Japan from the inside out

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.

2 Responses to “The tenno’s own cherry tree”

  1. Bender said

    I’ve heard that cherry trees being planted everywhere in Japan is a recent phenomenon. By “recent” I mean that it’s post-Meiji. I believe this, since Daimyo castles were not empty parks as they are now, but filled with building complexes. They were not for townsfolk to go hanami as they are now.

    Like this picture here:

    You can see some cherry blossoms, but most of the trees seem to be pine (matsu). In fact, pines probably are in sync with the “zen” spirit of the samurais.

  2. Aki said


    Although Somei-yoshino variety of cherry has a relatively short life span, many other varieties have longer life spans. For example, the following cherry trees are estimated to be older than a thousand years.
    1) Usuzumizakura (薄墨桜) in Gifu; about 1,500 years old.
    2) Yamataka-jindaizakura (山高神代桜) in Nagano; 1,800-2,000 years old.
    3) Miharu-takizakura (三春滝桜) in Fukushima; ~1,000 years old.
    (These cherry trees are known as 日本三大桜.)

    It can be possible that the shidarezakura in the Kumano-Nachi Shinto shrine is a thousand years old, since the millenium old Miharu-takizakura mentioned above is also a shidarezakura variety.


    In the Edo period, there were several places that was famous for cherry blossoms, such as banks of Sumidagawa River, Atagoyama, Asukayama and so on. The following page has some woodcut prints of cherry blossoms in the Edo period.

    Cherry trees began to be planted in and around the city of Edo in the early 18th century when the 8th Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, encouraged people to plant cherry trees. The painting that you linked was apparently painted before that period, since the Edo castle in the painting has a donjon that was burnt down in a fire in 1657. That donjon was never reconstructed thereafter. Anyway, I agree with you that there weren’t cherry trees in castle grounds before the Meiji Restoration.

    The variety of the cherry trees planted after the Meiji Restration is in most cases Somei-yoshino, which was first raised in the Edo period but became popular only after the 19th century. You can see much more varieties of cherry trees in Kansai area around Kyoto than in Kanto area around Tokyo, because Kansai has far longer history of cherry-blossom-watching than Kanto area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: