THE pine-trees — Matsu-no-ki — of Japan are so closely and inseparably associated with the country, in the beauty of the landscape, the national customs and the national art, that it seems impossible when describing the floral year to omit the pine-trees, surely the grandest and noblest decoration of the land. They seem to welcome you to Japan, for as your ship glides up the Inland Sea the pine-trees will greet you on every side, the mountains will be clad with their eternal green, every island will have some venerable trees twisted and bent by storms and age. To the Japanese the pine is the king of trees, full of poetical suggestion and perfectly incomparable; and certainly it would be impossible to imagine Japan without her pine-trees. The impressive grandeur of every Shinto temple, every Buddhist shrine, is deepened by the grey-green trees standing in their silent gardens; they seem a necessity to such august places. Think of the pines at Uyeno or at Shiba; their merit is as great as the cherry-trees in the parks; to them and the cryptomeria belongs the task of guarding all the temples of the land. Every Tokugawa feudal castle had a moat bordered with pine-trees — how many have now been swept away and nothing left but a meaningless waste! The Imperial palace is chiefly shaded by the trees, their heavy foliage suggesting the depth of the forest. To-day every common house and garden has its guardian pine-tree at the gate.
The Japanese are very fond of visiting special meisho or "famous places," and how many of these places have been made famous by the beauty of their pine-trees, for where is the spot of natural beauty in all the country which has no pines? The three most "famous places" owe their beauty to water and the pines, nothing else. The great hokku poet Basho found himself quite unable to sing his "seventeen syllables" at Matsushima, the land of the pine-clad islands; he was a wandering poet who left a line or two wherever he went, but here he considered his silence was the greatest song of praise for the place, which he said was the best in Japan. He wrote in his diary: "One isle stands pointing up to the sky; another bows crawling over the waves; one parts at the left, another joins again at the right. The green beauty of the pine-trees is superb; the branches and leaves are bent quite naturally by the wind and tide." Indeed I do not wonder that he found himself unable to describe this land of fairy isles within the limits of seventeen syllables, for given unlimited space and an unlimited number of syllables it is hard to convey any idea of the beauty of the scene. Eight and its compounds are favourite round numbers with the Japanese, so they assured me that there were 808 in all of these tiny islands; and surely no one would dispute it. Each great winter storm sweeping in from the Pacific makes one or more of these toy islands crumble and disappear; but the sea makes rapid inroads and hollows out fresh archways or fresh tunnels, so very quickly a promontory breaks off and forms a new island, to be given a new fancy name, thus keeping up the traditional number. In every available nook stands one of the storm-bent trees which have given name and fame to the locality, whose praises have been sung by thousands of poets and how many kakemono; screens and fusuma have been adorned with the conventional views of Matsu-shima; Oshima, decorated with its shrines and lanterns, and connected with the mainland by a slender bridge, half hidden by the leaning trees, is perhaps the most favourite theme for the artist and poet. The pines of Matsu-shima appeared to be all the variety known as Pinus densiflora — possibly the most beautiful of all, with its red stems and deep-green foliage.
Pine-tree at Matsushima
I read of them described as in the "form of crouching dragons, red-scaled and rough, with fins of living green." Another of the three "famous places" of the Empire is associated purely with pine and water; for to the eye of the unpoetical foreigner Ama-no-Hashi-date, a spot where thousands of Japanese congregate annually, is nothing but a long narrow sandy peninsula with an avenue of leaning pine-trees on either side. Its poetical name, meaning the Bridge or Ladder of Heaven, was given to the spot in allusion to Ama-no-uki-hashi or Floating Bridge of Heaven, whereon Izanagi and Iganami stood when they stirred up the brine of the primeval chaos with their jewelled spear, the drops from which consolidated into the first island of the Japanese archipelago. Though the name of the locality is not derived from its association with the pine, there are many points from whence the prospect is most admired, such as Ippon Matsu (One Pine-tree) which have been called after the trees; and under the branches of this solitary tree the poet may sit and meditate and compose his ode to the lovely scene. The long narrow spit, the tranquil water, and a few moored junks is another favourite scene for the Japanese artist.
