Shingon monks at Mount Koya (Source: Jim Harper, on Wikipedia)
Koyasan, a mountainous area of temples in southeastern Japan, is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The New York Times ran an article about it in the Oct. 22 travel section. Eliza Scidmore wrote about the site in 1907 for National Geographic Magazine. It’s interesting to see the different takes on the same place a century apart.
A monk known as Kobo-Daishi chose the site 1,200 years ago to serve as the center of an esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism. Buddhism supports various paths by which someone can reach the elevated state of being freed from suffering and its repetition through continuous rebirth. The Shingon sect emphasizes the practice of daily ritual as a means to reach that enlightenment.
In her article, Eliza Scidmore wrote, with the note of irreverence she includes in many of her travel writings:
“One meets memorials and traditions of Kobo Daishi in every part of Japan, but at Koyasan he is naturally all-pervading and extreme. That forceful person could have known no rest during his brief span of sixty years, for ten men could hardly have built all the temples and shrines, carved the statues, painted the pictures, planted the pine and camphor trees, climbed the mountains, lighted the lanterns, started the sacred flames, or performed all the miracles attributed to him.”
Ichiro Fudai at home in Hanamaki, Japan
This is Ichiro Fudai. We’ve never met. But Ichiro and I have corresponded online since he learned about my book project on Eliza Scidmore through a TV program that aired during my research trip to Japan in 2013. Ichiro contacted me about a connection in his hometown of Hanamaki.
Ichiro, who has visited the United States and has excellent command of English, lives in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture. A close friend of Eliza Scidmore late in life, Dr. Inazo Nitobe, hailed from there.
Trained as an agronomist, Dr. Nitobe became a statesman and worked for the League of Nations in Geneva. That’s where Eliza spent her final years. She socialized with Nitobe and his American-born wife, Mary. Continue reading
Whether novice or experienced, biographers have a great resource in Biographers International Organization. It was founded five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James McGrath Morris and others to provide collegiality and support.
I’ve attended three of BIO’s annual conferences. This year’s, held in Boston in May, was the best yet. Three colleagues from my book-writing group were also there. And on a research jaunt to the Boston Public Library I found a letter that helped me resolve a question that turned up when I was doing research in Japan.
At the 2014 BIO conference in Boston, with Washington book-writing colleagues, from left, Bonny Miller, Sonja Williams, me and Cheryl LaRoche.
Plaque describing the role of Jokichi Takamine and Eliza Scidmore in Japan’s cherry tree gift to Washington (Photo: D. Parsell)
Eliza Scidmore is popping up all over the place here in Japan. Her cameo appears on plaques marking the presence of cherry trees grafted from trees in Potomac Park — scions of the 3,000 trees Japan sent to Washington a hundred years ago. A couple hundred saplings of these “homecoming cherry trees” are being planted around Japan.
It’s one of many U.S.-Japanese projects celebrating last year’s centennial of Washington’s cherry trees. Japan is also planting 3,000 dogwood trees that were a gift from the United States.
On the plaques, Eliza Scidmore is paired with a famous Japanese chemist named Jokichi Takamine. It recognizes their dual effort in bringing flowering cherry trees to Washington. Eliza had come up with the idea many years earlier but failed to win the support of park supervisors. Dr. Takamine had similarly tried in vain to have cherry trees planted in a park in New York City, where he lived.
A fortuitous moment came when Eliza encountered Dr. Takamine and his travel companion, the Japanese consul in New York, at social events in Washington in the spring of 1909. When she informed them of Mrs. Taft’s plans to have some flowering cherry trees planted in Potomac Park — a move Mrs. Taft took up at Eliza’s suggestion — Dr. Takamine offered to personally buy a couple thousand trees for the project. Continue reading
On Saturday I literally walked in Eliza Scidmore’s footsteps when I went to Tokyo to see the cherry tree viewing (hanami) at Mukojima. The original mile-long stretch of cherry trees lining the Sumida River was the chief inspiration for Scidmore’s idea of planting Japanese cherry trees in Washington. She envisioned, she wrote many times, a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”
Picnicking and cherry tree viewing at Mukojima in Tokyo, an inspiration for Eliza Scidmore in the late 19th century (Photos: Diana Parsell)
It wasn’t just the blossoms that Scidmore wanted to import. She loved the celebrations when the Japanese turned out in droves to see the trees in peak bloom.
The most festive place was Mukojima. It was like the “people’s park,” where Japanese from all walks of life mingled in a carnival atmosphere. There were jugglers, acrobats, orators and vendors. And lots of saké drinking and picnicking.
The place is much changed today, of course. Most of the original trees were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and had to be replanted. The Sumida River today is wider. Tall buildings tower above one side of the riverbank, and the other has a raised freeway running parallel to a stretch of cherry trees. But the display is still glorious, and the spirit of hanami remains the same.
It was a joy to be there and experience it. The trees bloomed about two weeks earlier than expected here in Japan, so my timing was perfect!
Ken Ackerman, the author of books on J. Edgar Hoover, “Boss” Tweed and other larger-than-life characters, writes a blog on people, politics and the world, Viral History. He offered me space today to write about Eliza Scidmore while the cherry trees are in bloom. Visit his blog and check out my post.
Hand-colored photo of geishas at a tea ceremony, from the early 1900s, in National Geographic’s Eliza Scidmore collection of photos. The high quality and studio setting suggests the photo may have been by a professional and acquired by Eliza. (Source: National Geographic)