In Japan, Semi-translucent Ro-bai 蝋梅 Blossoms ( Japanese allspice) are The New Year`s First Tree-based Flowers to Bloom and Fill The Winter Air With a Welcome Fragrance
By Avi Landau
Just a day earlier I had been walking through the woods, and one of my companions excitedly cried out : SO-BAI ( 早梅), which in Japanese indicates plum blossoms that bloom earlier in the year than usual.
The next day, with that word, then new to me, still ringing in my ears, I arrived at the farm of a friend of mine who lives up in Hitachi Omiya ( in central Ibaraki Prefecture). As I opened the car door and was stepping out, I was enveloped in a thick, sweet fragrance.
Just at that moment, my friend`s mother appeared, as if out of nowhere, and even before formally greeting us, she pointed at the tree next to which we were parked and proudly exclaimed- RO-BAI ( 蝋梅) !
At first, I misunderstood what she had said and chuckled to myself thinking about the coincidence: more SO-BAI (early blooming plum blossoms), a word which I had just learned the day before.
But these were not SO-BAI, they were RO-BAI ! I could see the difference immediately as I examined the blossoms up close. They were yellow and looked almost translucent, even plastic.
It is because of this unique, waxy appearance , along with the strong plum-like fragrance and early blooming season, as well as the fact that like plum trees- their flowers bloom before their leaves appear- that these trees ( and their blossoms) are called RO-BAI, which is the Japanese reading of Chinese characters which mean WAX PLUMS (蝋梅).
However , these trees which were introduced to Japan from China via the Korean Peninsula sometime in the early 17th century, are in fact NOT related to Japanese plums ( UME, prunus mume).
Referred to in English as Japanese allspice or wintersweet, the scientific name for these early blooming trees is Chimonanthus praecox, which appropriately means EARLY WINTER FLOWERS, in Greek .
Since they bloom in late December or January and have a rich, springy fragrance, they are a popular blossom for O-Shogatsu ( Japanese New Year) flower arrangements. Miniature ( BONSAI) ro-bai are also commonly displayed in January.
Because of these and the many RO-BAI trees growing in the gardens of private homes throughout Japan, you are sure to be able to catch a whiff of these unusually strong smelling blossoms in January even if you just take a stroll around your neighborhood. In the dead of winter encountering their rich fragrance is a heartening reminder that spring is not far off.
Amazingly, on the very next day after my encounter with the RO-BAI up in Hitachi Omiya, I was back in Tsukuba and had an appointment at the Teshirogi Community Center. Going to the office to say hello ( greetings are all important in Japan!), I was struck by a familiar scent. I guess I shouldnt have been surprised, but I was. There on the table, was a branch of RO-BAI in bloom, stuck in a jar with water.
Well I think that it just goes to show, once again, that the Japanese are keenly aware of the seasons and take notice of the little changes which occur month by month, week by week, day by day, as one species of flower withers and another blooms. It is not only a feature of art and poetry, but the topic of everyday conversation and sometimes a cause for excitement, as well!