To the European the last of the three great sights will appeal more surely, for no one could fail to be lost in admiration of Miyajima or Itsukushima, the holy island of the Inland Sea. It well deserves its rank among the famous places. The Japanese are said to admire it most under snow. I have never seen it under those conditions; but I can imagine no more beautiful scene than meets the eye in the early morning of a scorching August day, when the sampan floats across to this pine-clad island, the light haze just clearing from the woods, the great temple looking as if it were floating on the water, and the noblest, simplest gateway ever devised, the great wooden torii, standing, as it were, knee-deep in the sea. The giant leaning pines shade the never-ending line of lanterns along the shore, their gnarled roots and trunks almost lapped by the waves; and here and there a twisted tree will seem to be hanging in mid-air, so slender does its root-hold look upon the cliff. The same eternal pines guard the little shrines all up the hill, and gather round the temple at the summit, from whence the prospect is the fairest man can see. Across the sea, as calm as a lagoon, so calm that it is hard to realise its surface is ever ruffled by winter storms, will rise other pine-clad islands, but surely none so fair as this.
The beauties of Lake Biwa, "a shell of mist and light," are sung universally. Constant reference is made in Japanese poetry to the eight views, known as the celebrated "Eight Beauties of Omi": the autumn moon seen from Ishiyama; the waning moon on Hiragama; the sunset at Seta; the evening bell of Miidera; the boats sailing back from Gabase; the bright sky with a breeze at Awazu; rain by night at Karasaki; and the wild geese alighted at Katata. If you examine these places, you will find that the pine-tree makes a background for most of them; and the rain by night would have no meaning if the pine-tree of Karasaki were not there. Probably this is the largest and most curious pine in the world; its great branches sweep outwards and downwards till they almost touch the ground, and, owing to the tree's great age, have to be supported by wooden props and stone cushions. A poet writes of the old Karasaki tree —
is a pine, a fount of age,
Root cramped the land and sea between;
Of mighty limbs, that curve and rage
In eddying knots, and gusts of green.
Its ancient trunk is lichen writ
With autographs of centuries;
The years, like sparrows, perch on it,
And twitter plaintive memories.
As usual convention enters largely into this Japanese choice of especially lovely scenes, and probably were a foreigner asked to choose "Eight Beauties of Omi" he would name eight entirely different scenes. Certainly for one, I should choose the view from the top of the Castle of Hikone when the rice is still young and green, and the bloom of the honey-scented rape plant spreads broad stretches of yellow on the plains, forming a brilliant foreground to the lake beyond.
Next to Lake Biwa, although more properly speaking it is a lagoon, Lake Hamana is their largest lake, and here again the pine does so much in beautifying the whole scenery. Hamamatsu, meaning the Pines of the Beach, is an historical place for pine-trees, and just beyond it lies the entrance to the lagoon; from the bridge can be seen on one side the breakers of the Pacific, and on the other the deeply indented shore line, clad with pine-trees, stretches away as far as the eye can see, while the mountains rise range upon range above the clear still water and form a picture dear to the heart of the poet.
If I were to tell you of all the places in Japan famous for their pine-trees, it would be one never-ending list, the pine is everywhere. If you travel along the sandy shore at Maiko or at Suma, across to the northern coast at Tsuruga, or at Maizuru, where the wonderful trees are of great antiquity, or back again to the coast near Kamakura, with the pine-clad island of Enoshima rising from the sea like a high green mass, through all the district of Hakone, or up north at Nikko, you will find the pine-trees, — no scenery can be parted from them; and if you are the happy possessor of a Japanese garden, the pine-tree will greet you at the gate.
Not only have the beauties of the pine been sung by poets for a thousand years, but they are also considered emblems of constancy, endurance, health, and longevity. The famous pines of Takasago are well known as the theme of the No play in which the spirits of the pine-trees will appear as human shapes to celebrate the age of gold and happy life. The trees, with the colour of eternity and with their unexhausted life, are regarded as emblems of joy. It is the custom to sing a passage from this Takasago play at wedding ceremonies. The spirits of the two ancient pine-trees, personified as an old man and an old woman engaged in a never-ending task of raking up pine needles, are the subject, typifying longevity. The following is a passage from the play: —
The dawn is near, and the hoar frost falls on the pine-tree twigs; but its dark green leaves suffer no change. Morning and evening beneath its shade the leaves are swept away, yet they never fail. True it is that these pine-trees shed not all their leaves, their verdure remains fresh for ages long; even among evergreen trees — the emblem of unchangeableness — exalted is their fame to the end of time — the fame of the two pine-trees that have grown old together.
