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 blooming time in D.C. That means cherry tree fever along the Tidal Basin. Bruce and I made our annual pilgrimage early Saturday morning, under a clear but chilly sky.
Today is the trees’ official birthday. The first ones donated by Japan were planted in Washington on March 27, 1912. Eliza Scidmore attended the small private planting ceremony as one of only three special guests of First Lady Helen Taft.
Scidmore, who got the ball rolling, said her idea of creating a grove of cherry-blossom trees along the Potomac came to her after she began visiting Japan in 1885. One park that inspired her: Mukojima, a mile-long avenue of trees along the Sumida River in Tokyo.
I had a chance to visit Mukojima during a research trip to Japan in 2013. It looks very different today, but the spirit of festivity that captivated Eliza is still evident today in the ancient ritual of hanami — cherry-blossom viewing.
Here are some historic photos of what Mukojima looked like around the time Eliza went there.
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”
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Grantham in “Downton Abbey”
OK, fellow “Downtown Abbey” addicts, I managed to find a connection between the TV series and the subject of my biography in progress, the 19th-century American travel writer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. The line runs through Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), the American-born mistress of Downton Abbey.
Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, has said Cora was meant to represent the many rich American heiresses of the late 19th century who married into the British aristocracy. The press dubbed them “dollar princesses.”
The most famous of them was Mary Leiter, who led a glamorous life as Lady Curzon. Her father was a wealthy dry goods merchant from Chicago who made a fortune in partnership with the department store mogul Marshall Field.
Fellowes stressed that he didn’t model Cora specifically on Mary Leiter. But there are many parallels in their lives. And Eliza Scidmore’s world intersected with that of Mary Leiter.
American heiress Mary Leiter, who became Lady Curzon
I discovered LibriVox a couple of years ago and am now a big fan. It’s a free online service of audio books recorded from titles in the public domain. The concept is especially wonderful because all the books are recorded by volunteers. The readers are people from around the world. A big, beautiful universe of book lovers.
LibriVox is great for easing my resistance to gym workouts on the treadmill. I’ve found it’s also a nice, soothing way to “read” in bed on a winter night before falling asleep.
I’ve been working my way through some of the classics I missed. So far: Middlemarch (tough to absorb in audio of mixed narrators, so I followed along in a paperback), several Edith Wharton novels and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the reader was brilliant, quite theatrical in his reading). A recent listen was one of my all-time favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Also have on my download list some works by John Muir and the British travel writer Isabella Bird. Continue reading →
My study desk in the Adams Building of the Library of Congress
Bruce and I are now a 100-percent furloughed household. He’s in a “non-essential” federal job and thus on unofficial R&R. And here’s what the government shutdown looks like from my little spot in the universe. It’s my tiny “study desk” room at the Library of Congress, on the fifth floor of the Adams Building.
I’ve spent tons of hours there, often working late into the evening doing research for my biography of Eliza Scidmore.
And now the library is shuttered. The books I’ve had on reserve are off limits for the time being. No online advance ordering of any more books, either, since the library’s website has also gone dark.
A lot of people today think you can do all the research you need to online. But I’ve found the resources of the Library of Congress indispensable to my 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 Eliza’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 (Photos: Diana Parsell)
It wasn’t just the blossoms that Eliza 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!
Chilkat women and girls in Alaska, by Eliza Scidmore (Source: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
Remember back in the ’60s and ’70s when travel was such a big deal that everyone took hundreds of slides? And insisted on sharing them. As you sat for what seemed like hours watching poorly cropped and focused images projected on a white sheet hung across a wall in the living room. Today, with cellphones, digital cameras, TV shows and relatively cheap air fares, we’re all so jaded about the wonders of distant places.
In Eliza Scidmore‘s day, travel was still exotic. The Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives has a collectionof photos and lantern slides she took during her travels. They’re held by the Smithsonian because it loaned Eliza some photographic equipment. Continue reading →
Of all that I’ve learned about Eliza Scidmore so far nothing has excited my imagination so much as her first trip to Alaska, in the summer of 1883. Maybe her story speaks to me so powerfully because I see in her life echoes of my own early hunger to leave home and know the world. At 26, Eliza was smart and ambitious and probably headstrong and already fiercely independent when she traveled across the country from Washington, D.C., and boarded a mail steamer in Port Townsend, Wash., for the journey north.
Although Alaska had been a U.S. territory for 16 years, it was still a remote wilderness. To Eliza, a young newspaperwoman in search of the next big story, it had the smell of opportunity. When her ship, the Idaho, veered off the known course that July, Eliza and her fellow passengers were the first tourists to visit Glacier Bay. Writing about it brought her fame, and laid the foundation of her long career as an author and travel writer. I’ve tried to capture the wonder of that historic voyage in this video, which I made in a recent Technology Tools for Writers class at Johns Hopkins, offered by the M.A. in writing program (from which I’m a graduate). I’m grateful to instructor and multimedia maven Rae Bryant for her assistance.