Hanami with a shot of history


Vancouver, Canada, is a beautiful city. Not only for the magnificent mountains, for salmon spawning rivers, and a largely natural coast, but for the city’s many trees. I am told that Vancouver has 124,000 street trees, 30,000 of which flower. The cherry trees especially are glorious.

A friend recently sent me a clipping from the Vancouver Courier, dated March 23. A resident of West 39th Avenue was reported there as being horrified to see a parks-board crew lopping the avenue’s magnificent cherry trees off at the top. These trees formed a glorious tunnel of flowers over the street when in bloom, and a cool arbor of shade in summer. Apparently, though, they were being pollarded because the city engineer planned to put in a new water main and they were supposedly in the way of the equipment.

Peter Sven, the horrified resident, protested strongly and got the city to stop the pruning. City engineers then agreed their work could be completed without such drastic cutting, so half the trees were saved. It will take a few years for the rest to grow out again. It’s nice to know there are fellow souls who care about trees.

I have a favorite cherry tree here in Kurohime near my home in Nagano Prefecture. It is in a tiny park just a short walk from my house. Actually, I might boast that this tree, called the Kantei Sakura, is world famous. In 1989 a BBC crew came to Japan to film a series called “Nihongo,” which has since been screened in more than 100 countries. As Kurohime is the home of the famous haiku poet Issa, not to mention yours truly, they came here to make one section of the series. This was at the end of April, which is when our old cherry usually blooms.

Here, cherry blossom comes when the peaks of Kurohime, Myoko, Iizuna, Togakushi and Madarao are still white and glistening with snow, which makes for a spectacular view to go with our cherry flowers. It is breathtaking to sit by the old tree while celebrating hanami and watch the sun go down behind Kurohime mountain on a clear evening. When the conditions are right, and there are ice crystals in the upper air, golden sun rays shoot out from behind the mountain like a vast laser display. (I should say that the BBC saw this but didn’t film it because it was past their 6 p.m. finishing time and they had, so the director ruefully explained, “union rules.” I’d even given the blighters free booze, fried chicken, rice balls and sandwiches! The next year a Japanese TV crew happily joined our party and filmed the display of flowers, snow and light for another program.)

In these parts, the story of this cherry tree goes back to March 1701, when Asano Naganori, the young daimyo of the Ako clan in Harima (present-day western Hyogo Prefecture), was so insulted and taunted in Edo Castle by a high-ranking shogunal official called Kira Yoshinaka that he drew his sword and slashed him. As punishment for this, the clan was disbanded, its castle and lands were forfeited — and Lord Asano was ordered to commit suicide that same day. His retainers planned revenge, and in December of the following year they raided the Edo home of Kira and chopped off his head. That’s historical fact, popularly known as the revenge of the 47 ronin (masterless samurai).

Up here, our local angle on the story is that a merchant doled out free sake to the Ako warriors when they paraded through the streets of Edo with old Kira’s head. This made the merchant very unpopular with the authorities, which is why he shaved his own head and ended up in snow country as a monk called Kantei. He’s supposed to have planted our cherry tree.

A few years after the tree had been filmed by the BBC it started to die. In 1992 I asked a famous tree-doctor called Koji Yamamoto if he could treat our tree, and for this purpose I donated 1.5 million yen toward the cost. Then I got the town and local authorities to agree to the treatment . . . and to put up some more money.

Work started in 1993. We soon found out that the massive old tree was badly infected with insect larvae under the bark, and by parasitic nematode worms that were killing the roots. After all the rotting wood was cut away and the tree’s wounds were bandaged and plastered, it was injected all over with stuff to kill the larvae under the bark. The next step was to totally remove all the nematode-infested soil around the tree, disinfect the healthy roots, and replace with clean soil. This took two years of extremely painstaking work, often using tools no bigger than toothpicks.

After that, slowly dissolving multimineral fertilizer was thrust down holes in the ground in a wide circle around the tree to encourage it to push out new and far-reaching roots.

Incidentally, when he was cutting off the rotting bits, Yamamoto said that he doubted that the Kantei story was true, because he was counting more than 500 years of tree rings. Such details notwithstanding, as far as the locals are concerned the Kantei story is still the official one.

However long it has really been there, though, the poor tree had been badly abused over the years. Under the mold in the bottom of the hollow trunk we found traces of fire — perhaps because somebody long ago wanted to smoke out a bees’ nest? There was, too, the rusty old head of a fishing spear, and lots of broken glass and pottery. So it isn’t just modern cherry-blossom viewers who litter!

Afterward, as the tree began to recover, we took lots of cuttings and seeds to preserve its genetic material. A couple of dozen of the offspring are now growing in our woods. As usual, every year people gather to enjoy sake, beer and treats when the tree comes into bloom. Recently our local engineers did construction work on the small man-made stream (where we cool the beer) that runs past the tiny park where our tree grows. Elsewhere they did the job in the usual concrete, but beside the Kantei Cherry they did very attractive work using natural rocks. (Is Old Nic’s nagging getting the message across?)

Although we have managed to extend this venerable tree’s life for a little while longer, its time is running out. We will take more seeds and cuttings, and perhaps in the future its offspring will grace the park and delight people for hundreds more years to come. I like to think so anyway.

Oh, and by the way, the town gave me a medal and a certificate of gratitude for my efforts with the tree. Would it be just too ostentatious to wear it at the next hanami?