If one could create out of thin air a single physical thing that humans could use to create a variety of products, it would be difficult to come up with something better than bamboo.
There are other crucial plants in Japan: Rice and rice straw are ubiquitous and fundamental, tea has been bred and processed to create a huge variety of flavors, and sea kelp is processed and cooked in a variety of ways. Some of these food products even show up in non-edible forms, such as rice paper.
But nothing in Japan – even the wood of pine trees or the archipelago’s abundance of stone – shows up in so many forms, providing so many uses, as bamboo does. From tools to food, building materials to fabrics, tea whisks to musical instruments – from the quotidian to the sublime – bamboo has been manipulated and processed and transformed in dozens of ways into hundreds, even thousands, of objects that make Japan the country and culture it is.
Even Japan’s language and culture benefit from this simple plant: Bamboo provides some of Japan’s most durable and elastic metaphors, its very presence offering lessons in character and behavior that resonate with the Japanese on a fundamental level. In Japan, everything is connected to bamboo.
That said, bamboo grows all over much of the world (except for Europe and much of the Middle East), and appears in as many as 1,400 different varieties of the subfamily Bambusoideae of the family Poaceae. It grows everywhere from the humid tropics to the frigid north of Japan and China, a dazzlingly well-adapted plant that only looks like a tree. It is, in fact, a member of the grass family.
Bamboo is used all over Asia for construction, whether as the elements of the structure itself, or as scaffolding. Its tensile strength, which approaches that of steel, as well as its flexibility, make it ideal for many uses. In Japan, it is not used so much for construction, as the archipelago’s extensive mountain forests contain a wealth of hard woods. But turn to food, decorative items, architectural details, religious artifacts, musical instruments such as the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), flooring, furniture and even fabrics, and you will see bamboo everywhere.
The Japanese word for bamboo is take. Once you know that word, you will hear it popping up everywhere, for bamboo is often used in Japanese metaphors. An example is “take ni ki o tsugu,” which means, literally, “putting wood and bamboo together,” which is meant to convey disharmony.
Even more common is the use of bamboo as a symbol of prosperity, since it has so many uses for the Japanese. You will see take pictured in many paintings and religious artifacts, and at New Year’s, the entrances of homes, business and shrines feature the kadomatsu, three wide bamboo shoots (or “culms”) tied together for good fortune.
Take is also the second of the Three Friends of Winter (saikan no sanyu/ sho chiku bai), the three hardy plants that the Japanese admire for their perseverance and durability during Japan’s harsh winters. These three plants – pine, bamboo and plum – have become metaphors for quality, expressing relative levels in much the way Westerners might use gold, silver and bronze.
As in much of Asia, visitors to Japan may also eat bamboo. This is a seasonal favorite of the Japanese, who prefer to pick the bamboo shoots in late winter, before they even break the surface of the soil, as they are considered most tender and delicious at this point, and can be eaten raw.
Another common springtime treat is takenoko (literally, “bamboo child”) bamboo shoots that have been boiled and cooked in dashi broth, or grilled, or fried tempura style, or pickled. The Japanese magic with food extends easily to bamboo shoots.
Furniture, decorations, scoops for ritual washing at temples, cooking tools from chopsticks to the takebera (the scoop for serving cooked rice), or the chasen (the whisk used in the tea ceremony), from the traditional Japanese fountain, the tsukubai, to baskets, swords and bows and arrows, even the shippei, which Zen priests might use to smack a dozing monk during meditation practice…these are just some of the uses of bamboo in Japanese life. You will see many, many more as you travel the country.
But just as important as its many physical uses are the characteristics that the Japanese most admire in people as well as in bamboo: its flexibility as well as rootedness; its ability to bend without breaking; its internal strength that isn’t obvious; its remarkable capacity for growth; and its simplicity and lack of anything superfluous.
Finally, there is the plant itself, varieties of which are fast growing and invasive in the extreme, but which are beautiful to look at – as well as to hear. Standing in the midst of a bamboo forest such as the grove at Tenryuji Temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district – perhaps the most photographed bamboo grove in the world – is one of the highlights of any visit to Kyoto. Surrounded by the many-colored, hollow culms gently knocking against one another while the leaves flutter in the wind is one of the great delights of life in Japan.