EP42A A Passion for Cherry Blossoms
Show Notes for episode 42A of our Podcast – A Passion for Cherry Blossoms.
In ancient Japan, blossoms were a symbol of new life, new beginnings. But this began to change through in second half of 19th century, accelerating dramatically in the 1930’s. They changed them to be a symbol of death. Propaganda to the Japanese people who never questioned. Classical poems were deliberately misinterpreted, it became normal that the Japanese spirit involved the willingness to die for the emperor, much like the cherry blossoms who quickly died.
And so trees everywhere were replaced to a new breed known as somei-yoshino. Wild trees and varied varieties were being taken down for this tree to fuel this new propaganda of death for the state.
And one man saw the blossoms of Japan being lost, and so he set out to ensure their survived for future generations. He would discover new species, some in his own back yard and already extinct in Japan. He would choose names such as Hokusai, and Asano for new breeds he discovered. He would be one of the first to artificially hybridise the cherry blossoms.
But that is a part of this tale for later, and so we shall start at the very beginning.
Today we talk about Collingwood Ingram, a man who would later become known as Cherry Ingram. He was the wealthy grandson of the founder of the Illustrated London News.
Born on October 30th 1880 he was unfortunately a sickly child with respiratory problems, and so when his family was in London he didn’t go outside much, a city which at the time was filled with disease and smoke. As he grew up his family cared for several albino birds when he was young, birds which they often took with them as they moved from their London home to the countryside, as well as on their holidays.
Being brought up around birds, and being able to wander the countryside as he had no school ensured that by the age of 11 Collingwood could already distinguish the sound of most birds, and by aged 15 he had written his first unpublished book on birds with illustrations in his own hand. And this would start his fascination with birds for many years to come and lead him to becoming an ornithologist.
Now Collingwoods fascination with Japan began in the 1890’s but we don’t really know why. There was access at the times to books on Japan and that likely played some role, or perhaps even it was there family dogs which were a breed known as Chin’s and were a Japanese breed. Additionally he could have been exposed to the culture, though in perhaps a comically if not derogatory fashion through plays which started to appear in England from Japan as Japan began to open up its borders to the world after decades of being a closed nation. Such shows included the Mikado and the Geisha. Whatever cultivated Collingwood into being fascinated with this country only made him want to visit there himself. And so, when he reached adulthood he decided it was time to go. And he arrived in Japan on the 5th September 1902 in the port of Nagasaki, after taking a long journey there by boat.
After he arrived, he wrote many things about the country, saying he found Japan ‘becoming, [with] tidy cheques of paddy fields, bamboo groves, little villages and usually a clear, swift running stream.’
Now I would have thought after wanting to come here so strongly he would have stayed and explored for a long time, after all he was a wealthy man for the time. However, he only stayed this first time for 15 days. And during his time here he visited places such as Kyoto, Tokyo, Hakone and the island of Enoshima, where a local priests gave him a tour. Collingwood at the time did not know Japanese and so politely nodded along to everything the priest said to him that day.
And as he finally left Japan for the first time he said, “my visit to Japan has been so enchanting that I have no time to do else than stand agape and watch the different vistas pass away without record in my journal. But a brief fortnight has left me with more memory pictures than months of travel elsewhere.
It wouldn’t be for another 5 years until he returned once more to Japan.
The next time he stepped foot in the country would be 20th April, 1907, and this time he brought along with him his wife Florence. Though he had still yet to gain an interest in Cherry Trees, he actually came this time in the hopes of being the first British person to find the eggs of a bird called White’s Thrush and bring them home. In Tokyo he applied for paperwork, but Japan being Japan it took 3 weeks for it to finished. And then he went on a walking tour of Fuji immediately. Eventually, almost luckily as it appears the birds were hard to find, and with local help a nest was found bearing eggs of the White Thrush. When he returned home again to England, his expedition had found him leaving with 74 kinds of birds, numerous bird eggs as well as many writings and illustrations he had done during this expedition.
When WW1 came around he found himself in France, where he continued his study into birds. But after the War he needed to find somehow to go back to a normal life, and realising there was nothing new in the world of ornithology for him he desperately sought a new hobby. And this is when he turned his attention to the plant world.
