Festival of the Cherry Blossom

I.—THE FESTIVAL OF THE CHERRY BLOSSOM—SAKURA-
NO-HANA MATSURI.
A Sea of fragrant white foam bursts like a great tidal wave over the land of the gods in the early days of spring. It is the beauty and breath of the cherry flowers set free from the embrace of the dark-brown boughs, that have rocked them so persistently into life, through the long night of winter's silence.
The blossoming of the cherry trees, sakura-no-ki, which gains perfection about the seventh of April heralds in the spring. It is a season to which all classes look forward. It is a time wherein to rejoice, and crowds of light-hearted peasants may be seen wandering far and wide wherever the faint banners of blossom hang out their allurements to farseeing eyes. Maps are distributed marking out the flowered districts in shades of pink and pearly colour wherever the trees are known to be richest, and most worthy of a visit.
Pleasure boats well ladened, will supply from one village to another many admirers. It is a national fete in which all may participate, it is a sight which all may share, and yet each may regard as an individual privilege. The exquisite beauty and profuseness gladdens the senses, and brings to each separate life a joyous experience never to be forgotten. A general holiday is declared in order that all nature-loving beings may for awhile suspend labour and duty to participate at the yearly coronation of the Land.
The warm early April sun upon the pale pink, pure white, and rich red petals, irrigates through the air perfumes, and scented elixirs that stimulate the lovers and devotees of Nature to raise their orisons of thanksgiving. The swaying branches above, the admiring crowd beneath, both in spring attire, rejoice and smile, and become gay in each other's company, and mankind for awhile forgets his cares, and completely surrenders to the force of a fleeting joy.
There is a powerful and subtle fascination in this cherry blossom for the people whose country it crowns so regally. The faint perfume conveys hidden sentiments of the most soul-stirring nature. More poetry has been written to extol the virtues of the sakura-no-hana, than any other floral gift.
What is the Yamato Damashi-i?
The enquiring mind can only be answered in the following aphorism:
"'Tis the perfume the cherry bloom wafts to the skies,
When it sees in the East its sun god arise,
This is the spirit of Old Japan!"
Again, there is an ancient proverb that has been handed on through all time which has influenced many generations of the chivalrous races of
hero worshippers, that "As the cherry is first among flowers, so is the warrior first among men."
Poetry and flowers go hand in hand, they are ever found drawn within the closest bond of union. The reverence for the one calls forth the sentiment of the other. Thus when in the spring the boughs are fairly ladened, and this Festival of Sakura-no-hana is commemorated, when the luxuriant petals double and multiply in such profuseness, that anyone standing beneath them might be hidden from view, sweet musumes half shyly creep beneath into the shelter and tie strips of white paper lightly to the boughs. Upon these papers are written with the greatest care well chosen verses of poetry or proverbs applicable to the season. It is done in order that poetry and flowers may in this charming manner become associated together. These poetic offerings when lavishly supplied, make as they flutter a weird and strangely musical rhythm of their own. This mingles with the song of the bees, gathering the first honey of the year and diffusing the pollen, and thus assisting the secret works of nature, in setting the blossom for fruit.
All through the holiday peasants will seclude themselves beneath the trees and picnic for the whole day: they love the flowers best which they have to look up to—flowers that grow in profusion, that give a breadth of colour and a generous dole of tender perfume, that speak to them in a language all lovers of nature can interpret without words, flowers that draw men with the magnetic power silent and irresistible into each other's companionship.
Mr. Alfred Parsons, whose brush interprets in such a poetical way the charm of the cherry blossom, has feasted English eyes in his beautifully illustrated paper entitled "A Japanese Spring." The gardens of Uyeno and Yoshino, memorable for their beauty at the opening of the year, give fair enough pictures to show that native pride and love is not overstrained. The fugitive character of this first display of nature makes us mourn; but is it not because the year is yet so young and there are other children to bring forth out of the abundance of her budding overburdened heart? It is to the autumn flowers we look for a longer tarrying, and are not disappointed.
Visitors during this Festival are regaled at the tea houses with a beverage made from dried and salted sakura petals, and are also served with little cakes in the form of buds and flowers covered with pink sugar. On quitting these wayside restaurants, some of these cakes are put up in papers, bearing representations of the blossoms, and these are offered as parting souvenirs.
Everything that can possibly bear the impress of this symbol of perfect heroism and the embodiment of the national spirit, receives the sign manual of the Sakura-no-hana.
In the history of Japan it is related that when the Emperor Go-Daigo was taken prisoner, Kojmia Takanori his faithful vassal trespassed within the castle garden, and stripping the bark from a cherry tree wrote upon it to the effect that reliance might be placed upon the Emperor's faithful subjects to release him at all hazards and restore him to power. The promise was effected in the true spirit of the Yamato Damashi-i.
Like all customs and institutions that are traditional, kept up by an untutored race and handed down from one generation to another by hearsay, they are bound to differ in different counties, towns, or provinces as the case may be. At Kioto at this Festival of the Cherry Blossom, the Maiko-dori, a special ceremonial, is carried out in the following manner.
A large room of many mats is prepared into which about fifty musicians assemble, clothed in bright colours which suit well the youth and life of the performers. When the guests have all arrived into the centre of the room a geisha, or peasant girl appears dressed in a very bright coloured kimono and obi like the rest of her companions. On a zen or low table very slightly raised from the ground like the table placed for the spirit feast at the ceremony of Bom Matsuri, she prepares a bowl of tea, according to the ancient formula of the Cha-no-yu ceremony. It is a powdered tea of the first leaves of the tea plant, which she mixes before the guests with the aid of the bamboo brush or stirrer, until the brew is thick and frothy to whiteness. The guests are each given a tiny teacup full and two small cakes frosted with pink sugar—one cake to eat and one to take away with them; they are in the form of the cherry blossom. Whilst the guests thus partake of tea in ancient style on a circular raised platform the singing girls perform before a scenic painting relative to the season. As they sing they dance gracefully and carefully, while coloured lamps flame down upon them. From representing spring by holding branches of springflowering trees and umbrellas covered with real and artificial flowers, everything changes to summer emblems; then on to autumn, when in their hands the performers hold forth and waive the tinted tesselated leaves of fading autumn. The scene is at last transformed and winter reigns—a deep snow-ladened landscape is revealed upon the stage—the movement of the dancers becomes more and more subdued, in the presence of winter all grow hushed into peace!
Although there are varied opinions concerning Japanese music, to some few it is weirdly beautiful, bringing back years of forgotten ages, as the voices of the dead we loved so well and lost so long ago. Youthful voices take up this strain year by year, chosen for the sweetness and power of interpretation they possess.
We are told that in Japan all festivals are symbolic and more or less of a religious nature. This Sakura-no-hana Matsuri accompanied with the Maiko-dori speaks for itself in a language that needs no other conviction.