Robai (wintersweet)


Not knowing
The name of the tree
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.
From “The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel” by Matsuo Basho (1644-94),
translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in “The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches” (Penguin)

As Basho wrote this poem early in 1688, it is very likely that the fragrant tree whose name he didn’t know was the robai (wintersweet; Chimonanthus praecox ), which had arrived in Japan from China about 50 years earlier. One variety of wintersweet (which is also known as Japanese allspice) bears pale-yellow flowers, while another has yellow ones with wine-colored centers. In Japanese, robai means “wax plum,” because the petals look like slivers of wax, and are as fragrant as the flowers of the tree known here as the plum, or ume (also pronounced “bai”) — which is more accurately referred to in English as “Japanese apricot.” But enough of names, because, as the poet implies, we can enjoy nature just as it is. Last weekend I visited a Zen temple in Kamakura, and the garden there had several small wintersweet trees full of flowers on their leafless branches. As dusk fell, the translucent blooms seemed to glow in the gathering darkness, and indeed, they looked like tiny candles warming up the wintry scene.

The Japan Times: Thursday, Jan. 23, 2003
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