Speaking of cherry blossoms and hanami, one can not fail to mention a few stories besides the various traditions. Even those who don’t like ghost stories will certainly appreciate what follows, if they have a minimum of sensitivity.
Koizumi Yakumo (1850-1904), the Japanese name of Lafcadio Hearn, was a Greek-Irish writer who dedicated his last years to the collection and writing of many Japanese ghost stories. Koizumi arrived in Japan to work as a newspaper correspondent, but soon discovered a love for Japanese culture and settled in Matsue, in Shimane Prefecture, where he worked as a teacher in a local school, alongside his literary activity. After a few years he married a Japanese woman belonging to a local samurai family, Koizumi Setsu, and was naturalized Japanese.
His nephew, after having experienced a ghost tour on a trip to Ireland, decided to create a similar tour in the city of Matsue, whose participants, in the evening, can visit several places that are haunted by ghosts, including a temple.
The following story, Jiu-Roku-Zakura, or The cherry of the sixteenth day is taken from the Koizumi / Hearn collection, Kaidan (怪談): Stories and Studies on strange things.
In the district of Wakegori, in the province of Iyo, lived an elderly samurai. He had no one in the world, for he had long buried all the members of his family; the only thing he had was the old cherry tree in the garden, planted by his ancestors, under whose fronds he used to play as a child and to which his family used to hang strips of paper with poems of praise.
The tree used to bloom at the beginning of April, like all the other cherry trees in the area. A year, however, the samurai saw the dear cherry tree wither and then die.
The neighbors, moved by the sorrow of the samurai, decided to give him the gift of a young and magnificent cherry tree and planted it in his garden. The samurai thanked and simulated his happiness, but nothing could replace the old cherry tree that had accompanied him and that he had loved for so many years.
On the sixteenth day of the first month of the lunar calendar, the samurai recalled a way in which one could save a dying tree; and kneeling down before the cherry tree, he said this words to it: “Now deign, I beseech you, once more to bloom, because I am going to die in your stead”. After pronouncing the words, the samurai spread a white cloth at the foot of the cherry tree and performed hara-kiri. His ghost entered the cherry tree, which bloomed immediately.
In fact it is believed that a one can give one’s life to save another, if the deities are favorable. This is the concept of acting as a substitute, migawari ni tatsu.
From that day, every year, the cherry tree blooms the sixteenth day of the first month and only that day, in the period of great cold, because what makes it blooming is a spirit that, at least at the beginning, was not its own, but that of the samurai.
Articles related to Matsue and Shimane Prefecture:
Japanese Legends: Prince Ōkuninushi and the hare of Inaba
Twelve Japanese Castles – first part