In 1919 they moved to Kent for a fresh starts. The home had a dilapidated garden he wanted to spruce up, the perfect project for someone who needed a new hobby. But the garden held a secret he hadn’t at first noticed, and these were 2 ornamental cherry trees.
When he saw these trees bloom, he knew what he now wanted, to be the foremost expert on cherry blossoms as well as being the man to collect as many cherry tree varieties as possible and have it become the largest collection of such trees.
But to be an expert, he needed somewhere to start and there were not that many books on Japan at the times. Works he could have had access to were ones such as ‘Things Japanese’ a dictionary about the culture from 1890. Flora Japonica from 1835 by Phillip von Siebold and Bushido: The Soul of Japan from 1900.
So we jump forward a few years to 1925, a mere six years after moving to Kent and he had already become an expert on cherries and boasted a collection of seventy cherry varieties.
‘Notes on Japanese cherries’ was written by him and published in 1925 in the Royal Horticultural Journal, which was a great achievement for him at the time.
But the more trees he sought and bought, the more he found himself buying the same trees time and again. He found out now that cherry trees at the time had not really been properly classified yet, and additionally English sellers would give these cherry trees English names to increase their appeal. Each seller giving their own unique names to them, making it even harder for Ingram to know if he had already bought a particular tree or not. And so he would buy them, hoping he was gaining a new breed, only to find himself disappointed.
And so he then asked for the help of two Japanese cherry experts. Manabu Miyoshi, from Tokyo Imperial University and Gen-ichi Koizumi from Kyoto Imperial University. They would be better suited in helping him figure out if trees he had were the same, as well as identifying trees he had but didn’t know the true names of.
And one such type was of the two cherry trees that lived in his garden from the day he moved in. Even after all these years of research and collection, he still did not known what kind of cherry tree had been here when he arrived.
He knew the two trees were the same, but the same what? And so he sent leaf samples to Miyoshi, only to find out they not have a name. Apparently it was a species never recorded before, at least in Japan. And so Collingwood decided to name the species himself, and this is the species he dubbed Hokusai. (I promise this is an unintentional call back to last episode).
After more research he finally settled on something about the cherries of Japan. From what he could tell as of right now, there were 10 wild species in Japan, and through years of human interaction there were now more than 400 flowering varieties.
As he continued his research, and continued to expend his collection he went far and wide for his cherry trees.
He contacted friends to send or swap saplings with him. Additionally at the time the Yokohama Nursery opened in 1907, and so he could easily import cherry trees from Japan. And not to forget the Botanical Gardens of Kew, which he relied on as well and he was lucky in that regard as he had a friend who worked there who could help him out. Other trees still came from others with links to the New York Botanical Gardens. Collingwood had connections around the world he could draw on to bring together all the cherry varieties in existence.
But, in the early 1920’s he could not get a hold of more cherries in England, and so he knew he had to return to Japan. To find varieties not importable, perhaps not yet known or discovered, And he did so.
In a lucky turn of events, around the time he wanted to return, his garden was visited in 1924 by Duke Takatsumasa, a man with connections to the Imperial Family, and who also knew Ingram through Isai Iijima, a man who all those years ago had helped him get permits so he collect the bird eggs in Japan.
And so with the Dukes help he drew up a list of 4 places he needed to go to look for cherry trees. First, Temples and Shrines in Kyoto, second Tokyo. Third would be the foothills of Mount Fuji and lastly the small city of Nikko north of Tokyo.
And so he headed to Japan again in 1926. This would be his final visit to Japan. He would collect many specimins, even meet with cherry blossom experts, but the country would not take his breath away as it had once done. The industrilaizition of Japan had change it all in his mind.
Ingram wrote while he was there ‘it appears, that the commercialization of Japan has caused the cult of these beautiful trees to wane.’ Cherry gardens which had been cultivated for years by shoguns had now been left abandoned, forgotten, or torn down, cherry trees were disappearing. At least the old breeds it appeared.
