Friday 9 April 2021

Cherry Blossom Tales - by Lesley Downer

Cherry blossoms at Yoshino. Katsushika Hokusai 1833. 
Met Museum, Rogers Fund 1922. Public domain

Like the world
Hollow as a cicada’s empty shell -
Oh cherry blossoms -
The moment that we see you bloom
You have already fallen.

                                Anonymous. From the Kokinshu anthology of poetry (915-929 AD)

April is cherry blossom season in Japan, when people gather to eat, drink, sing, make music and sometimes dance under the spreading branches of the beautiful pink cherry trees. For well over a thousand years the cherry blossoms have inspired poetry, art and stories and have held a special place in the hearts of Japanese people. 
Cherry blossom viewing on the hill of Tenjin Shrine. Utagawa
Hiroshige 1833. From the series Famous Views of Osaka.
MFA Boston. Public domain.

The most famous place of all for cherry blossom, all the way back to the time of the artist Hokusai and long before, is Mount Yoshino in Central Japan. In fact Yoshino is emblematic of cherry blossom. In poetry the word ‘Yoshino’ evokes cherry blossom and the word ‘hana’ (flowers, cherry blossom) evokes Mount Yoshino. 

Most cherry trees bear their blossom on leafless branches. First come single pink blossoms, then white blossoms, then double blossoms. The blooms last only a few days before they fall.

The Pathos of Things
The cherry blossoms are said to be like clouds as they bloom all at once and hang above the trees as if shrouding them in mist. They last just a few days before withering and falling, raining white petals all across Japan. The falling petals are often compared to snow. Their transience is what is treasured, symbolising the poignant evanescence of existence - the impermanence of all things, mono no aware, ‘the pathos of things’, the poignancy at the root of all existence, the fragility of life, beauty and love.

Cherry blossoms symbolize birth and death, beauty and violence. They are part of Shinto, part of the Japanese worship of nature, but historically they also signified the short but dramatic life of the samurai. The youthful kamikaze pilots were celebrated as being like cherry blossom, with its vivid beauty and brief existence.

So on the one hand they’re heralds of spring, of nature’s revival after the cold winter. They represent the beauty of nature, renewal of life, first love. But on the other the brevity of their existence gives them has a melancholy quality, a painful beauty.
Portrait of the Emperor Saga, Imperial
Collection, Tokyo, Japan. Public domain.

Gods inside the Cherry Trees
According to the eight century chronicle Nihon Shoki, there were cherry blossom festivals as early as the third century AD. The blossoming of the cherry trees marked the beginning of the planting season. Through the timing of the blossoming seers could divine whether the harvest would be good that year or whether the gods within the cherry trees needed to be propitiated. Worshippers made offerings of food and drink, then ate the food and drank the sake and thus the custom of eating and drinking under the cherry trees began.

In the Heian period, around the ninth century, Emperor Saga was so moved by the beauty of a particular cherry tree at Jishu Shrine (now within the Kiyomizu Temple complex in Kyoto) that he decided to hold a cherry blossom viewing party. There was eating, drinking, dancing, singing and poetry writing. Thereafter he held regular parties with sake and feasting under the blossoming boughs of the cherry trees in the Imperial Palace. 

Ki no Tomonori, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 
1840, William Sturgis Bigelow 
Collection, MFA Boston. Public domain.

People would write poems celebrating the flowers, like life itself, luminous and beautiful but fleeting and ephemeral, such as this waka (31 syllable poem) by Ki no Tomonori (850-904 AD), in the Kokinshu and also in Hyakunin Isshu (A Hundred Poems by A Hundred Poets), Japan’s most all time popular collection of poetry:

In these spring days
When tranquil light encompasses
The four directions,
Why do the blossoms scatter
With such uneasy hearts?

Cherry blossom features large in the 11th century Tale of Genji. The eighth chapter, entitled Hana no En (The Cherry Blossom Party) begins with a cherry blossom celebration with poetry, singing, drinking, eating and dancing. The party goes on well into the night. Afterwards the beautiful Prince Genji hears a lady singing a snatch of a famous poem. He catches her by the sleeve in his casual way and draws her gently inside, ‘closing the door behind them.’ Fortunately for Genji #metoo was still far in the future. 

Genji, Hana no En. Utagawa Kunisada 1857. 
From Lady Murasaki's Genji cards. 
MFA Boston. Public Domain.

The Biggest Tea Party of All Time
Up till now it was the imperial court and the samurai who enjoyed cherry blossom viewing. But then came the great warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He brought about the unification of Japan, then ushered in a glorious golden age of the arts. He particularly loved the tea ceremony. He twice invited the entire population of Kyoto to a huge tea ceremony and cherry blossom viewing. The first was in 1594 when he invited 5000 people for a huge party at Mount Yoshino.

For the second he invited 1300 guests. First he had Daigo-ji Temple in Kyoto renovated and had 700 cherry trees of different varieties brought in and planted along the approach and grounds.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi's cherry blossom viewing parade,
Daigo-ji, Fushima-ku, Kyoto Pref., Japan. 12 April 2009.
By Motokoka. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The party began with a huge procession. Dancers led the way to the doors of the huge main gate. Then came Hideyoshi’s samurai followed by yamabushi mountain ascetics and feudal lords. Hideyoshi, beaming joyously, decked out in colourful robes emblazoned with gold, was carried aloft on the shoulders of white-clad bearers. His son Hideyori followed together with his wife Nene and his concubines, including the famous beauty Lady Yodo (also known as Lady Cha-cha), the mother of the heir.

The party kept stopping for entertainment and the ascent took hours. The women changed outfits multiple times and many teahouses had been set up to cater to the 1,300 guests. Finally the entourage reached the great hall of the temple and the festivities began.

How Many Many Things They Bring to Mind

Under the Tokugawa shoguns the cultural centre shifted to Edo (now Tokyo). Successive shoguns planted cherry trees around the city. 

The eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1781), was a particular enthusiast of the cherry blossom and wanted to make cherry blossom viewing accessible to ordinary folk as well as to courtiers and samurai. He had cherry trees planted along the banks of the River Sumida, across the hills of Goten'yama in Shinagawa and along the banks of the River Tama, to provide places where impoverished commoners could relax and enjoy themselves.
Blossoms on the Tama River Embankment.
Utagawa Hiroshige 1856. MFA Boston.
Gift of Anna Ferris. Public Domain.

Meanwhile the merchants grew wealthier and wealthier. The shogunate passed sumptuary laws to prevent them from spending their wealth on ostentatious luxury. So they spent it in red-light districts, on geisha, and on cherry blossom parties in public parks. They modelled their parties on the courtly cherry blossom parties of the Heian period when the Tale of Genji was written but of course there was considerably less courtly entertainment and considerably more drink and rowdiness.

The poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote many haiku celebrating the cherry blossom and drawing on their symbolism. He wrote one melancholy nostalgic haiku when he had gone back to his old home in Iga Ueno. The cherry blossoms there reminded him of a dear friend who had died twenty years earlier, cut off in his youth:

How many many things
They bring to mind -
The cherry blossoms! 

All pictures in the public domain.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. She also appears on Netflix's Age of Samurai! For more see

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