japonisme: 8/23/09 - 8/30/09

27 August 2009

Somei: Landscape Gardening in Edo

Two main highways leading north from Edo -- the Naka- sendo and the Nikko Kaido -- divide just as they leave the busy residential suburbs where most of Edo's wealthiest families have their manors. The countryside beyond is dotted with hundreds of small farms and occa- sional clusters of homes. As you make your way along the Naka- sendo and into the countryside, the spring landscape unfolds in beautiful colors. There are flowering trees and bushes everywhere you look. The delicate pink blossoms of cherry trees dot the roadside, and many of the hills are covered with a multicolored blanket of shrubbery -- especially azaleas and rhododendrons.

This is the Somei area -- a general name given to a cluster of small towns and villages that specialize in growing orna- mental plants and trees to plant in the gardens of all the wealthy daimyo in Edo. The two main towns in this area are Koma- gome and Sugamo, but most people in Edo know the area as "Somei" and the farmers who live in the region are known as the Somei uekiya (the landscape gardeners of Somei). They get their reputation from their great skill in raising thousands of different types of ornamental plants.

The farms in the Somei area produce most of the ornamental plants that the daimyo plant in their gardens, and many flower markets are held in the small towns along the Naka- sendo, where common people can also buy flowers, trees and shrubs. In fact, even the beautiful gardens inside Edo Castle are landscaped and tended by gardeners from Somei.

Gardening is one of the most common and most universal hobbies in Edo. Although the daimyo spend lots of money to build large and extensive gardens, even the poorest city dweller can raise flowers and small shrubs along the roadside or on their balcony, because all it takes is a pot, some dirt and a few seeds or cuttings. Since poor city dwellers have only a limited amount of land for growing plants, one popular hobby of lower-class people is bonsai . A bonsai tree is planted in a small pot and carefully trimmed to keep it from growing too big. If the grower does a good job of tending the tree, in ten years or so he will have a miniature bonsai tree, that looks exactly like a full-sized tree, but is only about a foot tall! Although Edo is a very crowded city, it is quite beautiful. In even the most crowded downtown neighborhoods, you can always see beautiful and well-tended flowers, shrubs and bonsai trees in almost everyone's front yard or doorstep. However, nothing can quite compare to the sight of Somei, with its endless acres of bushes, flowers and trees of every type imaginable.

Somei is the home of one of the most famous gardeners in Edo: Ihei Masatake. Masatake is the son of perhaps the greatest landscape gardener ever -- Ihei Sannojo, and many believe that Masatake is as good at actual gardening as his famous father. The Ihei family first got into the landscaping business back in the early days after Edo was founded. Masatake's grandfather was a simple farmer in the northern suburbs of Edo. Back then, most of the farms in the area grew only rice and vegetables for sale in the city, though a lot of farmers supplemented their income by working part time as gardeners and handymen at the estates of daimyo who lived nearby.

Ihei Masatake's grandfather was named Hotsukimaru. Since he was just a poor farmer, he did not have a last name. In Edo, most of the low-class people do not have a surname, because surnames are a sign of respect, and only fairly important people are allowed to have one. Hotsukimaru got a job working as a gardener and handyman at the estate of the Todo family, who were the rulers of Tsu province, in southern Japan. When Hotsukimaru was still a young man one member of the family, Todo Ihei, brought back some azalea bushes from his home in Tsu province and asked Hotsukimaru to plant them in the garden. The azaleas from southern Japan were more colorful than any Hotsukimaru had ever seen before, so he took cuttings home to his farm and carefully raised the bushes around his house. He soon discovered that if he carefully bred different plants together, the colors of the flowers were slightly different. After carefully tending the azaleas for about ten years, he had bred some beautiful varieties of different azalea, including purple, red, and even white varieties. After several years, when the new bushes had grown big enough, he brought these new varieties back to the Todo family estate and planted some in the gardens. When he saw them, Todo Ihei was amazed! He thought the bushes were so beautiful that he immediately appointed Hotsukimaru the head of all gardeners on the estate, and urged him to continue working to try to develop new varieties.

To show how pleased he was with the new types of azaleas, Todo Ihei asked the Shogun to let Hotsukimaru use a family name. When the Shogun saw the beautiful flowers, he agreed, as long as Hotsukimaru promised to grow some azaleas to plant in the gardens at Edo Castle. Hotsukimaru felt deep gratitude for his master. Once he got a last name, he would no longer be just a poor farmer -- he would be somebody important. To show his gratitude, he asked if he could take the name Ihei as his family name (so he would be named after his master). Todo Ihei agreed, and from that day on, everyone in the area knew of the gardener Ihei Hotsukimaru. Ihei Hotsukimaru's son, Sannojo grew up on the Todo estate, and worked with his father in the gardens. More and more daimyo in the area started planting large and elaborate gardens ,so they could show off to their neighbors. As the demand for gardeners increased, Hotsukimaru and Sannojo set up a family landscaping business. Although many other farmers in the area also began doing landscape work at the daimyos' estates, the Ihei family was the most famous. All the daimyo wanted to have their landscaping done by the Ihei ueki-ya (the Ihei landcaping company).

Sannojo learned all about azaleas from his father, but he could see that there was a strong demand for all sorts of flowering trees and bushes. He started to study every type of flowering tree and bush he could find, and planted many different varieties on his farm in Komagome. By the time Sannojo was thirty, he had developed several new varieties of ume (plum trees) and sakura (cherry trees). Since the new types were more colorful and had more flowers, all the daimyo wanted to buy them for their gardens, so they could show off to their friends. Sannojo became very wealthy selling the new types of cherry trees, plum trees, azaleas and other flowering bushes. When they saw how succesful the Ihei family had become, most of the other farmers in the area stopped growing rice and began raising ornamental plants instead.

