A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Camellias (tsubaki, 椿) Create Distinctive Groundscapes and Soundscapes


Camellia blossoms fall down whole, creating distinctive spring groundscapes

Camellia blossoms fallen from an immense tree at the Isobe Inamura Jinja Shrine in Iwase, Sakuragawa City


By Avi Landau


Now getting deeper into spring ( though still cold) , my household has almost completely emerged from its state of FUYUGOMORI (冬篭り), the shuttering up, bundling up, and holing up, that those of us living the traditional Japanese way do (that means without central heating!)  for a few months out of each year. Now, when I sit in my  tatami-matted Japanese style room, instead of huddling up by the noisy little kerosene heater or hunkering up with my legs roasting in a kotastu (a heated table),  I can open the large windows, letting the warm, pollen heavy breezes drift in, occasionally bringing the intoxicating scent of some newly blossomed flowers to my nose. With this delicious air, and the raucous chatter of birds busy with their mating and nest making rituals, it is just about impossible to concentrate on reading , writing, or anything else for that matter. The only option seems to be to savor the moment.

A camellia tree in Tsukuba – 2021

The edge of a huge camellia hedge


The other day, while I was doing just that, the breeze turned to a gust, and the air filled with fluttering cherry blossom petals blown off some nearby trees, creating the illusion of snowfall. Many of these settled in my yard, forming a delicate pink mosaic which seemed alive as it shifted with the wind. With a UGUISU ( Japanese bush warbler) crying out its distinctive called, I was overcome with the feeling that I was experiencing Japanese spring to its fullest!

Some interesting looking camellia at the Izumi Kosodate Kannon Temple ( Keiryu-Ji) in Tsukuba

It was just then as the wind died down for a bit and the birds let up on their chatter, that I heard a sound which took my spring moment to an even HIGHER LEVEL- a light thud, which in Japanese, so rich in onoematopeia, can be expressed a BOTO, POTO, or POTORI-POTORI- the distinctive sounds of a camellia (tsubaki) blossom dropping to the ground. Then, after a pause………. another- BOTO! What makes the falling of this blossom so special is that unlike the plum, cherry or peach, the other tree born blossoms representative of Japanese spring  which fall away PETAL BY PETAL, the camellia flowers drop off WHOLE! This creates a unique scene under the tsubaki trees, which are so common in Japan- large bunches of boldly colored, intact flowers strewn on the ground- sometimes over a wide area. For the samurai, this was a gruesome picture, reminiscent of the lopped-off heads of dead warriors, and that is why to this day you will hear many Japanese people say that dropping camellia are disturbing, and that they would never plant them in their gardens. It is also held to be common sense by many Japanese that this flower should never be offered at temples or given to people who are sick in the hospital.
This cannot be said to be the rule, however, as it is plain to be seen that camellias of all sorts can be found almost everywhere you go in Japan, even at temples. Just goes to show that samurai ethics did not permeate Japanese society THAT thoroughly.

A camellia tree surrounded by its fallen blossoms ( at the National Museum in Ueno)


One reason for the camellia`s popularity is its deep beauty. Its leaves  are a rich green all year round, and its flowers are a sensuous red, pink or white. The fact that the flowers bloom in early spring (or late winter) have made them an important symbol of that season. In fact, the character used to write tsubaki is not the same as that used in Chinese. It is an original Japanese character (KOKUJI), that uses Chinese elements which mean SPRING TREE (椿). Because of its evergreen folliage and flowers which bloom in the cold of the early year the year, the camellia had been considered a sacred tree long before the samurai class started frowning upon it. The Emperor, his family and the court used carved ritual sticks of camellia wood, called udzuchi (卯d槌)and utsue (卯杖), to beat the ground and drive away evil, around the New Year. Some scholars also believe that the numerous sacred camellia groves which can be found along the Japan Sea side of Japan were planted by wandering mendicant nuns called BIKUNI (比丘尼), who used camellia wood to perform various rituals.

