SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English

Frank Feltens “Flower Country”

The Nobel Prize-winning Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata began his novel Snow Country with the the famous sentence “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” The word “Snow Country“ (yukiguni) is located in Niigata Prefecture, facing the Sea of Japan. Kawabata wrote poetically about a part of Japan that is covered by snow every winter.  But for me, rather than being a “Snow Country,” Japan is a “Flower Country.” Japanese people often try to enlighten me by saying that “there are four seasons in Japan.” Needless to say, there are four seasons in countries everywhere in the northern hemisphere like Germany and the United States. That being said, the four seasons in Japan are special and somewhat strange. Flowers bloom everywhere in the world, of course. But in flower-country Japan flowers play a surprisingly important role. Flowers bloom in every season, like plum trees in winter, cherry blossoms in spring, balloon flowers in autumn and chrysanthemums in winter. People can salvage the beauty of nature all year round. 


In Japan, the change of seasons or differences in temperature are not as clear-cut compared to Germany, where I was born, and the United States, where I studied. In Canada, where I have spent my high school days, I cherished the change of seasons. In Canada, you could feel the difference between seasons very clearly.  When winter ends and the snow melts, people leave their houses and rub their eyes like bears coming out of hibernation. It is the time they shout with joy “how nice and warm!”


But Japan triggers a similar feeling although the difference in seasons is less distinct. Every Vernal Equinox Day during the four years that I have lived in Japan, I was filled with this incredible and irrepressible joy. I wondered to myself “why?”. I found the answer in the beginning of this year: It is “flowers.” I found my joyfulness in flowers, not in temperature or in sunshine. This revelation was my most important discovering this year. I realized that seeing the flowers blossom around myself made me incredibly happy. In the flower country, Japan, flowers start blossoming shortly after it becomes warm. Flower buds are waiting on withered branches to blossom in spring and they start greeting us during the first days of warm sunshine. In Japan, flowers are cerebrated more than fresh leaves which are synonym for the arrival of the warm season in other countries. The color of the Japanese spring is pink, not green.


Plum flowers blossom right in between winter and spring; their flowers are mysterious and have a unique beauty. Plum flowers blossom on knotty branches, which seem to be hundreds of years old.  When thinking of plum flowers, I remember the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto, which I visited while studying in Japan for the first time. More than the flowers itself, however, I recall their fragrance. When I visited the shrine in February 2007, I was unexpectedly engulfed by the sweet and gentle scent of the plum blossoms, giving me the feeling that I was reborn in paradise. The wind carried the fragrance of the plum blossoms to my nose.

I recalled also a Waka (Japanese poetry – 31 syllable (letter) Japanese poem) by the poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162–1241). Among his poems, we find a verse saying “umeno-hana kozuewo – naete, hukukazeni, sorasae-niou, haruno- akebono”. (meaning: the plum blossoms, in the wind which is blowing to wither treetops, is fragrant in the air of daybreak on a spring morning)

At this instant, Japan changed, in my feeling, to plum-blossom-country. When I was waiting for the train sometime this February, the wind once again carried the plum blossom fragrance to my nose. Although I could not spot a plum tree nearby, the wind had brought me a present.      


Generally speaking, people think spring in Japan arrives together with the cherry blossoms. But, for me plum blossoms, which connect spring with winter embody spring. Cherry blossoms which have come to represent Japan are different from plum blossoms. Plum blossoms herald spring, but cherry blossoms, which fall like a snowstorm, reiterate the winter of Kawabata’s snow country and translate it into spring.  It is strange, for me, that Japanese people change their feeling of seasons by snowfall of cherry blossom from winter to spring.


Another strange thing in Japan is the timing of the seasons. Spring arrives every year around the same time and the forecast of the cherry blossoms is usually very accurate. Plum blossoms, on the other hand, give us their beauty silently and without much commotion. I believe that plum blossoms represent Japan. However, as cherry blossom supersede everything in Japan, the value of each seasons may be overshadowed.  In Japan, the word “flower” (hana) is synonymous with “cherry blossoms” since the Heian period (794–1185). But, I think the most appealing aspect of Japan, “the flower country,” is the abundance of flowers that blossom in each and every season. Due to global warming, the climate of Japan is also changing, But what will not change are the flowers in the minds of the Japanese.


SGRA Kawaraban 526 in Japanese (Original)


Frank Feltens / Anne van Biema Fellow in Japanese Art, Freer|Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.)


Translated by Kazuo Kawamura