The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Seeds of Stories from Other Countries

Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 373-377

[From the book "Clear Round!" by Elizabeth Anna Gordon, 1851-1925. Gordon was fascinated by the link between Christianity and Buddhism, and spent much of her life in Japan.]


Reaching the Teikoku (Imperial Hotel), we found its lofty hall and dining-saloons exquisitely decked with festoons of chrysanthemums and the flags of many nations, including the Union Jack and the Star-spangled Banner, blending with that of Japan--a huge red ball, the rising sun upon a white ground. The decorations had been left up for a week after the ball given by the Prime Minister in honour of the Mikado's birthday, and were perfectly fresh, having been arranged in long bamboo-stems full of water, notched at intervals. I counted forty-five blooms, the size of a large orange, on one kiku plant, and heard of some in the Mikado's garden that had 328 blooms, all differing in kind and colour; and at Nagoya, a jinrishka was seen made of immense kiku blossoms. It is impossible to describe the beautiful varieties of the chrysanthemums. There are about 200 species, and each florist has different specimens. They grow to an immense height, some almost touching the ceiling, and their circumference is in proportion. We visited a florist's, and for some minutes before reaching his garden we passed cart after cart laden with lovely plants, all drawn by coolies. The garden, as large as an ordinary backyard, was filled with plants, each having a long paper label attached with its name in Japanese characters. Their names are very picturesque--e.g., "Fisher's Lantern." The buds were tied round with paper, choice specimens being supported in a frame on which was a ruff of paper, while others were protected by a paper bell hanging over them. The Japanese are great gardeners, and give such individual attention to each blossom that they obtain wonderful results. I asked if it were true they helped the buds of delicate flowers to open by gently fanning them, and was assured that they do so with choice flowers. We ordered several plants to send to England, and in a few days received an ark-like case made of wooden laths, which contained the roots securely packed in mud; the blossoms were also brought to assure us that those we had selected were in the package. Sometimes the entire plant is brought and the flowers cut off in the purchaser's presence. [We bought sixteen, but eighteen arrived in England.] Quite a number of poor people were gently touching and fondling the flowers.

No matter how poor the little home, one sees a vase with at least one flower or spray of maple leaves, &c.; the arrangement of the flowers is always lovely, such harmonies of form and colour. There is no stiffness, for they try to imitate Nature, and, believing that even green leaves and flowers have souls, they consider it right to study their idiosyncrasies, and give to each its own honourable place. Even in their shop-fronts flowers are visible in some corner, so that the seller, the goods, and the flowers look as if they were posing for a picture. I read of a young girl who was observed tending a few chrysanthemums in a vase in the midst of the desolate ruins of the earthquake; whence she came no one could tell. And we saw a country lass coming into town with her bundle charmingly poised on her head, resting on a straw or grass crown and surmounted by a small branch covered with mandarin oranges. The Japanese delight in dwarfing pines into odd fantastic shapes. We saw ancient trees, which, as they are centuries old, should have been monarchs of the forest, dwarfed into pots one could carry in one's hand. It is marvellous what man can do if he has the mind for it! I examined a tree in process of development; almost every twig was tied with fine thread, and "bent in the way it should go," illustrating forcibly the old saying, "Bend the twig and shape the tree." What infinite patience this must need!

There were many sweet little plants, such as a single daisy, a bit of moss or tiny fern, in china pots no bigger than one's finger-joint. At Nikko we saw a gigantic cryptomeria [Japanese cedar tree] which Iyemidzu used to carry about in his palanquin. At Dangozaki there was a chrysanthemum show where a live bird was pointed out to us as the "original crane," as well as a realistic tiger composed of chrysanthemums of all sizes, his striped tail, which stood angrily on end, was formed of various coloured twigs; and representations of all kinds of historic scenes; tableaux of life-size men and women, with waxen masks, formed of growing chrysanthemums trained over a framework of bamboo. Before the Gregorian Calendar was adopted, the Japanese reckoned the months by the flowers. Their first month was called "Spring or Insect-Awakening Month;" because in February not only Nature awakes, but outdoor games and festivals recommence. Then come the plum, the peach, and the wild cherry, but the trees bear no eatable cherries, and are only cultivated for the sake of their flowers. The population turn out to do honour to these flowers, and write poems, and tie them to the branches. Next comes the wistera; this flower grows to such perfection that the clusters often measure from four to six feet in length. After this the iris; you may recollect that the Greeks gave this name to the "rainbow," and when I saw a picture of a bed of Japanese iris I felt how appropriate it was; such a radiancy of exquisite colours. The American Indians had a lovely idea that heaven exists for animals and flowers, as well as for mankind. Besides the Milky Way, [The Japanese name for the Milky Way is the Celestial River.] which, they say, is the path for souls, there is a "Ways of Dogs" in the sky.