Collingwood knew some would still be hanging on in the mountains, but the want to care for them had now gone. And the government was now looking for a symbol of unity, and the easy to grow and maintain somei-yoshino variety was looking more and more appealing over everything else.
Ingram even realised quickly after arriving in Japan that 4 trees in his garden were not available in japan. Cherry blossom varieties had already started to become extinct in the very country that venerates them so highly.
And it was now that Ingram not only wanted more species, but he also wanted to save all of those that were now in decline.
And he wrote at the time ‘it may not be too late to save some from oblivion.”
Collingwood would find himself to be in luck. In Kyoto he found himself renewed, with temples full of blossoms. In Kiyomizu-dera, by the waterfall there, he found a tree he did not yet have (based off the edo-higan type), and so asked for cutting from it to be sent to his home. At the Kyoto Imperial Palace he found one more (an unusual looking Yama-zakura), and at the Hirano Shrine he found yet another 3 (a type of Kiku-zakura, Imose and Taoyame).
Collingwood though did find himself confused by the cherry names here with people saying ‘Kyoto is the ancient capital. There is no need to follow Tokyo customs.’ And so just like in England, he found name choices for blossoms of the same kind varying wildly between Tokyo and Kyoto.
It became apparent as he travelled more that most people didn’t see the threat of losing these blossoms, everyone in japan, especially the government thought, the ones disappearing from the cities would live on in the mountains, and so they need not take any action. They would still be around, even if no longer seen. But Collingwood did not believe that was safe for these trees, that they likely would not survive.
He went to visit Yohsino, once the mecca of Japanese cherry blossoms, only to find a thinly planted group of trees and scraggly specimens. This was due in part to the government, here Shugendo was prevalent, but was now banned by the government and so the area had fallen into decline. And so Collingwood sadly on to meet the head of all cherry lore, Seisaku Funatsu and they took a cherry viewing along the Arakawa River which runs through Tokyo.
Here it was known as the Five Colored Cherry Trees of the Arawaka River.’ And at one time it had been beautiful. Some of the beauty did remain, some trees still bloomed beautifully every year but…
New drainage works, had led to many being cut down, and those that remained were now greatly affected by pollution of the rapidly changing and modernizing city. Sesaku related how he had replaced lost trees with saplings over time, but sadly they kept being stolen and so he had had to stop.
I will say here that you can still see blossoms here to this day, but the book I read says it is a shadow of its former self. And it would be interesting to see how beautiful this area once was.
But going back to the tale, luckily many of these blooms from here and the local area survive now around the world due to Collingwoods help but also two other men known as Takagi Magoemon and Kengo Shimizu. Magoemon once collected specimens from the gardens of the daimyos and other areas, and when the daimyos left and the new government came he prayed for forgiveness and climbed the fences into these now abandoned properties to take cutting of these trees so they would continue to live. And later when the Arakawa area flooded, the local people demanded cherry trees to hold the soil together better for future flooding. Kengo Shimizu was the governor of the area and knew of Magoemons collection, and so many species were replanted into the area.
From the Arakawa River Collingwood now travelled onwards now to Nikko, where he found and collected seeds from the Sargent cherry, and in the small village of Kami Yoshida, he uncovered a previously unknown cherry variety and eventually had cuttings of it delivered to his home. This was the tree he dubbed Asano, after the Samurai from the 47 Ronin.
Overall everything was looking good. Like Collingwood would not only expand his collection greatly but could actually ensure the protection of varieties from going extinct.
And so it was time to tell the people in power in Japan that there blossoms were dying. Though Collingwood may have been averse to giving a speech on it himself, he was asked by Aisaku Hayashi to do so. And this all finally happened in April of 1926.
Reporters’ and photographers came, and 150 of japans most powerful came to listen.
Collingwood then said the following, “Why is it, that your flowering cherries often seem to do better in England than their native country? I would like to confess to a feeling of disappointment with regard to the size and condition of some of the trees growing in your parks and public places. Long before aesthetic Japan became contaminated by the hustle and bustle of the Western races, your people produced, an amazing number of varieties. In recent years not only has there been no attempt whatever made to improve these varieties, but many of them are in serious danger of extinction. Were it not for enthusiasts… you would have permanently lost most varieties. I feel confident that in years to come, the Japanese will have to seek some of their best sorts in Europe and America.’
