Ando Hiroshige, Cherry Blossom in Yoshiwara at Night, from the series Famous Views of the Eastern Capital, 1856, woodblock colour print, Tikotin collection
April 25th - June 29th, 2002
Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer
In Japan, the first sign of spring is the cherry blossom (sakura). The sakura flowers only for a short while, about a week, and has become the symbol of a transient world, its pink and white flowers conveying the traditional Japanese values of purity and simplicity.
The cherry is frequently referred to in Japanese literature. The word "sakura" was already in use in the Kojiki, the "Record of Ancient Things", completed in 712, and in the Manyoshu, the "Collection of the Ten Thousand Leaves", an anthology of poetry edited in 760, containing some forty poems about the flowering cherry. In the Heian era (794-1185) one had only to say "flower" or "blossom" to be understood as referring to the cherry. The cherry-blossom festival had already become an annual event in the time of the Emperor Saga, who reigned from 809 to 823, and he and his court banqueted beneath the blossoming trees. This custom apparently derived from the peasants' ancient tradition of celebrating the onset of spring, the season for planting the rice, by going out to picnic in the mountains and fields. In the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1600), under the aegis of the military commander Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), splendid festivities took place at the Daigoji Temple in south-eastern Kyoto. During the Tokogawa era (1603-1868) the celebrations were taken over by the ordinary folk. Many cherry trees were planted in Edo (today Tokyo), and the expression Hanami - "looking at flowers", is a synonym for these popular springtime events, and is still used today. During cherry-blossom week, the Japanese picnic beneath the trees, drinking sake (rice wine), singing and dancing and contemplating the branches laden with blossom. In some areas, the date for the celebration is still determined in accordance with the old lunar calendar.
Many Japanese artists have depicted the flowering trees and the spring celebrations. They were favourite subjects in Ando Hiroshige's (1797-1858) coloured woodblock prints. Today, the arts and entertainments of the Tokugawa period have even been adopted by the media, as they report on the progress of the cherry blossom throughout Japan, presenting views of famous sites in flower, like Yoshino Mountain in Nara, Arashiyama in Kyoto, and Ueno Park and the banks of the Sumida River in Tokyo.
Influenced by ancient Chinese poetry, the Japanese poets also refer to the plum blossom (ume) as a harbinger of spring. The word is first found in the Kaifuso (751), a collection of Japanese poetry in the Chinese style about the arrival of spring. Many poems about the plum blossom also appear in the Manyoshu. The five-petalled plum flowers open at the onset of spring, and have their own delicate scent. The fruit ripens at the beginning of the summer, and is used for making wine, vinegar, and pickles (umeboshi). Textile dyes are also extracted, and the fruit is said to have many medicinal properties. The plum flower is a favourite design motif, especially on lacquer, and in textiles and family crests. During the Edo period they started using a decorative motif incorporating pine, bamboo, and plum trees (shochikubai) as an emblem of good fortune. One reason for this is the harmonious combination of the lively green of the pine and bamboo contrasting with the red blossoms of the plum. Thus the plum is closely connected to everyday living in Japan.
The particular relationship of the Japanese with the seasons is an indication of their constant awareness of all natural manifestations. Enjoying the flowers of the spring is a dominant motif in the literature, dance, and arts of Japan, and this is evident in the exhibition.