Japanese Maple Meaning and Significance
September in the Hokkaido Prefecture of Japan is a striking start to Fall, one that you wouldn’t soon forget. Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan and the place where Fall’s signature colors first start permeating Japan’s characteristically green Summer landscape. Hokkaido is also one of the first locations of one of the Japanese culture’s favorite annual celebrations, Momijigari. It’s the start of looking into the Japanese Maple meaning and significance.
Also known as leaf-peeping, Momijigari is the Japanese celebration of the arrival of Fall. The name Momijigari is comprised of two words; Momiji, meaning autumn leaves, and Gari, meaning to hunt. But the direct translation of the name places much more emphasis on a key feature of Japanese Fall, the Japanese Maple Tree.
Momijigari is classified as a Japanese celebration, but it’s much less tumultuous and energetic than other vibrant cultural celebrations on the Asian continent. The best way I can describe Momijigari is a serene walk through Japan’s majestic forests and gardens on meandering trails and paths. In the best examples of what it’s like to experience Momijigari, the cobbled footpath you take is flanked on one side by a tranquil stream burbling softly over a rocky bed in the background. On the other, shallow hills roll beside you, densely populated by tall sentinels of dark wood and vibrant autumnal hues of deep reds and auburn. The scene has a gentle smell, one that some have likened to a warm lemon tea, drying wood, or fresh linens.
You can hear the sweet-tempered wind as it shyly rustles the slowly drying leaves of the Japanese maple and the melodic sounds of native birds and insects as they fill the quiet air. The world is full of beautiful and diverse forests, but meandering through a Japanese maple forest during Fall in Japan is an experience difficult to replicate anywhere else.
The Japanese language is full of descriptive and poetic words not heard anywhere else. It aptly has a term for the broader experience of walking through a forest and immersing yourself within its sights, sounds, and sensations; Shinrin–yoku, or forest bathing.
Momijigari is a celebration of many things. It is an observance of the beginning of Fall when the leaves turn mystifying shades of gold and the deepest crimson. In a sense, it is also a commemoration of the passing of time.
Throughout the world, arcane and modern, there exists a poetic congruence between the human experience and that of nature. We view our own lives as states of plant growth, natural lifecycles, and, most commonly, seasons. Fall, in this sense, is the season of completion. It is us standing back, looking at our lives from an objective position, seeing our triumphs and trials, our reactions and experiences, and developing a new appreciation for the life we’ve lived so far.
Fall in the human experience is a time when this physical part of our lives is drawing to a close and time to gracefully accept our eventual transition to the hereafter, whatever we may believe is waiting for us.
With this outlook in mind, the quiet serenity of Momijigari suddenly takes on a new meaning. No longer is this celebration merely people wandering through Fall forests looking at the silent magnificence of the Japanese maple in its amber, crimson, and auburn glory. All of a sudden, we see everyone in these forests as more than a faceless collection of wanderers. Each person instantly becomes an individual contemplating their own existence, taking stock of their own lives, and quietly coming to terms with the natural progression of the human experience.
The History of Momijigari
The hunt for the first signs of autumn date back to the Heian period. This is shortly after the Tokugawa clan united Japan under one ruler. Japan’s political structure was something similar to how the United Kingdom functions today. The Emperor was at the top of the political pyramid; he was the image the world saw when they heard Japan’s sacred name uttered. He was a symbol of national pride, a sacred bloodline, and the answer to a calling from a higher realm. Below him sat the Shogun. This was the individual with the actual power, somewhat akin to the British prime minister. The Shogun was the actual ruler of the famed eastern archipelago. This was the way of things in feudal Japan until feudalism’s abolishment in 1867.
The Tokugawa Shogunate was the epitome of military power in Japan. Because of the ruling class’s fear of westerners and what they might do if they were allowed free reign on the island, anyone from the west was unwelcome in Japan. As we’ll explore later, the one exception to the ‘no Europeans’ rule was the Dutch East India Company (VOC).
