In The Garden
Friday, December 28, 2001

By Suzanne Tswei

Fujio Kaneko put up a variation of the traditional Japanese New Year kadomatsu at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. This year he is using rare black pine from Kauai and kumquats give his arrangement a splash of orange.

Divine greeting

Start the new year right (and please the gods),
with a traditional kadomatsu arrangement

The Japanese New Year's gods, who, like humans, can be arbitrary, unpredictable and easily offended, descend upon the mortal world for a visit once a year -- which gives you but one chance to make a good impression to ensure yourself some divine benefits for the next 365 days.

Having a kadomatsu (or two) at the front door for a proper welcome is one way to curry favors with the deities. But be forewarned, don't wait till the last minute.

To be absolutely correct, the kadomatsu, an arrangement of cut bamboo, pine branches and other plant material, must be at the door a few days before the new year. Which means NOW.

Purists would have gone into the hills on Dec. 13, the day designated for the ritual of gathering pine branches for the kadomatsu. The pine, symbolizing enduring life and the most important element in the kadomatsu, should rest for some days before the kadomatsu is assembled, and the whole thing should be completed and in place right about NOW.

As far as anyone can tell, the gods don't seem to care if you make it yourself or buy one from the multitude of garden shops and retail stores selling the auspicious "gate pines" -- as long as you get it NOW to allow the gods enough time to enjoy the fresh, fragrant and aesthetic arrangement.

"You should have it by Dec. 29. If you have it on Dec. 30, it's still OK. But it's bad luck to have it on Dec. 31," said Fujio Kaneko, who has been designing giant kadomatsu for the Honolulu Academy of Arts for some 20 years.

This year he is using rare black pine from Kauai and kumquats give his arrangement a splash of orange.

Setting out kadomatsu the last day of the year gives the gods only one night to appreciate it. It's disrespectful -- and asking for trouble.

"Earlier is always better," advised Kaneko. "If you have it the last day of the year, it's not good."

In Japan, large businesses, especially department stores (which need to make a good impression on humans, too), erect outsize kadomatsu as early as Dec. 20. Kaneko said most people begin to put up the pine arrangements right after Christmas (which isn't as big a celebration as the New Year's festivities).

Every year, Kaneko, the academy's installation designer, with the help of volunteers and his staff, put up two big kadomatsu. And every year, he does something a little different, adding small artistic deviations that so far apparently have not angered the gods.

His pair of kadomatsu is particularly big this year, about 9 feet high. His previous creations usually measured no more than 5 feet high. He's using nine stalks of bamboo rather than the traditional three, and he's cockroached noble fir branches from the museum's Christmas decorations to beef up the kadomatsu.

"I had to cheat; I didn't get enough black pine," Kaneko said. "It's so hard to get Japanese pine. American pine, Japanese pine, don't look the same."

Because pine is the most important element, the more the better, Kaneko said. For it to look nice, the kadomatsu needs to have a thick bush of pine at the base.

The most desirable pine is red pine, a rarity even in Japan and an impossibility in Hawaii. Kaneko has used the traditional black pine, which is a challenge to find in the islands. He either special-orders it through florists or depends on volunteers to scour branches from high elevations on the neighbor islands.

This year, he received a box of black pine from Kauai along with some branches of kumquats, which add bright orange colors to the kadomatsu. The kumquats are auspicious fruits denoting continuous generations, he said.

In place of plum branches, another auspicious symbol not readily available in the islands, Kaneko used two Japanese paper fans. One fan has a large plum blossom design; the other has a bright orange-red color to match the first.

"I had to use what I have; no plum this time of year," said Kaneko. Even if he were to score some plum branches, he would strip off the flowers and use only the branches to stay within tradition. The inclusion of pink plum blossoms, often fake ones, is a popular practice here and in Japan.

"It looks nice, and I guess the gods don't care," he said.

Kaneko said he likes to observe tradition when possible, making straw ropes and binding them with symbolic knots. Otherwise, his arrangements are modern interpretations of the traditional practice, often dictated by lack of authentic materials. For example, he couldn't find rice straw mats, so he used similar-looking plastic blinds to cover the kadomatsu container.

Modern interpretations, popular also in Japan, don't seem to offend the New Year gods. But just remember, the kadomatsu stays up until Jan. 7 when the gods return to their divine homes. On Jan. 15 the kadomatsu should be burned to facilitate the gods' departure and expel any lingering nasty spirits.

Kaneko usually dumps his in the trash, and so far, that's been OK with the gods, too.

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Suzanne Tswei's gardening column runs Saturdays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin,
500 Ala Moana, Suite 7-210, Honolulu, HI, 96813
or email

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