It may be surprising to learn that bamboo is categorized as grass, not as a tree. Granted it’s the only variety of grass that can grow to over 100 feet tall. Described as the “wood of the poor” in India, “friend of the people” in China and “brother” in Vietnam, bamboo is a wonder plant that grows over wide areas of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. It can thrive in many different climates, from jungles to high mountainsides.
The physical nature of bamboo is ambiguous: it is a species of grass with treelike qualities; it has a hollow interior yet is amazingly strong; it is used for everything from a building material to food and fine art. Bamboo is also mysterious: it is said to flower only once in a plant’s lifetime, and then only once in a hundred years.
In Japan, bamboo flourishes everywhere except on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Of the 1200 varieties of bamboo and bamboo grass in the world, half of them have been identified in Japan. Bamboo is known as perhaps the fastest growing plant on earth. For example, a stem was once recorded in Japan as growing 47.6 inches in just one day. With its phenomenal rate of growth, Bamboo can reach its mature height in one month. As far as an invaluable resource, consider this: A sixty foot tree cut for market takes 60 years to replace. A sixty foot bamboo cut for market takes 59 days to replace
Mysterious and beautiful as well as strong and useful, this unique grass has profound cultural significance in Japan. The oldest narrative about bamboo, written by an unknown author in the early Heian period (794-1185), tells a story of a “shining princess of gracious bamboo.” At the height of the Heian period in Japan, bamboo inspired many poets and writers. This sensitivity to bamboo’s beauty and strength continued, influencing Noh drama in the Muromachi period (1338-1573) as well as the theater of Kabuki in the Edo period (1600-1867).
Bamboo has also significantly influenced the Japanese sense of design in the areas of architecture (fences, columns, flooring, roofing), utensils (kitchenware, fishing pole, creel, and rake), musical instruments (shakuhachi flute and sho, a panpipe-like instrument), stationery (brush handle, pen stand), and baskets. Bamboo is a vital part of the Japanese tea ceremony, as almost all utensils used in the ceremony are made from Bamboo. Modern day has not diminished the beauty, mystery, or popularity of Bamboo. It can be seen in the art, architecture, literature and traditions of Japan and all over the world.
(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 10/28/05. Author retains all copyrights.)
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