Mysterious World of Bamboo

Is bamboo tree or grass? It blooms! The oldest story in Japan: The Tale of Bamboo Cutter, and more – all the things you need to know to have full experience for your visit to Japan

by Lina Japanese Writer/Translator

Bamboo forests are mysterious, solemn and beautiful oriental scenery. Bamboo looks very unique. Is bamboo a tree or a grass? Not many people can answer this question. Did you know that bamboo has flowers? 

Here is what you need to know about the amazing ecology of bamboo that you need to know before you visit Japan.

The oldest fictionalised story in Japan is The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori Monogatari). An old man who makes a living by cutting bamboo and making tools for various purposes finds a shining bamboo in the bamboo forest. Inside the bamboo, there is a beautiful baby girl. The girl, Kaguya-hime (Princess Kaguya), grows up to be so beautiful that she does not look like a human being of this world. She is courted by five noble princes, but Kaguya-hime dismisses the proposals by giving them impossible challenges to obtain her. Finally, even the emperor proposed to Kaguya-hime.

Kaguya-hime (left) and men courting her (right) 竹取物語絵巻

Bamboo forests are everywhere in Japan. Bamboo is very strong and spirited, and can grow more than one metre a day. We don’t know exactly when The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter was written, but it was established by the mid-10th century. Bamboo has long been closely associated with Japanese people’s living, as the old man in The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter has a particular way of living.

Since its toughness and elasticity, bamboo has been used as material for Japanese bows, fishing poles and baskets. Bamboo poles are hollow inside and can be used for a variety of purposes such as vessels, blowguns and flutes. Kendo, a traditional Japanese martial art, also uses bamboo swords, literally called “竹刀 (‘shinai’: 竹 = bamboo, 刀 = sword).

basket and cup made of Bamboo, as well as the wrap (leaves)
Kendo players holding shinai
Yabusame, traditional archery on the back of horses
Bamboo shoots (筍/竹の子)

Bamboo trunks and leaves are hard and inedible, but the ‘shoots’ of the bamboo can be eaten. Kagoshima prefecture, my hometown, ranks first in terms of bamboo forest area by prefecture in Japan, and I had been playing in bamboo forests since childhood. In my hometown, we frequently dig up and eat bamboo shoots… although bamboo shoots are 10-30 cm in diameter and weigh 1-3 kg, and most of the part is under the ground. Digging for bamboo shoots is like a ‘treasure hunt’ – you will never know how big the shoots are until you dig them up. For children, digging bamboo shoots is a fun way to play.

Bamboo Shoot

Bamboo forms forests by spreading its underground stem. Bamboo forests spread by asexual reproduction, similar to the way potatoes grow and spread, so the bamboos in a forest are all the same individual from a genetic point of view. In other words, the bamboos in a bamboo forest are all identical clones.

Therefore, when bamboo makes flowers, all the bamboos make flowers at the same time like one tree makes flowers. Then, like most grasses, after flowering and sexual reproduction, the whole of the bamboo forest dies. Bamboos flower in spring, but extremely infrequently – once every 60 to 120 years, depending on the species of bamboo.

Let us go back to the original question: Is bamboo a tree or a grass? Generally, we call a plant a tree when its stem thickens and becomes hard and woody. On the other hand, plants with flexible stems that do not become woody are grasses. Tomatoes and aubergines have woody parts at the base. In fact, when grown in warm greenhouses using a method called hyponica farming, tomatoes grow into giant trees.

So what about bamboo? Bamboo does not have thick stems and does not become woody. However, its stems are hard and it grows large and makes a bamboo forest. Yes, bamboo is a unique species that has both grass and tree characteristics. Experts’ opinions are divided on which category to classify bamboo. First of all, both ‘tree’ and ‘grass’ are merely distinctions defined by humans for convenience. The platypus is a mammal, but they lay eggs. Do platypuses lay eggs while considering themselves mammals?

Kaguya-hime in The Tale of the Bamboo-Cutter rejects even the courtship by the emperor. Which all women desire. Indeed, Kaguya-hime is not a human being, but actually a resident of the Moon. The people of the Moon Capital, the celestials, are beautiful, immortal and never bothered by pensiveness. The transcendent heavenly beings are free from the emotions, affections and desires of human beings.

After a while, however, Kaguya-hime began to sob and weep while looking at the moon. Kaguya-hime loved the old man who had been very kind to her, and she was grieving the coming farewell. Celestials come to the land to welcome Kaguya-hime. She entrusts celestials’ “medicine for immortality (Fusi-no-Kusuri)” with a poem addressed to the emperor. Then, a celestial puts the “heaven’s robe of feathers” on Kaguya-hime, she loses her love for the old man, becoming unreflective, and ascends to the World of the Moon.

Kaguya-hime ascending back to the Moon

The emperor was terribly grieved by Kaguya-hime’s letter. He gathers his retainers and asks them which is the mountain that is closest to heaven. One says it is the mountain in Suruga Province, and the emperor says “Since I will never see Kaguya, why do I need the medicine for immortality?”, and orders to burn the medicine on the highest mountain.

According to the emperor’s command, the strongest men (士) are gathered to climb the mountain, on top of which the Medicine for Immortality was burnt. The smoke is ascending to the sky and it never ceased. The mountain became known as the Mountain of Immortality(ふし, fusi) – Mount Fuji (富士, ふじ, Fuji).

Mt. Fuji is a volcano and was active when The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter was written. Today the volcano is dormant.