Their true poets seem never to tire of the pine, and it seems especially to appeal to the essentially poetical mind of the whole nation. In order to show me how it can be made the theme of poems and songs in conjunction with so many different subjects, a poet said to me, "It is simply wonderful to know what a good harmony the pine-tree keeps with other natural subjects; it harmonises with the misty spring moon, as well as with the summer moon. A well-known poem has been written on the pine-tree of the rainy season; and many poets sing of it together with the autumnal moon, and also it harmonises perfectly with the winter moon. You will find hundreds of poems written on the pines under snow; and the rain makes a beautiful combination with it also. It harmonises with mists, winds, and thunder lights; and you will see many pictures of the pine-tree and the rising sun. There is no better sight than to see it with the waves of the sea; and it goes well together with birds, with storks, pigeons, and with turtles or monkeys. The cuckoo will remind you of the pine-tree, and it makes a good subject with fire-flies and cicadæ." It is said that the pine is a brother of the plum and bamboo, and they make their appearance together in various forms on occasions of congratulation; and in conjunction with the crane and tortoise it is used in decoration to express the sentiment of happy old age.
Azalea and Pine-tree
The pine plays so large a part in the art of flower arrangement, so admirably described by Mr. Conder, that I cannot do better than quote some passages from the Floral Art of Japan in reference to the pine.
Flowers used at Moon-viewing
Moon-viewing is at all times a favourite pastime of the Japanese, but the great moon festival of the year is on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. The more important dwellings have a special chamber from which the sight of the moonlit landscape can be enjoyed. The floral arrangement occupies the recess of the chamber, and has of course no real connection with the outside prospect; but in the flower composition itself the moonlit landscape is expressed. A branch of a pine-tree is used, and between the principal and secondary lines of the composition a special branch is introduced, fancifully called the moon-shadow-branch; a hollow gap is also formed between the foliage, bounded by a special branch called the dividing-branch. In the composition the idea is to suggest both the opening through which the moon can be partially observed and the dark branch which appears to cross its surface. To fully appreciate the analogy one must be familiar with the scenery of Japan, and have seen, on a clear night, the irregular pine-trees standing out against the moonlit heavens.
We are told that the principal kinds of pine are the Pinus Thunbergia, known by the Japanese as the black or male pine; Pinus densiflora, called the red or female pine; and Pinus parviflora. There appear to be many different ways of arranging the pine branches, but in all cases they are left as much as possible in their natural state; a favourite treatment is that of a broad stump cut off horizontally, with a thick twisted branch springing from its base. Pinus parviflora, on account of the straightness and delicacy of its leaves, is often arranged in a simple vertical style, using the sprays; but for compositions with other species of the tree, thick gnarled branches are preferred. Mr. Conder also tells us of a pretty and poetical arrangement in connection with wedding ceremonies —
At wedding feasts a double arrangement in a pair of similar standing vases is employed. For this purpose a branch of the male pine is placed in one vessel, and a branch of the female pine in the other. The general form of each design would be similar, but the branch of the female pine facing the opposite vase should stretch a little beneath the corresponding branch of the male pine. These together are called the "Destiny-uniting" branches, and the complete design is said to typify eternal union.
In another passage he tells us how faithfully they reproduce the effect of the forest as —
Occasionally in suspended arrangements of pine, long stiff threads are hung from the branches, in conventional imitation of the parasitic grasses which attach themselves to this tree; and in disposing such threads, their balance into groups of three, five, or seven irregular lengths is carefully attended to.
Another very favourite form of fancy arrangement is called the "Fuji pine," as in such a composition a branch is bent to resemble the outline of Mount Fuji, and is combined with other branches and foliage in such a manner as to give the profile of the bare conical peak, and suggest at the same time the wooded country at its base.
Yet another form of pine decoration is the Kadomatsu or pair of gate pines, which are the most important decorations in front of every house at the New Year; the first seven days of the year are called Matsu no uchi or "Within the Pines." The origin of these Kadomatsu dates as far back as eight hundred and fifty years. One of the old Kadomatsu poets says —
no, itonami tatsuru sono hodoni
Haru akegatatano yoya narinuran.
(While busy decorating the pines at the gate,
The dawn of the New Year speedily comes.)
The pines in front of the gates are placed in pairs — the rougher and more prickly one, called Thunbergi or male pine, on the left, which is the side of honour in Japan; the softer and more graceful one, P. densiflora or the female pine, on the right. The custom of adding bamboo is of more recent origin; and the other decorations include a rope, especially named shimenawa, with strips of white paper, a cray fish, ferns, a large orange called dai dai, a leaf or two of an evergreen tree, dried persimmons, dried, chestnuts, etc. Each one of these articles has its own peculiar origin, and is a symbol of good luck for the year and for life. The poet Ikku Zenzi writes —
every door the pine trees stand,
One mile-post more to the spirit land;
And as there's gladness, so there's sadness.
And indeed, whatever the pine-trees at the gate may mean, it is for ourselves to choose whether we be happy or sad.