As Spring unfolds in the northern hemisphere the cherry trees are blossoming in Japan. In 2017 the Sakura season officially began on March 21st and overall will last a few short weeks. Reports from friends capture the thrill of seeing the first blossoms appear in different parts of the country. Timing is of the essence as the best viewing period can last for a little over a week at a specific location. This post celebrates the blossoming of the Sakura, seasonal changes and introduces the six great elements as viewed through the lens of Ikebana. Space, time and flowers – another dimension of elemental Japan.
The Sakura blossoms symbolise the importance of the four seasons in Japan, the beginning of Spring (Gregorian style) and the ephemeral nature of life. They also reflect changes in the elements in space and time. The 3008 km long Japanese archipelago sets the scene for a moving visual feast of beautiful blossoms that express themselves in sequence from the south-east to the north-west. Changes in temperature are the main driver of this broad pattern, with local variations.
It is delightful that these soft, delicate flowers can attract so much attention and admiration. The awe and wonder the Sakura blossoms are held in finds expression in many art forms in Japan – from paintings and confectionary, to fabrics and tea bowls.
The current focus on the four seasons in Japan builds on more detailed divisions of 24 major seasons and 72 microseasons used in ancient times. These frequent observations indicate an intimate understanding of natural phenomenon, including the elements.
A few years prior to the App being released, Liza Dalby drew on the 72 microseasons for the structure for her book ‘East Wind Melts the Ice: a Memoir through the Seasons’. As noted by the publisher, the 72 chapters transport the reader between Japan, California and China, weaving Dalby’s memories of living in Japan (and becoming the first and only non-Japanese geisha), her observations on the recurring phenomena of the natural world, and meditations on the cultural aesthetics of the 3 countries captured in the book. I really like the idea of taking notice of changes in the world of nature at this time scale.
The Japanese art of Ikebana represents another connection between flowers and the elements in Japan. In this case the flowers represent the elements in space at one point in time. The book ‘Heaven and Earth are Flowers – Reflections on Ikebana and Buddhism‘ (Stamm 2010) discusses the six great elements of earth, air, fire, water, space and consciousness in the context of selecting and arranging flowers Japanese style.
The cherry blossom season, and associated viewing parties (hanami), have been described as one of the most remarkable natural events in Japan. It would have to be high on the list and certainly generates intense interest for Japanese people and visitors alike. The short period available for viewing focuses both attention and activities. In general flowers are valued highly in Japan. To appreciate and experience their beauty to the fullest, space, time and the elements are an important part of the story.
In December 2017 I came across another blog post about flowers and time in Japan, in this case in relation to the work ‘Shobogenzo‘ by Dogen, a major figure in the history of Soto Zen Buddhism. This is the quote from the post ‘Time of flower‘.
A tall bamboo is long. Although it is moved by yin and yang, the months and years of the tall bamboo move yin and yang.
––– Painting a Rice Cake, Shobogenzo.
The quote and related blog provides much food for thought, especially as Yinyang is intimately related to the five Chinese elements/phases. Dogen also wrote about the Buddhist ‘great’ elements. Reference to both Chinese and Indian (Buddhist) elements is a pattern that I’m increasingly discovering in elemental Japan.
Postscript: The day I published this post my sister Ruth and I had lunch at a cafe in Melbourne called ‘Lentil as Anything’. To our surprise there were cherry blossoms and references to Japan throughout the establishment, starting with the sign outside. I saw these sightings as a symbol of the universal appeal of these fleeting flowers.