When five shell-pink buds open together on a particular tree in the precincts of Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo, the city explodes with the joy of spring. The cherry-blossom season has officially begun!
But the crowded picnics beneath the graceful Somei-Yoshino trees are only part of the story. If you walk among the hills of Yoshino itself, a small town in the hills some 30 km north of Nara, you will discover something older, and deeper.
There, as in many other mountainous areas, cherry blossoms are in their natural habitat, blurring with the soft greens of spring. If the morning mist is rising, and a bush warbler is singing, so much the better. Now you understand: This is where Japan’s long love affair with cherry blossoms began.
“The thinnest ice Retreats like cherry blossoms Deep in the mountains.”
By Shoshi Fujita (1926-), quoted in “A Hidden Pond” by Koko Kato and David Burleigh (Kadokawa Shoten, 1997)
Yamazakua, or “Japanese mountain cherries” (Prunus serrulata var. spontanea), grow at the forest edge and are tough enough to withstand winter’s snow and ice. But more than 1,000 years ago, the trees began to come down from their mystic mountains. People dug up saplings, or entire trees, to beautify a village, temple — or even the sacred “nine-fold” enclosure of the Emperor himself.
As Japan’s center of power moved from Nara to Kyoto and on to distant Edo (present-day Tokyo), sakura (cherry blossoms) grew into symbols of divine authority and military might. No wonder men tasked as flower guards kept watch over the finest trees.
One of the first varieties brought into cultivation was the Nara no yae-zakura, literally the “eight-fold cherry of Nara’ (P. serrulata var. pubescens). It seems that, long ago, villagers brought this rare, double-flowered cherry from the hills as an offering to the Imperial court. Although it has a short flowering season, it is quite spectacular, producing pink blossoms packed with about 30 petals.
These cultivated types became known as sato-zakura (village cherries). Many centuries-old specimens still survive in the countryside, where the tree is venerated for its endurance as much as its beauty.
When the Emperor moved to the new capital of Heian Kyo (Kyoto) in 784, the old Yae-zakura became forever tinged with nostalgia. But cherries were rising in importance. Around this time, the fragrant Chinese ume plum, which traditionally guarded the Imperial palace along with the tachibana orange, was replaced with a native cherry tree from Yoshino.
In gardens, too, the rich, poetic tastes of the age demanded charming, seasonal scenes. Often, a sole flowering cherry was planted near the veranda, where courtiers could enjoy every detail. Groups of other cherries were planted in the middle distance, giving way to vistas of wild cherries lighting up the wooded hills beyond.
In her 10th-century portrait of court life, Sei Shonagon writes, “It is a great pleasure to break off a long, beautifully flowering branch from a cherry tree and arrange it in a large vase. What a delightful task to perform when a visitor is seated nearby conversing! I am even happier if a butterfly or a small bird flutters prettily near the flowers and I can see its face.” (From “Makura no Soshi” ["The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon"], translated by Ivan Morris [Penguin].)
But the idyll did not last. By the 1200s, warlords from distant Kamakura (in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture) were in charge of Kyoto. Uprooting the old Yoshino cherry, they planted an obedient Emperor on the throne, and a tree from their own domain at his gate. This was an Oshima cherry, native to the Izu coast of present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. Not only did it have much larger, single flowers, but it was also fragrant and more fertile, too.
Luckily, their Oshima cherries readily cross-fertilized with the local sakura, to produce a new dynasty of fine cultivars. And incidentally, the leaves of Oshima cherries (P. serrulata var. speciosa) are still used for wrapping sakura-mochi dumplings.
Another Kamakura “invader” evoked images of elephants charging through heavenly clouds of blossom. This was a variety called Fugen-zo, originally from a Kamakura temple dedicated to the Buddhist sage Fugen. According to legend, the sage rides a white, six-tusked elephant shod in lotus flowers.
Curiously, Fugen-zo is infertile, but gardeners managed to keep propagating it through centuries of warfare and change. It makes a magnificent, tall tree, and even as a youngster its branches can be laden with clusters of double, pink-white blossoms and bronze leaves. It flowers in late April.
By the 1600s, power had shifted to Edo, the shogun’s capital in the east. In the backwater of Kyoto, the old nobility found comfort in their plants, aided by gardeners experienced in seedling selection, grafting and the arts of cultivation.
The heads of the Ninna-ji Temple, for example, gradually gathered a fine collection of cherry trees. Here, you can see rare cultivars such as Ukon, Asagi and Kizakura, which bear pale-yellow or even green blossoms streaked with pink. Perhaps the most popular, however, are the temple’s mysteriously stunted Omuro cherries.
As an old rhyme goes: “I love plain women, even though, like the Omuro cherries, their flowers are low !” This is a typical pun on hana, which means both “flower” and “nose.”
Meanwhile, the Tokugawa shoguns were busy making a “flowery capital” of their own. The peaceful Edo Period (1603-1867) gave wealthy samurai the chance to collect plants and create superb gardens. Rikugi-en Garden, near Komagame, is a rare survivor of the age, famous for its breathtaking shidare-zakura (weeping cherry), crowded with pink blossoms in early April.
But for crowded townspeople, bonsai trees were ideal — and one local species of cherry proved a star performer. This was the mame-zakura or Fuji cherry (P. incisa), a slow-grower from the ashy slopes in the area around Mount Fuji. No doubt travelers spotted it as they made their way along the Nakasendo, the mountain route connecting Edo and Kyoto.
The Fuji cherry bears small, single flowers with a distinctive nick in the petals. Its leaves develop brilliant autumn colors, and its general toughness suits it for life in miniature.
By the 18th century, cherry-blossom viewing was something the masses could enjoy. But the demand for flowers made for some sorry sights. Throughout his life, the poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) noted the suffering of cherry trees, uprooted and sold off, like young country girls, in the heartless “pleasure district” of Edo. One time, he put it like this:
“Wild mountain cherries, They must think all men are devils!”
Despite all these journeys, it was now time for Japanese cherries to travel even further. When Japan opened up to the outside world, in the late 19th century, huge quantities of lilies, azaleas, irises and other exotic plants were shipped off to eager buyers in the West.
But just as some of the made-for-export china was gaudy, so were some of the cherry trees. During the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the vivid pink blooms of the Kanzan variety took hold in Europe. As a child in England, I saw whole streets planted with Kanzan cherry trees. As the blossoms fell, intact, to the ground, they looked like ballerinas. Or sugar-plum fairies.
Fortunately, Japan’s famous gift of cherry trees to Washington D.C. in 1912 included 1,000 Somei-Yoshino saplings — which brings us full circle, to the most popular cherry blossom planted today.
Its parents are the wild Edo-higan (P. spachiana), a pretty, long-lived cherry from the Kanto region, and our old friends the Oshima cherries from the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). Somei-Yoshinos flower on bare branches in late March, when each pale-pink bud opens as five white petals.
But after the petals have fallen, cherry trees give us yet more. There’s jewel-like fruits in summer. Burnished leaves in autumn. Shining bark in winter. And even brave little blossoms, as thin as snowflakes, that dance in the cold winds of February. This is the generous spirit of sakura, a constant companion through life.