Hand-colored photo of cherry-blossom viewing at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)
“No other flower in all the world is so beloved, so exalted, so worshipped, as sakura-no-hana, the cherry-blossom of Japan.”
— Eliza Scidmore, The Century Magazine, May 1910
It’s now blooming season in Washington. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. It’s our own “Mukojima on the Potomac,” as Eliza Scidmore envisioned it more than a century ago, inspired by a popular cherry tree park in Tokyo.
Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage to see the cherry blossoms on Saturday morning, under a clear but very chilly sky. We’ve learned over the years it’s best to go at early daybreak, when the huge crowds of tourists are just waking up or at breakfast. We can usually zip into town and find off-street parking not too far from the National Mall.
Today is the official birthday of the trees. The first ones, from a shipment of 3,000 donated by Japan, were planted on March 27, 1912.
Eliza Scidmore started pushing the idea of cherry trees in Potomac Park during her extensive travels to Japan beginning in the 1880s. She loved the ancient ritual known as hanami, or cherry-tree viewing, when all the Japanese people turned out to admire the blossoms and mingle beneath the branches.
One of her biggest inspirations was Mukojima, where cherry trees stretched for a mile along the east bank of the Sumida River in Tokyo.
Below are some photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there. See more wonderful images at this website featuring vintage postcards of old Tokyo.
Ramble under the trees at Mukojima (Takashima, 1897)
Hand-colored postcard of Mukojima
Hand-colored photo from Frank Brinkley’s 10-volume illustrated book “Japan”
Mukojima was originally a royal hunting grounds during Japan’s Tokugawa era. The area was a short ferry ride across the river from a temple district, and after one of the shoguns planted an orchard of flowering cherries, common folk went every spring to admire the trees in bloom.
The country’s literati visited Mukojima for inspiration, and the wealthy elite built retreats nearby. But the site also remained popular with the public.
Early in the 20th century, Scidmore described Mukojima as something of a “people’s park” that drew hordes of Japanese from all walks of life. They picnicked under the trees and drank saké; pinned poems to the branches and let the tissue-thin strips of paper blow away in the wind. Entertainers and vendors gave it a carnival-like atmosphere. Eliza loved the joviality and spirit of goodwill that hanami seemed to bring out in people.
I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan in 2013. The setting is certainly more modern, but the spirit apparently hasn’t changed.
Today, the crowds that circle the Tidal Basin in Washington photographing the blossoms and taking selfies in front of the trees — the Washington Monument or Jefferson Memorial looming in the background — are enacting that same ritual of hanami.
It’s the very experience Eliza Scidmore wanted to re-create in Washington.
Surviving Japanese cherry tree planted in 1912 on the grounds of the Library of Congress, between the Jefferson and Adams buildings (Photo: D. Parsell)
It took three decades for her to see her dream become a reality, thanks to the support of First Lady Helen Taft. Scidmore — then in her 50s — was one of only three special guests at the small private ceremony by the Tidal Basin when Mrs. Taft planted the first cherry tree by the Tidal Basin, and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, Madame Iwa Chinda, planted the second one.
Remarkably, those first two trees are still standing. They are west of the John Paul Jones statue, just south of a Japanese lantern donated later by Japan. A plaque marks the historic event.
The life of cherry trees is typically about 40 years, so these two are real survivors. Gnarled and misshapen from lost limbs, but gallantly hanging on, thanks to the loving attention of the National Park Service. Many of the original 3,000 trees have had to be replaced over the years.
There’s another hardy survivor on the grounds of the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, where I go often to do research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore. The tree is so old and unbalanced it’s heavy surviving limb is propped up by a crutch.