Kinoshita states “it is easier to understand if you think of (South Korea) as trying to copy Japanese cultural assets and make them Korean,” adding that he fears the country may be cleverly conducting organized “cultural terrorism.”
But, according to a Chinese industry group, the cherry tree originated neither in Japan or nor South Korea, but in China. According to the China Cherry Blossom Association, there’s much historical literature that supports the fact that the cultivation of cherry trees first took place in China. Cherry trees, the Chinese industry group claims, originated in the Himalayas in China’s territory and found its way to Japan during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The cultivation of the cherry tree in China dates back to the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties more than 2,000 years ago when the tree was bred in royal gardens.
This debate on the origins of the cherry trees reflect the tense relations among the three Asian rivals, which are frequently at odds with each other on issues, including Japan’s 20thcentury history—when it colonized Korea and parts of China, culminating in World War II—and competing for territorial claims in regional waters.
Kinoshita cited another study conducted by a team of a research institute under the US Department of Agriculture and Seoul National University. This team conducted DNA tests in 2007 on somei yoshino trees in Washington, D.C., and wild cherry trees on Jeju. The result of their study, as Kinoshita wrote, states that “the trees on Jeju Island are a unique species and are clearly different from somei yoshino trees, which are crossbred.” He also states that no scholars confirmed the claim that the trees were from Jeju.
Also, somei yoshino was born out of cross-pollination during Edo Period’s random gardening culture. The cherry species is reproduced not with seeds but via grafting, according to Kinoshita’s website. Additionally, Kinoshita points out, a team composed of members of a research institute under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Seoul National University and other organizations conducted DNA tests in 2007 on somei yoshino trees in Tokyo and Washington, D.C., and wild cherry trees on Jeju. The team concluded that “the trees on Jeju Island are a unique species and are clearly different from somei yoshino trees, which are crossbred,” Kinoshita writes. But, the team stressed cherry trees can easily crossbreed naturally, and it needs more detailed research to conclude whether Jeju cherries are unique. Recent studies conducted on the comparison of Korean and Japanese cherry blossoms found that the two trees can be categorized as distinct species, but the Korean species apparently has no scientific name, yet.
Experts believe the cherry tree originated somewhere in the Himalayas in middle of the Eurasian continent and spread out to East Asia and elsewhere. But, cherry trees made its way to Japan probably introduced by birds several million years ago and spread-out all-over Japan before the prehistoric age. Thus, it’s concluded that Japanese cherry trees are indigenous to Japan.
McClellan, A. (2005). The cherry blossom festival: Sakura celebration. Charleston: Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
Shinsenen is the oldest existing garden in Kyoto and dates back to the Heian era and derives its name from the pure water which came from a natural spring. The walled Chinese-style garden is all that remains of Emperor Kanmu’s original palace and pleasure garden and built from 794 when the capital moved to Heian-kyō.
Conan, Michael & Kress, W. John (2007). Botanical progress, horticultural innovation, and cultural changes. Washington, DC: Harvard University Press.
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 (shogunate), and the country’s 300 regional daimyou (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.
Murasaki completed the Tale of Genji in its present form by 1021 AD. The work is generally considered one of the most significant works of Japanese literature and the world’s first novel. The author’s real name is unknown; it’s presumed she acquired the“nickname” of Murasaki from the name of the heroine of her novel, and the name Shikibu reflects her father’s position at the Bureau of Rites. She was born into a lesser branch of the noble and highly influential Fujiwara family and was well educated, having learned Chinese (generally, the exclusive sphere of males). She married a much older distant cousin, Fujiwara Nobutaka, and bore him a daughter, but after two years of marriage, he died.
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/#.W1LhgC2ZPRY.
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
Awagi, Shigeru (n.d.). Sakura and the Japanese mind. Retrieved from: http://www.simplyhaiku.com/SHv2n4/features/Shigeru_Awagi.html
Giletto, Joseph Basil (2017). Mystical memories. Outskirts Press: Parker, CO.
Not Without My Passport (2016, April 2). The meaning of the cherry blossoms in Japan: Life death and renewal [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://notwithoutmypassport.com/cherry-blossom-meaning-in-japan/
Mujou (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.
Buchele, Grace (2013, June 13). Texan in Tokyo Blog: What the sakura cherry blossoms and hanami say about Japanese love for beauty [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://gracebuchele.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/what-the-sakura-cherry-blossoms-and-hanami-say-about-japanese-love-for-beauty/
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
McClellan, A. (2005). The cherry blossom festival: Sakura celebration. Charleston: Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
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 Shokuhou period 織豊and is derived from the family names of the period’s two leaders: Shoku (for Oda) and Hou(for Toyotomi).
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
Star, Marky (2017, April 4). The history of hanami. Japan This! Retrieved from https://japanthis.com/2017/04/04/history-of-hanami/
Senyruu (川柳) poetry tends to be about human weaknesses or eccentricities, while haiku tend to be about nature. Also, unlike haiku poetry, which is more solemn, senryuu is more pessimistic or darkly humorous. Unlike haiku, senryuu doesn’t include a kireji (切れ字) or “cutting word” and doesn’t add a kigo (季語) or “season word.”
Pizzarelli, Alan (Ed.). (2006). The serious side of senyru. Simply Haiku. Retrieved fromhttp://www.simplyhaiku.com/SHv4n3/senryu/senryu.html.