The military power behind the Tokugawa Shogunate changed the face of Japan in many ways. Most notably, the country’s capital transitioned from a densely packed, poorly organized village to a vast sprawling city to rival those built anywhere else in the East. This was a period in Japan that introduced new concepts, theologies, and societal constructs, but the Heian period also introduced Momijigari to the Japanese people.
It’s not all that well documented how Momijigari was first observed and whether it started at the top of the societal hierarchy and trickled down over time. Or inversely, if it was a humble pastime of lower rungs on the class ladder that was later embraced by top-tier society. What we do know from copious poetry anthologies and books on the subject is that hunting for maple trees specifically was particularly popular. The greatest number of these poems speak about how ephemeral life really is. Every moment that we live is in our past just as it happens; every experience is already a memory by the time we can comprehend it.
Japanese society seems to have always had this profound knowledge or instinct about the fleeting nature of life in the grander scheme of existence. By observing Momijigari, we can potentially experience this profoundness for ourselves. Although, this kind of thought process and realization can hit you anywhere. My mother tells me she underwent a sort of catharsis brought on by the realization that life was fleeting when she reached the top of Grouse Mountain in Vancouver. I experienced something similar on a long and tumultuous stretch of road in the Kwa Zulu Natal Midlands in South Africa.
Momijigari and the Japanese Maple
In many ways, the Japanese maple is the embodiment of Momijigari. Evidence of this is found in a deeper analysis of the word. We stated earlier that Momiji means autumn leaves. But its meaning is far more specific than the generalized colors of autumn. In Japanese, Fall is expressed as Aki. Foliage in fall is expressed as either Koyo or Momiji.
Koyo describes the beautifully deep crimson and earthy ochre of autumnal foliage. Momiji is a word that refers to the same colors, but only in reference to one specific tree; The Japanese Maple. This tree is so ingrained into the Japanese Fall landscape that it has its own terminology. For this reason, I say the Japanese maple is the physical embodiment of Momijigari.
The etymological significance of the word Momiji doesn’t end there, however. Momiji likely originated from the verb ‘momizu.’ This verb has more meaning than most in English, becoming a sort of detailed account of experiencing an action, not just describing it. Momizu means ‘leaves of vegetation become red.’ This is another direct link between the etymological root of Momijigari and the Japanese Maple. At this point, it is pertinent to mention that there are over 250 cultivars of maple trees in Japan, and only one species, the Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, carries the Japanese name Momiji. This tree is borderline legendary due to its striking color and its strong association with Momijigari.
These Japanese words are so emotive and descriptive despite their briefness. This intricacy and poetry of the Japanese language allow us to delve even deeper into the etymology of Momijigari and the Japanese maple.
The word momizu can be linked to another verb, momidasu, which means to remove stains by scrubbing them out. Now the picture that we are building with each of these words is getting far more interesting. We now have this serene, peaceful festival, Momijigari, where millions of people walk underneath and between Japanese maple trees or Momiji and ruminate in their beauty and quiet magnificence. This magnificent tree is also brought to life and personified by the vibrant color of its leaves, an experience known as Momizu. And then finally, we have the forest as a whole, formerly green, but now washing its bright colors out with one final display of brilliance and vibrance before the dark, cold winter in a sacred process we can call Momidasu.
This personification and giving life to inanimate objects, albethey organic, ties in with another concept native to Japan; the sacred animistic worship of nature. Nature is seen not only as a thing, resource, or landscape. Instead, it is seen as a spirit or as possessing a spirit. Everything in nature is seen as possessing a spirit too.
In this way of viewing the natural world, when observing Momijigari, we find ourselves in the beating heart of a forest alive with energy and spirit. We are each in our own little world, taking in what Fall means to us while simultaneously witnessing and being a part of this living forest experiencing its own ‘Fall.’ Every spirit within it now steps back, contemplates its existence, and explodes in one final show of color, light, and magnificence before the dark, cold winter gently gathers them up and carries them away.
