Arrive in most parts of Japan at around the end of March or beginning of April, and it would be very hard to miss the fact that the perfectly ubiquitous cherry blossom is far and away the nation’s best-loved flower. But love, as we all know, is a rather fickle creature. A millennium or so ago, the cherry blossom was not the most loved bloom — nor was it even able to make it to the top three. In the Man’yoshu, a vast and wonderful collection of over 4,500 poems composed by hundreds of poets and completed in 759, the cherry blossom gets just 42 mentions while the second-placed plum (ume) blossom gains a more impressive 118 citations. But with its appearance in 141 poems, the bloom that was then quite obviously closest to the nation’s heart was the humble bush clover.
In contrast to the plum blossom, which was then something of an exotic newfangled import from China and became highly regarded by intellectual aristocrats, the quieter bush clover (hagi) was native to Japan and had been familiar there since very ancient times. True to its English name, hagi is a bush plant, growing to a height of up to around two or three meters. A member of the pea family, the deciduous plant has slender, arching branches that grow from a single rootstock. With its profuse clusters of small, pale-pink flowers along its branches, bush clover grows wild in fields and on sunny hillsides all over the country, and the bloom is highly appreciated for its simple rustic elegance.
As well as being rather a pretty sight, bush clover was traditionally also quite a useful plant. In early times, its stems and leaves provided good fodder for livestock, and its stems were trimmed and used to make roofs, fences and ropes. Its seeds could be ground and mixed with rice gruel, its leaves were used as a substitute to make tea, and the stems could be fashioned into workable chopsticks.
Bush clover begins to come into bloom in late August, and it is a welcome sign that the long, fierce Japanese summer is finally beginning to lose some power as it edges toward an autumnal respite. In many poems, bush clover is mentioned in connection with deer, which are fond of eating its leaves, and deer — like the flower itself — are also regarded as a symbol of autumn. Even though bush clover comes into flower at a time when the summer heat is by no means spent, hagi in the Man’yoshu was poetically declared to be the first of the “seven flowers of autumn” (aki no nanakusa) — blooms that were believed to express most clearly the essence of that lovely, though somewhat melancholic, season.
That element of melancholy was certainly well understood during the latter part of the Heian period (794–1185), when the notion of mono no aware began to figure in Japanese aesthetics. Mono no aware is an appreciation of the fleetingly fragile nature of the beauty in life, and the tiny short-lived flowers of the bush clover fitted in well with that way of thinking.
As indicated at the beginning, hagi makes its numerous floral appearances in the Man’yoshu, but perhaps its most graceful depiction in Japanese verse occurs in the hands of Basho. That seventeenth-century poet and essayist is generally regarded as the greatest master of the short poetic form now known as haiku. Basho wrote the following poem when he was making the journey that would later be immortalized in his classic prose and verse travel diary Narrow Road to the Deep North. The poem was occasioned when he was staying at a modest inn at the same time as a couple of young courtesans, who were deeply unhappy with their lot of constantly drifting from one man to another. It may be interpreted as the itinerant monk Basho, being symbolized as the moon, and the prostitutes, with their ephemeral beauty sadly akin to that of the bush clover flowers, both being briefly together in one place and at one time — even though they essentially belong to utterly different worlds:
I stay at an inn
where courtesans are sleeping—
hagi and the moon.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.
[This article first appeared in the September, 2015 issue of The Japan Journal.