The tenno’s own cherry tree
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 11, 2009
WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED that cherry trees are the stuff of legend both in North America and Japan? Every American, for example, is familiar with the fable of a young George Washington, who chopped down a cherry tree during his misspent youth while looking for some action with a new hatchet. Washington is said to have copped to the deed when his father asked him about it point blank. Little Georgie’s honesty won him parental praise instead of the expected punishment for vandalizing the property. Today they’d probably stuff him with Ritalin.
It turns out this story depicting the father of his country as a moral exemplar was concocted by Parson Mason Weems to boost sales of his biography of Washington, the first one written. Perhaps juicing the tale with a little fiction helped—the book ran to 82 editions, the last of which was published in 1927, and it was translated into French. I’m not sure why they wanted to read it—the French certainly have no problems when it comes to creating myths about Gallic public figures.
The Japanese have their own cock-and-bull story about a cherry tree, which is not surprising considering the number of cherry trees in this country and the quantity of cock-and-bull artists to be found in the drinking establishments of any country. But this one concerns the planting of a tree, rather than the destruction of one.
The photo shows a cherry tree of the shidarezakura variety–literally “drooping branch cherry”–on the grounds of the Kumano-Nachi Shinto shrine in Nachikatsu’ura-cho, Wakayama. The shidarezakura, native to Japan, is known to botanists as the prunus pendula, but normal people in the English-speaking world call it the weeping cherry.
This one is deemed worthy of a newspaper photograph because legend has it that it was planted by the Go-Shirakawa Tenno (emperor), who sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne from 1155 to 1158. Now that can’t be right—the life span of the more common Yoshino cherry is 40-50 years, and drooping isn’t going to extend a cherry tree’s life by nearly a millennium.
The shrine insists on its polite fiction, however, and keeps it out of public view most of the year. They make an exception when it blooms, and this year the blossoms came out a week earlier than usual on 23 March.
It might not be a millennium old, but the Emperor’s Cherry, as it is sometimes called, is old enough to have grown to seven meters in height with a trunk 1.4 meters in circumference. Some of those drooping branches are eight meters long.
As often happens when doing research on what seems to be an innocuous story in Japan, other interesting details come to light. For example, this tree is said to be depicted in the Kumano-Nachi Sankei Mandala, or Mandala of a Visit to Kumano-Nachi. The mandala dates from the early Edo period, which would make it the 17th century, so they do like their tall cherry tree tales in Wakayama. Here’s a website showing the mandala, and you can click on it to view sections in greater detail. I couldn’t positively identify the Emperor’s Cherry, but it’s probably in there somewhere. It’s such a well-known work of art locally that high school students made their own, as you can see here. It took them 50 days to paste together 234,000 pieces of paper, which is a better way for teenagers to spend their spare time instead of running around with a hatchet in a cherry orchard.
Go-Shirakawa Tenno, incidentally, was the 77th emperor, and though his reign lasted but three years, he survived long enough to pull strings behind the scenes for another 34. That means he might have outlasted the original cherry tree he planted, despite the stories to the contrary!
Not all is elegance and sweet myth at the Kumano-Nachi shrine, either. Revisit if you will this previous post on the shrine’s fire festival. Those are some serious torches the guys are carrying. And just to make sure that the whole place is pure before the festival, the priests hang a shimenawa, or a sacred rope, at the top of a nearby waterfall. Purity of spirit is not for the faint of heart in Japan!
Since this is cherry blossom season, don’t miss the updated predictions on the cherry blooming front from the Japanese Meteorological Agency here, or on the right sidebar.