By the time Masatake was born, Somei was the center of a huge landscaping business. From the time he was a little boy, every hour of the day he spent doing landscape work for rich daimyos, or trying to breed new varieties of flowers. The demand for trees and shrubs to plant in the elaborate gardens of Edo provides work for hundreds of farmers, and the convenient location of the Somei area -- on the main road leading into the suburbs where all the daimyo live -- makes it the "flower and garden center" of the entire country.

Naturally, every daimyo wants to have the most unique plants in their garden, so they can show off to the other daimyo . Therefore, the Somei uekiya (landscape gardeners of Somei) search far and wide for new varieties of plants. Not only do they try to breed new varieties of popular flowers; they also search in the forests for new species that might make good ornamental plants. They even import seeds and cuttings from countries far, far away. In 1695, Ihei Sannojo published a best-selling book on gardening that gave information on over 2000 different types of plants, including varieties from as far away as Africa and South America. 1

this all (well... the words part) from an extraordinary time-travel website where, in the blink of an eye, you are transported to edo in 1790, and it really feels like you're there. fascinating, well-written, well-researched.

EDO JAPAN: A Virtual Tour

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24 August 2009

octopii -- can't live with em' can't live without 'em

there are numerous myths about lovely tamatori, the simple pearl-diver. unfortunately they wildly contradict each other. for simplicity's sake, i'll offer this shorter one.

The legend of Princess Tamatori (Tamatorihime), or Ama, developed around the historical figure Fujiwara no Kamatari (614-69), who was the founder of the powerful Fujiwara clan.

Upon Kamatari’s death, the Tang dynasty emperor who had received Kamatari’s beautiful daughter as a consort, sent three priceless treasures to Japan in order to comfort his grieving lover by honoring her father. One of the treasures, a pearl, was stolen by the dragon king during a storm on its way to Japan in the inlet of Fusazaki.

Kamatari’s son Fujiwara no Fuhito (659-720) went in search of the pearl to the isolated area where he met and married a beautiful pearl diver named Ama, who bore him a son. Ama, full of love for their son, vowed to help recover the stolen pearl. After many failed attempts, Ama was finally successful when the dragon and grotesque creatures guarding it were lulled to sleep by music.

Upon reclaiming the treasure, she came under pursuit by the awakened sea creatures. She cut open her breast to place the pearl inside for safe- keeping; the resulting flow of blood clouded the water and aided her escape. She died from the resulting wound but is revered for her selfless act of sacrifice for her husband Fuhito and their son. 1

and as you might have noticed, there is another strong tradition, believed to be based in this myth, of the ladies and their 8-legged friends. a modern 'parody' follows.


As soon as her lover had concluded his scrupulous congress and lay sleeping, Hanako crept out of bed and, carelessly throwing on an outer-robe, ran to the fish pond for solace.

'Moonlit apricots fell from their branches with a plop and floated on the water as the lady lay all abject on the muddy bank. Meanwhile, Yugure, the giant of twilight, called up from the depths by the sad sound of weeping, rose to the surface in all his kindly majesty.

'Spying Hanako's white hand upon the water, Yugure opened his muscular lips and sucked sympathetically at her fingers, which shed their sadness under his touch and opened out like jasmine flowers.

'Under the bridge of the night sky with the air smelling of apricots the great carp scented out another delicacy, and this was the lady's small bare foot which dangled, abandoned, in the sultry water. The small morsels of her toes filled his ardent mouth, and each one he worshipped separately, until Hanako's eyelids drooped with contentment and her long sigh rippled the surface like a balmy wind.

'With a spiralling dive Yugure swept his silver belly lightly along the curved sole of her foot, and resurfaced to nudge her splendid calf, which glimmered in the moonlight. All thought of her scrupulous lover was banished now, as Hanako rolled on to her back and, luxuriating in the slickness of the mud, stretched her legs out in the shallows until her robe floated up around her like a giant water-lily.

`Yugure circled the lady amorously, for on the table of the waters the feast had been laid for him, and he wished for nothing more than to taste her pleasure.

`Hanako, for her part, felt the golden head butt gently between her thighs, and she clasped her legs eagerly round his broad girth, for his slippery scales were far less chilly to the touch than the pallid skin of her lover. Her small breasts bobbed like apricots on the water as the great lips closed on the kernel of her, and she cried 0 0 0, and hid her face in her tumbling hair, feeling the four tender barbels stroke her with a touch lighter than lark's breath.

`With exquisite consider- ation, Yugure scooped up water and blew it in spouting fountains upon Hana- ko's tender- est places, so that when his lips swam back to nibble her they found the lady anchored unflinchingly to her own pleasure, and swell- ing up to meet them. And if Yugure’s heart swelled also, then so might a gardener feel who has watered his pea·flowers lovingly throughout the spring and now admires them in their glorious unfolding.

‘With his tickling barbels teasing at her outer crevices, the giant fish enclosed both pea and pod within his noble lips. And there were moments when he sucked, and moments when he blew, and moments when the delicate morsel rolled in his mouth as if it would detach itself from its moorings. The lady’s juices flowed saltily, and her limbs quivered, and her belly arched, and he knew that before too long he would be rewarded by the lovely wash and thrash of her.

‘At last, with her excellent gate open as never before, Hanako cried out in the velvet night and fed her pleasure to him inch by streaming inch, and Yugure drank down her very good essence and held it hotly in the thrill of his fins and the diamond patterns of his belly, for what better accompaniment is there to the lavish feast of love than the intoxicating wine of the soul?

‘And afterwards she laid her mud·slicked hand on his accommo- dating head, and both carp and lady lolled back in the sultry shallows, she heavy-lidded and content, he with his lidless eyes unwavering under the curious scrutiny of the stars.

Alison Fell
copyright 2000

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