Cherry blossoms are the symbol of the spring season in Japan and no site is more famous for its profusion of blossoms than the Yoshino Mountains in central Nara Prefecture, south of Kyoto. One hundred thousand trees, mostly yamazakura (wild mountain cherries), burst into bloom for two short weeks in early April. The original groves were said to have been planted by a Buddhist priest in the late 17th century. They were consecrated to the local mountain deity, Zao Gongen, and new trees were planted from time to time until the entire hillside was covered. Yoshino has long been celebrated for its beauty in Japanese poetry. It was Saigyo, the great 12th-century waka poet, who helped initiate the cherry’s rise to its exalted status. Many of his poems were inspired by the blossoms at Yoshino.
The Yoshino River appears in both screens in this dramatic panorama, gushing down from a source high above on the hillside at the far right. The dense white crowns of the trees seem to merge across both screens. Gold clouds frame the picture, focusing attention on the river and halo of blossoms. White petals drift on the surface of the water. The mountain stream flows through a valley; on the left screen, it divides around an islet on which there is a graceful stand of kerria (yamabuki) in bloom, its golden flowers a counterpoint to the blossoms overhead. Boulders frame the banks of the stream. At the upper left of the left screen, the clouds open to permit a glimpse of rolling hillside with tiny trees suggesting recession into the distance.
The earliest screens to depict Yoshino date from the 16th century. The left screen of the present pair is based on the late Muromachi period screen in the Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo, associated with Tosa Mitsunobu. Its composition of golden clouds, a hilly landscape, water, yellow flowers, and the white blossoms of the cherry trees, are very similar to the example offered here, but appear less stylised and more naturalistic.
For other Yoshino screens, see Miyeko Murase, Masterpieces of Japanese Screen Painting (New York, 1990), no. 11; also Murase, Bridge of Dreams: The Mary Griggs Burke Collection of Japanese Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), cat. no. 140; Melanie Trede, ed., with Julia Meech, Arts of Japan: The John C. Weber Collection (Berlin: Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2006), Pls. 34, 35.