Just cherry blossoms in Japan? Of course no! These are 5 flowers typical of Japan, with a bit of history and tradition. Except for number three, the others may be feminine names.
Cherry blossoms (桜 – Sakura)
You know, cherry blossoms are everywhere in Japan: wherever you turn, you’ll find depictions of blooming cherry blossoms, from whole branches to some buds or petals floating in the breeze: bento boxes, phone cases, keychains, fans, etc … Cherry blossoms, as well as the leaf, are edible. Over the centuries, it has become the flower of choice for hanami, although it is not the only one. In fact more and more people do hanami under prunes or wisterias.
The cherry blossom can be found in the samurai motto, written above, hana wa sakuragi hito wa bushi – among the flowers the cherry blossom, among the people the warrior. This is because the cherry blossom perfectly sums the feelings that govern the life of a warrior: a dazzling but passing glory; that is, a stunning but short-lived flowering. In more recent times, however, cherry blossoms have been used in the military propaganda during World War II. The pilots kept petals or small branches of cherry blossoms in the cockpit. Cherry blossoms were painted on aircrafts fuselages, meaning that just like cherry blossoms, soldiers would do their duty in battle, then fall like petals.
Chrysanthemum (菊 – Kiku)
When you see chrysanthemums, it means that autumn has arrived. There are about 1,500 varieties of chrysanthemums in Japan, each with different shapes and colors, and the best way to admire them is during flower shows. In Japan, chrysanthemum is considered a symbol of vitality and long life, because it blossoms during the first cold. In the past it was adopted in the coats of arms of aristocratic and samurai families, as well as of the imperial family. Today it is also found on passports, symbolizing the entire state.
Although initially used mainly in funerals, today chrysanthemums are used in any occasion; chrysanthemums, like cherry blossoms, are used in the kitchen, alone (for example, in tenpura) or in accompanying other dishes. Chrysanthemum is most appreciated in shows, as mentioned, in gardens and during festivals. There are several techniques of growth to develop the flower in certain forms, but the most popular is the choji, or when the petals grow upward and inward, giving the flower a round shape that recalls the full Moon. The chrysanthemums so formed are arranged in groups of three, with the central flower higher than the other two. This composition is meant to represent the relationship of humans with nature: the central chrysanthemum symbolizes heaven, the one on the right humanity, and the one on the left the Earth.
Carnation (カ ー ネ シ ョ ン – Kānēshon)
In Japan, carnation is the symbol of Mother’s Day: red carnation bouquets are given together with small presents, combined with universal gestures, such as cooking for your mother or cleaning home for her. In fact, unlike what happens in Europe, red carnation symbolizes purity and sweetness. Cultivation was introduced in Japan in 1909 with seeds from the United States, and it became one of the most florid.
If you’re a fan of TV and/or Japanese history, a few years ago NHK has been broadcasting an asadora, titled Carnation, which tells the life of Japanese designer Koshino Ayako, mother of stylists and designers Hiroko, Junko and Michiko.
Peony (牡丹 – Botan)
Peony is a flower not originating in Japan, but imported from China by Buddhist monks and initially used for its medicinal properties. You will find peonies near many Japanese temples and shrines, like Hase-dera in Nara. If you want to go slightly off the tourist paths, you can find beautiful peonies in the prefectures of Shimane (Yuushien Garden, for example) and Niigata. Don’t worry if you don’t visit in spring, because most of the gardens also have winter peony varieties: the blooming is delayed and you can find them under straw patches.
The custom of using peony in tattoos comes from some ukiyo-e paintings where gamblers were represented with their tattoo well in sight. Since then a tattooed peony symbolizes a masculine attitude, combined with little attention to rules, love for risk, and not thinking about the consequences of one’s actions. In combination with other elements (in many cases a lion), peony serves to mitigate their strength to get a tattoo that symbolizes the relationship between Ying and Yang. Instead, if used in floral or pictorial representations, peony is a symbol of good wish that is identified with nobleness. Don’t mix these two meanings!
Camellia (椿 – Tsubaki)
The most famous Japanese legend that includes the birth of camellia is that of Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed demon, who devoured each year a girl offered in sacrifice. God Susanoo promised that, if he could marry Princess Inada, he would save the target town from the monster. It is said that, after the fight, the god had left his bloody sword on the grass, in a point where white but red spotted flowers were born: the camellias, symbolizing all the young women sacrificed to Orochi.
Although the camellia was highly appreciated by the Japanese aristocracy, the flower didn’t always have positive connotations: the samurai tended not to love camellia because the flower lose its petals simultaneously, symbolizing prematurely broken life. An interesting variety of camellia is the meoto-tsubaki, consisting of two roots and a single body, which, as often as it may withered, will always be born again in this way. This camellia represents the couple, that is, two bodies, but one spirit. You can find it in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, Yaegaki-jinja Shrine, dedicated to god Susanoo and Princess Inada, famous for the divination and the ability to favor encounters.