Woodcut by Hiroshige depcting maple leaves

Maple Viewing: Japanese Traditions

Maple Viewing: Japanese Traditions

 

Maple Viewing (Momijigari) is the tradition of visiting areas where the maple trees have turned red.  The Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) at Shizuka Ryokan are exploding with colour this month. There are a variety of maple species growing at Shizuka Ryokan, in a range of colours—from blood red through to subtle bronze.

At Shizuka, we have come to realise that the Japanese maple tree is a wonder across all seasons. In winter, the trees have no leaves and the branches are framed against the Hepburn sky. In spring, new growth, flowers and colours appear. In summer, the leaves provide shade for guests (and birds) and in autumn, the fall of the leaves marks the ephemeral nature of existence.

Shizuka Ryokan’s gardens are a place to reflect. Shizuka Ryokan features a tsubo-niwa, or courtyard garden, an essential part of traditional ryokans. The architecture of Shizuka Ryokan is organised around a raked gravel garden that has a maple tree growing out of it. (In Japan, raking gravel took on a symbolic significance for the Buddhist monks–more on that in a future blog post!)

The Japanese maple is native to Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia and Russia, where it grows in mixed and understorey forests.  There are hundreds of varieties, with a wide variation in leaf colour and texture. Maples are prized for their 7-palmed leaves and colours. There are generally two types of tree shape: upright and horizontal.

Botanists have a field day identifying Japanese maples. There are so many different cultivars a system of categorisation has developed. They are divided into 7 groups. 5 of the groups depend on their leaf forms:

  • Amoenum Group: Each leaf is divided up to two-thirds to the leaf base
  • Palmatum Group: Each leaf is divided two-thirds to three-fourths to the leaf base
  • Matsumurae Group: Each leaf is divide more than three-fourths to the leaf base
  • Dissectum Group: Each lead is divided into lobes, which are dissected into sub-lobes
  • Linearilobum Group: Each leaf is divided from the tip to the base into narrow, straplike lobes

(The final 2 groups are dwarf cultivars and cultivars that don’t fit the other groups)

Four leaves from four different species of Japanese maple tree.

Acer palmatum cultivars – From left to right A. palmatum wild type, A. palmatum ‘Amoenum’, and A. palmatum ‘Matsumurae’ (‘Dissectum’ is similar to ‘Matsumurae’) [Photo credit: Abrahami/Creative Commons]