Genroku is a Japanese year name after Tokyo and before Hoei. This period traversed the years from September 1688 through March 1704. The reigning emperor was Higashiyama-tennō.
Star, Marky (2017, April 4). The history of hanami. Japan This! Retrieved from: https://japanthis.com/2017/04/04/history-of-hanami/
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/#.W29QKS2ZPRa.
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.
The concept of kami might 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 Kami in http://www.socsci.uci.edu/~rgarfias/aris/courses/japan/kami
Satoyama (里山) isn’t a place, but a concept. It’s a Japanese term applied to the border zone or area between mountain foothills and flat arable land. Sato 里 means “village,” and yama 山 means “hill or mountain.” Satoyama have been developed through centuries of small-scale agricultural and forestry use.
There are several ways to define the concept of satoyama. First, as the management of forests through local agricultural communities. During the Edo period, young and fallen leaves were gathered from community forests to use as fertilizer in wet rice paddy fields. Villagers also used wood for construction, cooking, and heating. More recently, satoyama has been defined not only as mixed community forests but also as entire landscapes used for agriculture. According to this definition, satoyama contains a mosaic of mixed forests, rice paddy fields, dry rice fields, grasslands, streams, ponds, and reservoirs for irrigation. Farmers use the grasslands to feed horses and cattle. Streams, ponds, and reservoirs play a vital role in adjusting water levels of paddy fields and farming fish as a food source.
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 (Kyoto-Osaka), Jigami (Inland Sea area), Ushigami (Kyushu).
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
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
Shugendou (修験道) can be loosely translated as “path of training to achieve spiritual powers.” Shugendou is a vital Shinto-Buddha combinatory sect that blends pre-Buddhist mountain worship, called Kannabi Shinkou (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.
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
Hoffman, Michael. (2012, March 25). Sakura: Soul of Japan: Through the ages, cherry trees in blossom have inspired parties and poetry. The Japan Times. Tōkyo. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/03/25/general/sakura-soul-of-japan/#.WdILGNuZPyV
Suzuki, Daisetz T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.104170/2015.104170.Zen-And-Japanese-Culture_djvu.txt.
Suzuki, Daisetz T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.104170/2015.104170.Zen-And-Japanese-Culture_djvu.txt.
The poet and novelist Ihara Saikaku delighted readers with his “floating world” genre of Japanese prose, called ukiyo-zoushi (浮世草子), offering realistic and racy accounts of the erotic and financial affairs of the merchant class in the Edo period. He’s best known for his novels reflecting a time in Japanese society when the merchant class has risen to such prominence that its tastes prevailed in the arts and the licensed pleasure quarters catered to its whims.
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.
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.
Hana 花 means “flower,” and fubuki (吹雪), means “snowstorm,” so it means “flower snowstorm,” or more commonly, “storm of falling cherry blossoms.”
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.”
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.
The kanji for fu 風 and the same used in fushui 風水 (“wind-water”). Fu shui is an abstract concept dealing with the placement of everything in the world, including ourselves, and how energy or chi (pronounced “chee”) flows around and harmonizes us with our surrounding environment.
H.E. Davey (2003). The Japanese way of the artist. Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, CA.
Shiseidodojo’s Blog (2010, May 9). Japanese aesthetics: Furyu. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://shiseidodojo.wordpress.com/2010/05/09/japanese-aesthetics-furyu/.
Davey, H.E. (2003). The Japanese way of the artist. Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, CA.
Davey, H.E. (2003). The Japanese way of the artist. Stone Bridge Press: Berkeley, CA
Brussat, Frederic & Brussat, Mary Ann (n.d.). Book Review: Living the Japanese arts and ways: 45 paths to meditation and beauty. [ H.E. Davey]. Spirituality & Living. Retrieved from http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/view/5531.
Suzuki, Daisetz T. (1959). Zen and Japanese Culture. Routledge and Kegan Paul: London. Retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.104170/2015.104170.Zen-And-Japanese-Culture_djvu.txt.
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
Lomas, Thomas (2016, February 22). Untranslatable Words: Mono no aware, and the aesthetics of impermanence. [Blog post]. HuffPost. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tim-lomas/untranslatable-words-mono_b_9292490.html.
Accompanying mono no aware 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.
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/
[] Ame ni mo makezu (Be not Defeated by the Rain) is a famous poem written by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), a poet from Iwate Prefecture in Japan. The poem was found posthumously in a small black notebook in one of the poet’s trunks. Miyazawa was practically unknown as a poet in his lifetime; his work gained its reputation posthumously and went through a boom in popularity by the mid-1990s on his centennial.
Bass, Ron (Producer), et al., & Hicks, Scott (Director). (1999). Snow falls on cedar. [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
The Haiku Apprentice (2014). Learning haiku by reading and doing: A daily diet of poetry [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.haikuapprentice.com/p/a-poem-by-basho-from-his-first-travel.html.
Barnhill, David L. (n.d.). Sorrow and blossoms: The poetry of Saigyō. Retrieved from https://www.uwosh.edu/facstaff/barnhill/244-japan/Saigyo%20-%20Sorrow%20and%20Blossoms.pdf.
Barnhill, David L. (n.d.). Sorrow and blossoms: The poetry of Saigyo. Retrieved from https://www.uwosh.edu/facstaff/barnhill/244-japan/Saigyo%20-%20Sorrow%20and%20Blossoms.pdf.