He then rounded off his speech by telling them of the trees in his garden, now no longer growing in Japan. And that he would reintroduce them to Japan no matter the cost. He just didn’t know how he was going to do it yet.
Sadly, after presenting them with his thought as well as the facts, there was little if no impact, the government had other priorates getting the economy on track. After all, this was after the 1923 Kanto Earth Quake and saving a few trees, when they still had so many other types of cherry blossoms just did not seem important to them in the slightest.
And so he returned home, I suppose hoping that perhaps the government would do something, not matter how small it may have been. But failing that, he at least could still continue to protect the blossoms himself, even if the government of Japan wouldn’t.
Finally, after many months, the cuttings he had asked for, from the species he had seen in Japan finally arrived and he immediately got to work in having them grow in his garden. Some had sadly died on the long journey, but fortunately a great many others had survived. The collection grew and he soon found himself as the trading centre for cherry blossoms, and his collection spread around the world, ensuring cherry blossom thrived even more, though still not in Japan.
And finally, after all of this, after all of the effort to protect these trees, in the early 1930’s it was time to finally start sending these trees back to Japan.
And that is where I want to leave it for today.
Thomas didn’t realize that Hokusai would send me into a glorious meandering of wonder that would take me places like… wikipedia and google.
Also company sponsored senryu contests that give such gems as “Comparing ages at the class reunion.” And toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper in which you can get the top 20 senryu written on the sheets for the low low price of 350yen. I feel like there’s a joke to be had here, but I can’t find one.
Oh, yeah, and also there’s a manga called senryu girl – about a girl who can only communicate in 5-7-5 syllables. Yup. There’s an anime too. There’s so much on senryu my head is still spinning.
The term senryu came from the name Karai Senryu, who lived from 1718-1790. He was a tenja, or judge of poetry competitions. He published the poem collection Yanagaridu in 1765.
Senryu are haiku, but not all haiku are senryu. Both share the same 5-7-5 pattern, but haiku are generally serious poems written about nature with season words or “kigo” . Senryu on the other hand, are comic/humorous poems that rely on wordplay, and GLORIOUS GLORIOUS PUNS. And sometimes rather adult humor. For this podcast though, we’ll keep things on the more everyone approachable side.
Also, senryu were often composed by amateur’s and there are several senryu contests, such as the Dai-Ichi insurance company Sarariman senryū konkūru. Or office worker’s senryu competition. I’ve included a couple of links where you can read the translated winners since I believe copyright restrictions prevent me from reading them here unless I get permission. To be on the safe side, I’ll just give you the links in case you want to explore more! Oh, and there are even senryu contests in English, too.
I am going to do something a little different – instead of starting from the beginning, let’s work our way back in history for senryu – starting with a very amateur English senryu.
Look for a poem
Open “One Hundred Poems”
But I choose Basho
I’m poking a bit of fun at myself – quite often I seem to choose from the One Hundred Poems, but lately I seem to gravitate towards Basho or perhaps poets connected by Basho.
I’ve composed one in Japanese too – and that’s even more amateur and I just don’t think I am ready to share that one yet.
That’s the beauty of senryu – anyone can do them, and well, lots of people do! It’s a very approachable form of poetry, and one we need to delve into further.
We’ll continue looking at senryu next week, with a little more history and a senryu in Japanese.
- Abe, N. (2020) “Cherry Ingram: The Englishman who saved Japan’s Blossoms.” London: Penguin Random House.
- Carter, S. (2019) ”How to Read a Japanese Poem”. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Japan Times: Subtle Humor Haikus Cousin Senryu Roll
- Japan Times: Salaryman Senryu
- Wikipedia Senryu
- Wikipedia Senryu Girl
You can listen to the full episode over on Anchor here: Japan Archives, or wherever you listen to Podcasts.
Be sure to check out Heather’s blog on lifes little adventures here: HeatherOverYonder.