Of course, the Japanese don’t believe in death as an end, but rather a transition to a new life state or journey. So the way the observers of Momijgari view death is much more akin to Momijigari itself. By this, I mean that the human body, mind, and spirit are viewed as taking the same journey. Yes, we go through a ‘Fall’ period, the last leg of our current lives. And we eventually succumb to the cold dark winter of eternity. But the winter doesn’t last, and eternity is far shorter than we expect.
It is believed that we move on to a new life as we move on to new journeys within our lives. We’ve all experienced leaving one school, city, country, or social grouping for another, and we experienced the ‘Fall’ of it all. We say goodbye, we take stock of and develop a new appreciation for our time spent, and we prepare to move forward into the unknown. By all the beautiful words, phrases and experiences highlighted thus far, we could view our eventual end as momidasu and accept it gracefully as a new beginning, whatever may come.
History of the Japanese Maple
There are two important histories to be told when talking about the Japanese maple. Firstly, there is the history of the tree itself. This would encompass when its family first started appearing on the face of the earth, how it evolved to be the tall, vibrant Japanese sentinel it is today, and how it became so ingrained in Japanese culture. While there are many questions that have yet to receive a detailed answer, I, more than ever, am committed to unlocking the secrets of this world through its flora. For the moment, we’ll focus on the profound societal aspects of this beautiful tree while in the background looking further into the plant’s deep history. Maybe on our journey, we’ll find that the Japanese maple was a feature of the land when the dinosaurs roamed the planet. Maybe we’ll find that we aren’t the first creatures to contemplate our own existence underneath its intricate palmate leaves. Time alone will tell what has been lost to time and what is merely sitting underneath the surface of this plant’s history, waiting to be discovered.
The second piece of history is no less important and involves the story of how in a time when westerners were not welcome in Japan, an employee of the Dutch East India Company managed to share knowledge of this beautiful tree with the rest of the world. It was a crime during the time that he was there to leave the area of Japan to which he was confined, and yet, Carl Peter Thunberg did it in any case. He used his knowledge to compile a book on Japanese flora that is still used as a reference today; Flora Japonica.
The Story of Carl Peter Thunberg
The story of Carl Peter Thunberg begins with the teachings and ideologies of Carolus Linnaeus. As many know, Linnaeus is widely accepted as the father of modern taxonomy, thanks in part to his introduction of the binomial nomenclature system. Linnaeus had many contemporaries that saw him as an inspiration. It was common amongst these individuals to want to carve out a piece of the world for themselves to explore once learning from Linnaeus. Carl Peter Thunberg was one of those people.
He was in the privileged position to not only be alive during the same time as his greatest mentor but to have studied underneath him at the most prestigious institution of higher learning in Sweden, Uppsala. He obtained his doctorate in philosophy directly from Linnaeus in 1767, and then his doctorate in medicine in absentia when he was aboard a Dutch merchant ship with the VOC.
Thunberg was a born explorer, especially after studying under Linnaeus. He had set his sights on Japan early on in his career. As was common amongst Linnaeus’ pupils, he wanted to study the fauna and flora of Japan, and unique to Thunberg, her people. A quote from the book Japan Extolled and Decried annotated by Timon Screech expresses this idea perfectly when it says, ‘Japan in toto was to be subjected to his scrutinizing gaze.’
There was, however, one problem. Japan during this time was only accessible by Europeans through the VOC. The dutch had previously secured exclusive trading rights to Japan back in the 1630s, and even though they weren’t gaining as much from the deal as before, the Dutch clung to it tightly. You were also not able to just casually visit Japan during those days; you had to have the VOC’s permission, thereby basically gaining permission from Japan herself, and you had to have a critical function within the structure of the VOC.
