Plants, Death, Japan

IMG_2625I’ve been feeling overdramatically depressed recently, so, on my unseasonably warm day off, I ran 20 kilometers southeast to the Tamura District to either totally change my life by getting the ultimatest runner’s high or just fold my hand and die from exhaustion. I did end up in a cemetery, but not dead-like.

A cemetery in the Buda hills of Hungary

A cemetery in the Buda hills of Hungary

I think everyone has a bit of an obsession with cemeteries, rightly so, I think. Cemeteries are pristine and peaceful, well cared for and respected. I visited the most gorgeous cemeteries in Europe, including the staggeringly crowded dead cities of Paris and the seemingly never-ending cemeteries rising up in tiers on the numberless hills of Buda in Hungary.

But hells bells, the best of them are here in Japan, surpassing all others in both tranquility and beauty. As mentioned in one of my earlier posts going on about plant-this and plant-that, the plantlife chosen for Japanese gardens is very specific, and cemeteries are no different.

A mat of fallen Japanese maple leaves at Koriyama's Kaiseizan Park

A mat of fallen Japanese maple leaves at Koriyama’s Kaiseizan Park

A common denizen found throughout many of the cemeteries surrounding the small hamletshire of Koriyama is Lycoris radiate, otherwise known as the Red Spider Lily and, as it is in who-named-it-first taxonomy, a bazillion other names. It’s stark-red umbel, supported by a long stalk projecting abruptly from the earth, reaches up to the sky like a bloody hand of a demon determined to escape Hell.

According to the fantastic new book I’ve taken out from the Koriyama Library and am currently considering doing a cut-and-run from Japan just so I can keep it, spider lilies are actually planted to lead the dead to their appointed destination.

Cemetery offerings of Asahi beer and the favorite beverages of the deceased

Cemetery offerings of Asahi beer and the favorite beverages of the deceased

Most interesting, however, is that the book, Nature in Tokyo by Kevin Short, mentions the unusual nature of the spider lily in itself here in Japan, which is that the color red is not so common here. I quote:

“Red is thought to fall outside the color spectrum seen by most insects. Many red flowers are thus pollinated by birds, especially hummingbirds, which can see the red colors. Yet hummingbirds are not found in Japan, and red flowers might therefore have a hard time getting pollinated here.”

Other flowers such as the camellia, another common plant found in Japanese cemeteries, bloom quite late so as to stand out clearly against a white background of snow.

IMG_2618Among the other flora in cemeteries, I found Fatsia japonica, a name I weirdly fantasize being connected to a Buddha-like Fats Domino having a massive, eight-fingered hand and slapping the bejesus out of anyone who sneezes near a Shinto shrine. In fact, it’s really connected to a legendary creature known as the tengu, birdlike yokai (supernatural beings) who used Fatsia’s huge leaves to fly about the forest.

Towering above the ubiquitous fringing hydrangeas and pond-side ferns are three titans of Japanese scenery and legend: Cryptomeria, Acer palmatum, and Bamboo.

IMG_2627Bamboo I’ll cover later, but Cryptomeria, weirdly called Japanese Cedar despite being in the cypress family, really captivated my attention during my first few months here. It’s very present around shrines and in cemeteries, often the tree chosen to represent a dwelling for spirits and seen with a rope tied around its trunk.

Acer palmatum, the Japanese maple, is a tree I’ve known since I became familiar with the Tale of Genji when I was a teenager. I saw it referenced in so many works of Japanese art, and now that I’m here in Japan, I understand that – much as it is with fall foliage viewing in Pennsylvania – going for a drive out of town to see the changing of the maples is on par with waiting for the cherry blossoms to fall in Spring.

Hydrangea

Hydrangea

The Cryptomeria trees will persist throughout the winter as will the dark green leaves and red berries of the American Wintergreen that spread over the ground below them. Now that I’ve found a tentative reason to stay in Japan, I wonder how I’ll hold up through the cold season.

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