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Japanese Wine Flowers

by William Elliot Griffis

On both sides of the great wide street leading to Asakusa, in old Yedo, were shops full of toys of all kinds. At certain seasons of the year booths were hastily put up, and stocked with the curiosities of the season. For a few days before New-Year's one could buy ferns, lobsters, oranges, evergreens, and rice-straw festoons. In the second month appeared seeds, roots, bulbs, and gardeners' tools. Dolls and girls' toys came on in the third month, ready for the Feast of Dolls. Images of heroes, banners, toy horses, and boys' playthings, for the Feast of Flags, were out in the fifth month. Bamboo and streamers, in the seventh month, celebrated the meeting of the star-lovers. Chrysanthemums in autumn, and camellias in winter, could be bought, all having their special use and meaning. Thus throughout the different months Asakusa was gay with new things of all colors, and bustling with ten thousand people of all ages. Besides the shops and booths, a constant street fair was held by people whose counter was the pavement, and whose stock in trade, spread out on the street, must run the risk of dust, rain, and the accidents from passers-by.

Among these jolly peddlers was one Umé, a little rosy-cheeked maid of twelve years, who sold wine-flowers.

"Wine-flowers; what are they?"

If we open the boxes or paper bags sold by Umé, we see a pack of what seem to be tiny colored jackstraws or fine shavings. They are made by cutting out very thin slices of pith in the shape of men, women, birds, flowers, fishes, bats, tortoises, tools, and many other things. These are gummed, folded up, and pinched tightly, until each one looks like nothing but a shred of linen or a tiny chip of frayed wood. If you drop one of them into a bowl of hot water, it will open and unfold like a flower. They blossom slowly in cold water, but hot water makes them jump up and open at once.

Umé's blind grandfather and her mother made these wine-flowers for a living, and she went out daily and sat on the Asakusa street to sell them.

Sometimes they made "shell-surprises."

Out of a hard paste made from moss they cut the shapes of roses, camellias, lilies, daisies, etc., of real size, which they painted to a natural color. Then folding them in a ball, and squeezing them into a cockle-shell, they were ready for sale. They looked just like common white shells; but when dropped into hot water they opened at once, and the ball of gum inside, rising to the surface, blossomed into a flower of true size and tint.

"But why are they called wine-flowers?"

The reason is this. The Japanese drink their "wine" (saké or rice-beer) hot, and in tiny cups about the size of a small half orange. When one friend is about to offer the cup to another, he drops one of these pith chips on the surface of the wine. It blossoms instantly before their eyes, and is the "flower of friendship."


The artist Ozawa has sketched the inside of a home in Japan, where the children are merrily enjoying the game of surprises. A Japanese mother has bought a few boxes of the pith toys from Umé. They have a lacquered tub half full of warm water. Every few minutes the fat-cheeked servant-girl brings in a fresh steaming kettleful to keep it hot. They all kneel on the matting, and it being summer, they are in bare feet, which they like. The elder one of the two little girls, named O-Kin (Little Gold), has a box already half empty.

"Guess what this one is," says she to her little brother Kozo, who sits in the centre.

"It's a lily, or a pot of flowers—I know it is," cries Kozo: "I know it, because it's a long one."

O-Kin drops it. It flutters like a feather in the air, then it touches the water, squirms a moment, jumps about as if alive, unfolds, and instead of a long-stemmed flower, it is a young lady carrying a lantern, all dressed for an evening call. "Ha! ha! ha!" laugh they all.

"You didn't guess it.—You try," said O-Kin, to O-Haya (Little Wave), her sister; "it's a short one."

"I think it's either a drum or a tai," (red fish), said O-Haya, looking eagerly.

It opened slowly, and a bright red fish floated to the top and swam for a second. Its eye, mouth, and tail were perfect. "I guessed it," said O-Haya, clapping her hands.

"Look, mamma," cried Kozo, to his mother, "here are two heavenly rats [bats], but they can't fly; two of Fuji Mountain; two musŭmé [young ladies], a maple leaf, a plum blossom, a 'love-bird,' a cherry blossom, a paper swallow, and a kiku [chrysanthemum flower]. They have all opened beautifully."

Then mamma dropped in a few from her box. They were longer and finer than O-Kin's, and as they unfolded, the children screamed with delight. A man in a boat, with a pole and line, was catching a fish; a rice mortar floated alongside a wine-cup; the Mikado's crest bumped the Tycoon's; a tortoise swam; a stork unfolded its wings; a candle, a fan, a gourd, an axe, a frog, a rat, a sprig of bamboo, and pots full of many-colored flowers sprung open before their eyes. By this time the water was tinged with several colors, chiefly red.

After the fun was over, the children carefully picked out the spent tricks with a flat bit of bamboo, and spread them to dry on a sheet of white paper; but they never could be used again.

Sometimes only flower tricks are used, and then the blossoms open in all colors, until the water contains a real floating garden or "water bouquet."