Cherry Trees

Ramble under the cherry trees, during the time when Eliza Scidmore traveled in Japan (Photo: Takashima, 1897)

Eliza Scidmore grew enamored of flowering cherry trees during repeat visits to Japan beginning in the mid-1880s. She got the idea that Washington should plant a grove of the trees along the Potomac. She had a spot in mind: a stretch of undeveloped ground where the Army Corps of Engineers was creating Potomac Park on formerly swampy mudflats near the Washington Monument.

Back home in Washington, she took her idea to the men in charge of federal parks and grounds. They listened politely but showed no interest.

More than two decades later, Scidmore found an opportunity to get her way by appealing to the new First Lady, Helen Taft. Eliza knew Mrs. Taft had also traveled in Japan and appreciated the novel beauty of cherry blossoms. Eliza was in her 50s when she watched, on March 27, 1912, as Mrs. Taft and the Japanese ambassador’s wife planted the first two cherry trees of 3,000 that Japan gave to Washington.

Yukio Ozaki, here strolling the Tidal Basin with two female companions in 1931, was mayor of Tokyo when he arranged to donate several thousand cherry trees to Washington. (Source: USDA)

Eliza’s chief inspiration for her idea was two famous parks in Tokyo with great cherry-tree displays: Ueyno Park, an area of sacred temples and royal tombs, and Mukojima, an avenue of trees extending more than a mile along the Sumida River.

At Mukojima, acrobats, jugglers, and orators gave blossom-viewing outings a carnival tone. Saké flowed freely. One Western visitor wrote of his disgust at the “dissipation.” But Eliza found the Bacchanalian atmosphere amusing. “The laughter is so infectious, the antics and figures so comical, that even sober people seem to have tasted of the insane cup,” she wrote.

In a centuries-old custom, the Japanese wrote special nature poems on delicate slips of paper and tied them to tree branches during cherry blossom parties. The poetic offerings were left to blow away in the wind like flower petals.

As she came to know the Japanese and their culture, it seemed to Eliza that nothing epitomized Japanese sensibilities so well as cherry blossoms — sakura. “Except Fuji-Yama and the moon,” she wrote, “no other object has been the theme and inspiration of so many millions of Japanese poems as the cherry blossom.”

Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume “Japan” (Source: MIT “Visualizing Cultures”)


Hand-colored photograph taken by Eliza Scidmore, c.1913 (Source: National Geographic)


2 Responses to Cherry Trees

  1. Eiko Fukuda Gustavson

    Dear Ms. Parcell,
    I am an old friend of Sara Taber who just forwarded me the link to your website. I am also one of the great-grandchildren of Torajiro Watase who was commissioned by Mayor Ozaki to select and ship the trees on both occasions – 1911 and 1912- to Washington DC and New York. I am wondering if you might have come across any references to my ancestor in the course of your research and would be willing to share them with me. He was a Tokyo alderman, Christian educator and businessman who imported horticultural and agricultural supplies from the US to Japan through his company (now defunct) Kono-en. Might Eliza have met him and his wife Kame – both of them fluent in English as a result of their western education?

    My family would very much appreciate it if some mention of his role and contribution could be included in the National Geographic/official literature accompanying the cherry tree festival. We would be most grateful for any assistance you could provide.

    Yours sincerely,

    Eiko Gustavson
    (Great-granddaughter of Torajiro whose second son Jiro is my mother’s father)

  2. Pingback: 'Hanami' in Tokyo at Mukojima | A Great Blooming

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