       "In the eastern sky the rainbow
              *               *               *
       'Tis the heaven of flowers you see there;
       All the wild flowers of the forest.
       All the lilies of the prairie,
       When on earth they fade and perish,
       Blossom in that heaven above us."--Longfellow.

Iris, among the Greeks, was the messenger of the gods, and her emblem the rainbow, and Buddhists believe that there is a pure land in the west called Amitâbha, a paradise where the loveliest gardens, flowers, and birds are to be found; where hunger and thirst are removed by the pure, cold, tranquillising and nourishing waters which flow over its golden sands. The pavements are of precious stones; the pavillions of jewels; the very trees sing in chorus. Does not that remind you of the old Latin hymn in its English dress?

       "Jerusalem the Golden, where sunset's in the west,
       It seems thy golden portal, thou city of the blest,"

And of the scenes described in the Apocalypse, and which Bunyan's Pilgrim saw as he "drew nigh to the City?"

Then follows the Lotus month. All the images of Amida, the great Buddha, rest upon the lotus: it is the symbol of perfect purity, for its roots are in the mud, and its pink flowers, coming up at different heights in unsullied purity, represent the different stages of the soul-life. With us the white water lily is a like emblem of holy baptism: "buried with Christ and rising to newness of life."

November is dedicated to the chrysanthemum, and in its honour (as well as in that of the cherry blossom in May) the Empress gives a garden-party. Unfortunately, owing to the storms, we arrived just too late for this. The maple has also a festival in its honour. It is said that the Japanese do not care for red camellias, as their heads tumble off in a way that brings the old beheading days too painfully to mind!

The flower-seller's baskets are a perfect picture. He slings a pole across his shoulder, from which are suspended "what-nots" (for want of a better name) covered with plants; and to each of the four corner-sticks are attached vases (made of a joint of bamboo-trunk) filled with water and branches of flowers and leaves. The lamp-seller, with his baskets full of cheap modern lamps, is also quite a sight, recalling "Aladdin and the wonderful lamp." The huge blue crows flying overhead seem as if they must indeed be Indian "Kah-gah-gees, King of Ravens"; I never heard such sepuchural-toned caws!

Houses vary in height, but are chiefly one-storied. They differ from all our ideas of architecture: built of wood, of an ashy colour, their entire fronts, open to the road during the day, are closed in at night by wooden shutters, or in cold weather by lattice-work covered with transparent rice paper, which lets in all light required; so there are no windows. Here and there panes of glass are seen, and often these are glazed to give the effect of paper. Such tiny dolls' houses they appear--they have been likened to match-boxes--and one has always to stoop low in passing through a door, for fear of knocking one's head. We went to a bookseller's; the coolies whisked the kurumas half-way round, and laid the shafts down on the threshold. One step and we were inside the store. To our surprise we found Murray's "Guide to Japan," which we had tried in vain to obtain in London, and had been told that the new edition would not be out till Christmas. Here it was in Japan! The mystery was soon unravelled: the book was written, printed, and published in Yokohama, and had not yet reached England.

We dined in a Japanese house, and wished--as how often we did wish--that we had the gift of shrinking which "Alice" possessed in Wonderland! We felt so gigantic, so huge, so clumsy! Our fair hair and large arched noses terrified the children. Some Japanese ladies thought that, being so tall and pale, we must find them very small and their colour strange. We replied that, compared with other English people, we were very medium height, but that our gracious Queen, who is also the Empress of India, and rules over millions of people, was much smaller than I. With a quiet sigh of relief one observed, "Then it is no disgrace to be small!" F. said, "No, indeed. We have a proverb in England which said that the best goods are made up into the smallest parcels." So they remarked, through the interpreter, that that was a very nice proverb, and that F. seemed always to know how to say the right thing.

On entering, we exchanged our shoes for sandals, and walked along a passage to the steep railless ladder (which serves as a staircase in Japanese houses), and with difficulty succeeded in mounting it, at the same time keeping on our sandals.

(To be continued.)

Proofread by LNL, Sept. 2023