Hail to the Sakura Spirit!

Every time I see the blossoming of cherry trees in Vancouver, I am reminded of past occasions when I visited Japan in the spring time. Each time I was awed by scene after scene of silently and profusely flowering sakura trees, artfully planted almost in a protective way, to frame esthetic and symbolic architecture like palaces, temples, pagodas and shrines.

It is natural that Shinto-believing Japanese are passionately drawn to the evanescent but raging delicate beauty that the sakura blooms exude, as it is their ethnic religion to believe in nature’s spirit. While nature can sometimes be cruel and vicious to people on earth, it is also capable of creating and displaying ultimate unworldly beauty for earthly beings to enjoy. As shown in one of Japan’s most famous fables, The Old Man and the Cherry Tree, it is the nation’s popular belief that the sakura tree spirit has sought to reciprocate the Japanese folks’ love for the plant. This undying sacred love between the Japanese and the sakura blossoms has been evident for thousands of years despite periodic natural disasters that have been ravaging the Japanese islands.

The Hanami (sakura blossoms viewing) celebration is said to have started in the Nara period (710 – 784 AD). In the feudal Heian period, the practice of sakura viewing was restricted to the Imperial Court and was something that was imported from China’s Tang dynasty, when it was customary for emperors and nobility to hold ceremonial viewing of plum blossoms, admiring their cold-defying spunk. The Hanami ceremony consisted of drinking sake, eating, creating and reciting poetry under blossoming sakura trees. Later, it came to be adopted by the Samurai, who believed that a short life could be a beautiful life too and it didn’t matter how short it was as long as it was lived honorably. Then it became a customary practice for all Japanese around the late 16th century, when Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi decided to extend the practice from the nobility to the commoners.

The popular sakura tree fable goes like this:-

An old man and his wife were leading a humble life and their only amusement was tending to their dog and viewing sakura blossoms in the spring. One year when they went out to the garden to admire the cherry blossoms, the dog began scratching the ground near one sakura tree. When the old couple looked into the hole that their dog had dug, they found a heap of gold coins there. The treasure eventually helped them end their poverty.

Then a neighbor heard about the gold coin story and asked to borrow the couple’s dog. When the dog failed to retrieve any gold coins from the ground for him, an evil thought came over him and he killed the animal. The old couple were very upset by the death of their pet and they buried it under one of the sakura trees in their garden, hoping its spirit would inhabit the tree. When they eventually had to prune the tree, they took a cut branch and made it into a wooden bowl.

There was a famine that year and very little rice was available for purchase. When the wife used the wooden bowl for the first time, she found that the flour made from a few grains of rice was overflowing from the bowl. She knew it was the dog’s spirit in the tree branch that was watching over the couple’s welfare. Having a golden heart, the couple used the magical bowl to provide food for other villagers during the famine.

Now the evil-minded neighbor heard about the bowl and tricked the couple into lending it to him. When he used the bowl though, he was taken aback to see stinging insects crawling out instead of flour flowing out. In a fit of anger, he burned the wooden bowl into ashes.

The old couple sadly collected the ashes and sprinkled some over their dog’s grave under one of their sakura trees. The tree immediately began to bloom although it was still too cold for blossoms to appear. The old man then sprinkled the remaining ashes to make other sakura trees come into bloom out of season.

Let’s hope that the sakura spirit will remind the Japanese people of their innate mettle and tenacity in the face of hardship, and help them through their unfortunate affliction caused by the tsunami.