Fallen camellias by Route 125 on the Tsukuba City-Tsuchiura border

Another reason for the camellias popularity throughout Japanese history is the many products which can be made from it, the most important being all sorts of oils, which were used for cosmetic purposes (especially for hair), for cooking, fuel etc. The wood is also utilized in many ways, including the making of dye from its burnt ashes, and various tools and weapons. It  also became a major flower to be used in the Tea Ceremony. The reason for this is interesting- it has NO SMELL and while while adding beautiful color and form to the occassion, does not interfere with the aroma and flavor of the tea.
Camellias are native to East Asia and they were introduced to Europe and then America, from Japan, in the 18th century, and these JAPANESE ROSES became all the rage, and stand as one of Japan`s most important exports of past ages.

Behind the Katori Shrine in Tadobe, Tsuchiura

So keep your ears and eyes open for these most distinctive of Japan`s spring soundscapes and groundscapes. The camellia flowers, lying unbroken on the ground- and the BOTO, the gentle thud of its hitting the ground.
As you can imagine, many poets have  written of this. Here is one of my favorite examples, by Buson-
TSUBAKI OCHITE KINO-  NO AME KOBOSHI KERI (椿落ちてきのふの雨をこぼしけり), which I translate as-  A tsubaki flower falls- and look! Yesterday`s rain comes splashing out!

At the National Museum in Ueno

There are about 250 varieties of tsubaki, and they can be found throughout Japan (except for Hokkaido).
Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a very similar looking flower- the sazanqua (sazanka), which people often mistake for tsubaki. There are 2 ways in which we can generally tell the difference. First by the season. Sazanqua bloom at the end of the year, while tsubaki`s flowers appear in spring. Second, the sazanqua`s flowers fall away petal by petal as do most other flowers and blossoms. So you can tell the difference between the two by CHECKING THE GROUND.

This year`s camellia blossoms (2012) seem to me particularly abundant and colorful

Read my past TsukuBlog article on sazanqua  SAZANKA) here

Behind the small Katori Shrine in Todabe Tsuchiura (near the RINRIN ROAD)


Get out and enjoy this month`s treescapes and GROUNDSCAPES !


The deep greens and reds of the camellia tree in bloom



  • alice says:

    Haha! That’s interesting! I’ve never paid attention nor really observe camellia falling off the tree and making a sound. Must stand by a camellia tree these few days when I see one.

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Foom! (Voice of admiration in Japanese way). Very interesting article!
    Sound of dropping camellia flowers resembles sounds of cut heads of Samurai・・・, At the moment I am reading Yosikawa Eiji’ s famous novel Shin Heike Monogatari(the saga of Heike clan in 12-th century, total 16 volumes, now I am in the 3-rd). The Heike clan took the first Samurai-political power domination over Japan, now on NHK Sunday TV saga Taira-no-Kiyomori).
    From this novel, I learned that in this era there were two battles and more than hundreds of death executions of cut-heads were done on the bank of Kamo-river in Kyoto for Samurais and Aristocrats of defeated side including children, (may be so awful sounds of so many heads drops), before then there was no such death executions over 300 hundreds years of Emperor-Aristocrats administration.
    Anyway cutting- head executions were typical for Samurais because their sward-handling-techniques were so good and it was not cruel way of giving death as to be looked (instant death to compare hanging or crossing), efficient like French guillotine or chopping with axes in Middle age European country.
    In battles if a Samurai defeated their high rank enemy Samurai, they cut his head and brought back as a proof for reward. Sometime were salted in the bamboo barrels learned from Chinese Worriers way.
    I never have read many women were cut their head, instead were released or to be used as rewards (so now they are willing to go HAIR-CUT so often?? ).
    I like camellia flowers but don’t like their way of falling, may be some of my ancestors drop their heads camellia and I received through DNA the awful sound he might heard during losing his head?
    Sorry a bit mentioning execution-ways after seeing such beautiful flowers!!

  • Martin says:

    The sudden dropping of a knuckle ball resembles the boto of a tsubaki. One of the early hurlers in the Pacific League threw a great one which was dupped tsubaki boto by the sports press.