Thunberg is portrayed as being incredibly motivated and well suited for his expedition to Japan, and since there was only one way in, he enrolled as a physician within the VOC. He embarked on his Japanese voyage in 1771 aboard the Schoonzigt, captained by Marten Hakker. Although his eventual destination was Japan, the ship didn’t go straight to Japan. With shipping routes as they were, the safest way to get to the East was around Africa with a stopover at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The Schoonzigt was fond of the South African shores in the sense that the Cape of Good Hope was one of her most notable destinations. Walking through the Western Cape in South Africa, you can see how pivotal this VOC ship was in carrying the individuals that formed the young South African Dutch colony because her proud name is scattered around the region like ashes to the four winds. Thunberg spent three years in South Africa studying the indigenous Khoi people before moving on to Batavia, modern-day Jakarta and the then capital of the Dutch East Indies.
There were only two ships moving between Europe and Japan then, the Stavenisse and her smaller sister the Bleijenburgh. The ships sailed toward Japanese water together, but the Bleijenburgh suffered catastrophic mast failure and had to be diverted. Luckily, Thunberg had been tasked as the physician onboard the larger of the two Dutch ships, the Stavenisse. If Thunberg had been aboard the smaller vessel, he likely wouldn’t have made it to Japan, his books wouldn’t have been written, and the Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, wouldn’t have been named as it was, if at all.
In 1775 Thuberg arrived at the port in Nagasaki, Japan. This period of time during which the VOC were the only Europeans allowed into Japan was called the Tokugawa period of seclusion. During this time, even the Dutch weren’t allowed to move freely around Japan and were confined to a small artificial island called Deshima. For his research, however, Thunberg was eventually permitted to make botanical excursions around Nagasaki.
I can only imagine what it must have been like to wander the serene beauty of Japan before the hustle and bustle of European and indeed global trade. It must have been such an exhilarating experience for someone so invested in horticulture and botany.
It wasn’t before the Spring of 1776 that Thunberg was allowed to leave Nagasaki and explore the rest of Japan for his work and encounter the Japanese Maple. Mind you, he and other members of the Dutch East India Company were asked to report to Edo, modern-day Tokyo, to pay their respects to the Emperor. On his way from Deshima to Edo, Thunberg took every opportunity to explore and collect specimens for his eventual books. His book, Flora Japonica, details all the different species of Japanese plants he documented while in Japan. Among these countless specimens was a tall curious tree with foliage that underwent dramatic color changes as the seasons ebbed and flowed into each other. Thunberg noticed its leaves looked like his hand, with multiple broad veins joining at the base of the leaf. He, therefore, named the tree Acer palmatum because it resembled his palm.
While this is still its scientific name and the one enlisted when discussing the tree’s taxonomy, it isn’t the name we use most commonly. That honor belongs to the name Japanese maple. Today though, we also know the Japanese name for the tree, Momiji, which provides us with deeper insight into its importance to the Japanese culture. Each of these names that various tribes of humanity have given this serene tree has added to its lore, popularity, and its deep and rich history. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I have a feeling a Japanese maple without all its other names might not have been nearly as interesting, revered, or desired as it is.
Final Word on the Japanese Maple Meaning
My favorite part about writing for The Bonsai Alchemist is the fascinating knowledge I uncover. We writers, in any capacity, for any publication or purpose, often go into a project thinking we know the full story. Reality often has a few additions to make to that theory we hold. Another aspect I love is how an article about a beguiling tree in Japan can connect so many different schools of thought and perspectives that it ultimately becomes a small but poignant piece of the puzzle of our planet’s fascinating and richly diverse history.
The Japanese maple is a tree that has taken on so many energies over the centuries. The most widely accepted of which seems to be a poetic memento mori. It is not so much a reminder of death as it is a reminder to reflect objectively on your life because it ultimately is so short. Having this tree around in your garden, or as a bonsai on your mantle or coffee table, would be a beautiful way to remind yourself to look upon yourself and your experiences with kinder eyes. Look at its leaves and see yourself following in the footsteps of the Japanese and contemplating the fleeting magnificence that is your journey on this earth. Look at it and see Momijigari.