Just cherry blossoms in Japan? Of course no! These are five flowers typical of Japan with a bit of history and tradition. Except for number three, the others may be feminine names.
1. Cherry blossom (桜 – Sakura)
I never said that I wasn’t going to mention it, because it would be illogical to skip it.
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. I have a lot of things on which cherry blossom is reproduced, also because I love pink: bento box, hone cases, keychains, fans, etc …
The cherry blossom, as well as its leaf, is edible: I will add a more specific article on the subject within a few months, in spring.
Over the centuries, it has become the flower of choice for hanami, although it is not the only one, especially older people do hanami even under the prunes or wisterias.
The cherry blossom is also 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: dazzling but passing glory; that is, 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 and cherry blossoms were painted on aircrafts fuselages, meaning that just like cherry blossoms, soldiers would do their duty in battle, then fall like petals.
2. Chrysanthemum (菊 – Kiku)
When you see chrysanthemums, it means that the 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 in the fall during the first cold, and 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 it is used for any occasion; chrysanthemum, like cherry blossoms, is 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 chrysanthemum petals grow upward and inward, giving the flower a round shape that recalls the full Moon. In shows, then, the chrysanthemums so formed are arranged in groups of three, with the central flower somewhat 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.
3. The 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 in her place. In fact, unlike what happens in Europe, red carnation symbolizes purity and sweetness.
Carnation cultivation was introduced in Japan in 1909 with seeds from the United States, summing up in time to world production, one of the most florid.
If you are 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.
4. Peony (牡丹 – Botan)
I didn’t plan to include it, but it’s one of my favorite flowers. I’ve always had in my garden and I rediscovered them with Gossip Girl – peonies are Blair’s favorite flowers.
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: one of the walks that are more easily reachable by tourists is the one in 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 find them under straw patches.
The custom of using peony in tattoos comes from some paintings ukiyo-e where gamblers were represented with the tattoo well in sight; from here on, 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. Again in tattoos, but not alone, peony serves to mitigate the strength of the other element (usually a lion) 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!
5. Camellia (椿 – Tsubaki)
The most famous Japanese legend that includes the birth of camellia is that of Yamata no Orochi, the eight-headed daemon, 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 the bloody sword on the grass, in a point where white but red spotted flowers were born: the camellias, in fact, symbolizing all the young women sacrificed to Orochi.
Although the camellia was highly appreciated by the Japanese aristocracy, the flower did not always have positive connotations for the samurai class: the samurai tended not to love the camellia because, unlike the cherry blossoms whose petals disperse little by little in the wind, camellia loose its petals simultaneously, falling to the ground when the flower is dry, 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. I’ll refer you to another article about Shimane and while it’s famous for relationships and marriage.