Sacred flower blooms 1 day” The Yomiuri Shimbun (Thursday, June 19, 2008)

The fleeting bloom of sal flowers, which are said to have surrounded Buddha at the moment of his passing, can be experienced by visitors to Torinin temple in Ukyo Ward, Kyoto, which is usually closed to the public.

The temple, attached to Myoshinji temple, opens its doors to allow people to admire the beauty of the sal flowers, which bloom for only one day.

The short-lived flowers are considered sacred and symbolize the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

They are featured in the opening passage of “The Tale of Heike,” where their brilliant but ephemeral color is used to show that even prosperous people will surely decline.

Once fallen, the white camellialike flowers give the 11-tree garden in front of the temple’s main hall a uniquely elegant atmosphere.

Sal flowers can be viewed at the temple from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day until June 30. Admission is 1,580 yen, including green tea, or 5,570 yen, including green tea and a vegetarian meal.

(Jun. 19, 2008)
IN BLOOM Thursday, June 19, 2003

Hime-shara (Stewartia)


The main hall of the temple had been completely destroyed, and the priests’ living quarters had been reduced to paddies and fields. The tall statue of Buddha, originally six feet and six inches [two meters] tall, had become covered with green moss save for the divine face that shone forth as in former days. Dead, too, were the couple of sacred sal trees that had once been the pride of the temple.
From “The Records of a Travel-worn Skeleton” by Matsuo Basho (1644-94), translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in “The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches” (Penguin)

In Kyoto’s Myoshin-ji Zen temple there is a 350-year-old sal tree that still blooms every rainy season. Although these handsome trees are native to Japan, the name shara refers to the Indian sal tree, in whose shade Prince Siddhartha (Buddha) was both born and died. However, another Japanese name for the tree, natsu-tsubaki (“summer camellia”), is more accurate, because these trees, like camellias, are members of the Theaceae (tea) family. There are two types of Stewartia, one with beautiful, flaring flowers about 5-6 cm across, and the other with narrower leaves and smaller, more cupped flowers about 2-3 cm across. In the Japanese plant lexicon, the prefix hime (“princess”) denotes a small and dainty version of a plant. The flowers of the larger species bloom and fall in a day, but when I was painting the hime-shara above, it kept its flowers for two days, which was lucky for me! Bees also love these silky, white flowers with their circles of bright yellow stamens.


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