My wife Kayo and I walked into an art store in Hot Springs, Arkansas, several years ago, and right away one piece of artwork grabbed our attention. It was a large poster-type framed photo of a bamboo forest in Kayo’s hometown, the old capital of Kyoto.
We have a much smaller photo of the same bamboo forest hanging on the wall in our home. The place is a very popular tourist attraction in Kyoto, but similar bamboo forests are quite common across Japan.
Not far from the bamboo forest is a large bamboo garden with many varieties of bamboo from miniature which grow to a maximum height of about 12 inches to some which are over 70 feet tall and about 8 inches in diameter.
Worldwide, there are over 1,200 species of bamboo, but only about 600 different species are grow commonly in Japan where bamboo is such an integral part of their culture. Although defined as a member of the grass family, bamboos have several characteristics different from any other grasses. Bamboo is characterized by its woody culm or trunk and its very rapid growth. It’s relatively common for it to grow more than one meter in a 24 hour period.
There are two types of bamboo with regard to their root systems, one with thick slow-spreading root clusters or root balls and the other putting out more aggressive runners. Although the culms are usually described as somewhat woody, they are not solid like a tree trunk, they are primarily hollow except for the joints which are initially some distance apart and become farther apart as the plant grows.
There is sort of a membrane at each joint and after a couple years when the culm is full grown and hardened the membrane also hardens making the area between two joints air tight. Bamboo is a very strong, but very flexible plant. For centuries in Japan people were told to run into a bamboo forest in the event of an earthquake because the strong root system would keep the soil from opening up. Bamboo has several characteristics which give it a positive image.
It grows straight and fast, it’s strong but flexible and lasts for a long time, or stated differently, it does not decay quickly. It’s very simple and unadorned in its appearance, yet is a favored subject of painters and writers.
It appears in many old tales and children’s stories including “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” which dates from the 10th century. Bamboo is used in many festivals including Tanabata on July 7 when people write a wish on a strip of paper and hang it on bamboo cut for the festival.
Along with the pine tree and the plum tree which is the first tree to bloom in the spring, bamboo is the third of the traditional Three Friends of Winter representing steadfastness, perseverance and resilience. While a favored subject in art and culture, bamboo is used in many very practical ways including as a food. When new bamboo emerges or “shoots” from the ground it’s appropriately called a bamboo shoot and it is editable. It’s treated as a vegetable and can be found either freshly dug, dried or canned.
Bamboo is used to make a wide range of consumer products for both the home and the garden. In the home there are chopsticks, drinking glasses, water pitchers, trays, baskets, furniture, cutting boards said to be harder than any type of wood cutting boards, and many decorative items. In the garden there are fences, gates, and other decorative items.
The Japanese word for bamboo is “take” where the ta rhymes with ha and the ke rhymes with hay. Take is found in many countries but rarely is it viewed with the same respect as in Japan.
Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater sister Cities Council.