Endless Brevity in Cherry Blossoms
Mount Yoshino is one of the most celebrated mountains in Japan. It lies to the south of Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka, which were the center of Japanese religious, cultural, and political life for centuries. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mountain is the home of an esoteric form of Buddhism known as Shugendo, and it has been a retreat for rebels throughout its history because of its location at the periphery of Japan’s ancient cultural heartland. However, it is Mount Yoshino’s 30,000 cherry trees that have made it famous for over a millennium and provides the location with a deep sense of irony.
The mountain has been a religious center since the Asuka period (538-710). During this era, the seventh century ascetic En no Gyoja paused long enough from mystical activities like subjugating demons to consolidate various religious practices into Shugendo, which is a mix of Japan’s native Shinto religion, Buddhism, and other influences. The religion relies heavily on the practice of mountain asceticism, and En no Gyoja founded Kimpusen-ji Temple on Mount Yoshino as the center of Shugendo. The main hall of Kimpusen-ji Temple, Zao-do Hall, is the second largest wooden structure in Japan behind Todai-ji Temple’s Great Buddha Hall in Nara City. Eventually, a whole slew of temples and shrines were constructed to promote the practice of Shugendo.
The mountain became the home to rebels throughout the ages as a result of its peculiar position of geographical remoteness and political influence. After the Gempei War (1180-1185), which brought an end to the emperor-ruled Heian era (794-1185) and ushered in the samurai-ruled Kamakura era (1185-1333), the famous general Minamoto Yoshitsune sought temporary refuge at Yoshimizu Shrine after falling out with his brother Minamoto Yoritomo, who was the new ruler of the country. Later, in 1333, the Emperor Go-Daigo reasserted imperial rule by defeating the army of the samurai. Go-Daigo’s victory was short lived, however, as the general who had led his armies became disillusioned with Go-Daigo and launched a rebellion in 1338 that reestablished samurai rule and marked the beginning of the Muromachi era (1338-1573). Go-Daigo fled Kyoto and made his way to Mount Yoshino where he set up an imperial court at Yoshimizu Shrine as a challenge to the new samurai government. This Southern Court, as it came to be known, lasted until 1392 when peace was made with the Northern Court in Kyoto.
While the mountain was a retreat for rebels, it was also a place visited for its beauty. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was one of the three great unifiers of Japan and the de facto ruler from 1585 to 1598, held lavish hanami (flower viewing) parties during the spring when the cherry blossoms were at their peak. Yet he was hardly the first person to appreciate the beauty of the mountain in the spring as the cherry trees open up into full bloom. Poems about the mountain have been appearing in anthologies for over a millennium, and the famous haiku poet Basho (1654-1694) wrote several poems while visiting the mountain on one of his many journeys throughout Japan.
Cherry trees can be seen all over the mountain, which is actually two long mountains that curve and meet up to form a horseshoe. They bloom at four distinct elevations: lower (shimo-senbon), middle (naka-senbon), upper (kami-senbon), and inner (oku-senbon). Due to these differences in elevation, it is possible to see cherry blossoms on the mountain for a relatively long stretch of time, but the middle and upper regions are the most famous.
The main path ribbons up the right side of the valley from the train station, which is at the opening of the horseshoe, and runs all the way to the mountain’s inner recesses. Many shops and restaurants have been built in the middle section of the mountain that serve traditional snacks such as mitarashi-dango and kusa-mochi, which are made from pounded rice. The shops along the road offer a variety of Japanese goods such as pottery and tapestries called noren that fit in doorways. Kimpusen-ji Temple and Yoshimizu Shrine are also located in this area, but Yoshimizu Shrine is on a spit of mountain that juts towards the left side of the valley. It thus offers a phenomenal view of the back end of the horseshoe where the two slopes merge together in a spot carpeted with cherry trees. There are temples and shrines scattered throughout the mountain with paths running between them, providing ample opportunities for hikers. Photographers will also enjoy scenic vistas as pagodas and stupas seem to rise at random from a sea of pink blossoms. Spots to sit beneath the cherry trees and enjoy bento (Japanese boxed lunches) are also available in the middle and upper regions of the mountain. The entire area has managed to maintain a vintage feel while making necessary nods to modernity and meeting the needs of the large numbers of tourists that visit the area in the spring.
While the mountain sides are now covered in cherry trees, Mount Yoshino did not possess them in such great numbers until after the founding of Shugendo. Legend has it that while performing ascetic rituals, En no Gyoja, the aforementioned founder of Shugendo, had a vision of the deity Zao Gongen. Filled with awe by this encounter, En no Gyoja carved a statue of Zao Gongen from a cherry tree, and from that point onward cherry trees were considered sacred in Shugendo. Given this holy status, it became illegal to use cherry trees as firewood, and anyone found cutting off even a single branch would have a finger severed in retribution. This association with the divine lead people to send cherry tree saplings to Mount Yoshino to be planted in memory of deceased loved ones in the hopes it would help them find peace in the afterlife, and those cherry trees naturally increased to the tens of thousands seen today. In addition, the Emperor Tenmu (631-686) had a dream of a cherry tree blooming in the dead of winter on Mount Yoshino, and he thus proclaimed that the trees should be given special care throughout the land. While cherry trees have prospered throughout Japan, Shugendo was not so fortunate. The religion fell out of favor in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and was officially banned – with many of its temples absorbed into the Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism.
The downfall of Shugendo as a standalone religion is emblematic of the great irony that Mount Yoshino represents. Japan celebrates the four seasons as few other cultures in the world do. References to the seasons are required in haiku poetry, and the seasons are often signified by the flowers that can be seen in them. Amidst this bouquet, the cherry blossom stands in the highest regard. Yet for eleven and a half months out of the year, the reason for this is not readily apparent. The type of cherry trees most commonly found are nondescript in summer; in the fall the leaves tend turn a brown-splotched yellow; in the winter the bare trees are not aesthetically pleasing; and in spring the blossoms fall almost as soon as they bloom. Furthermore, the fruit from the cherry trees has few if any constructive uses. In contrast are plum trees, which are also found throughout Japan. Plum trees bloom in a variety of colors, have a strong scent, hold their blossoms for nearly a month, and the branches can be shaped so that they are interesting to view throughout the year. In addition to this, their fruit can be used in a variety of ways. Yet many Japanese people will say they prefer the cherry tree to the plum tree despite these facts. The reason for this is that the brevity with which the cherry trees bloom demands and commands attention. For a short span of two weeks out of the year, the trees break forth with delicate pink blossoms that posses a scent so fleeting as to be barely noticed. In this brief window people flock to parks and other locations with cherry trees to spread out tarps beneath the branches so they can enjoy food and drink with colleagues, friends, and loved ones. These parties are meant to remind people that life, like the span of the cherry blossom, is brief.
Juxtaposed with the cherry blossom’s brief season is the cycle in which they bloom, which has gone on without pause for 1,400 years on Mount Yoshino. Basho witnessed the same scene three centuries ago that someone visiting today will see, and he in turn saw the same thing as Emperor Go-Daigo four centuries before him. Yet in that 1,400 years people have changed immensely in their dress, speech, architecture, transportation, governments, and in nearly every other facet of human society. The very religion that gave rise to the large number of cherry trees on the mountain has been officially banned for over a century. Through all of this change, the cherry trees have continued on unperturbed and uninterrupted. It is perhaps reassuring to know that the cherry trees on Yoshino will continue on regardless of the momentary fads and cares of the people that come to appreciate their beauty.