Bamboos. So extensive is the part played by the bamboo in Japanese domestic economy that the question is rather, what does it not do? The larger species serve as poles for carrying heavy weights, drying clothes, punting boats, etc.; as flag-staffs, as water-pipes, recommended hereto by their valuable property of neither rusting like iron, nor yet rotting as wood is apt to do if the water be from a hot mineral spring. As carrying poles and when employed for the framework of houses, their combination of lightness with strength makes them peculiarly valuable, it being well-known to mechanicians that the hollow tube is of all forms that which best unites those two qualities. A small species of bamboo serves to make tobacco pipe-stems; one of intermediate size makes ornamental doors and palings, in which the varying height of the joints gives a natural pattern. Others, cut into thin strips, which are sometimes bound with silk, form window-blinds; and the tender sprouts of more than one species are even boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Penholders, broom-handles, walking-sticks, umbrella-handles and also the ribs of umbrellas, angling-rods, whips, ladders, yard-measures, bows and arrows, coolies hats, submarine hedges for the collecting of oysters and of edible sea weed, hedges also round houses, embankments for rivers (large stones being placed for this purpose in bamboo crates), clapboarding, ornamental floors for verandahs and tea-rooms, travelling trunks, torches, chopsticks, spits, bird-cages, fish-traps, flutes, trumpets, picture-frames, cask hoops, even nails (for being non-conductors of heat and non-corrosible, bamboo nails do better for certain purposes than metal ones), ladles, tea-scoops, sieves, shutters, fans, even flower-vases, special apparatus of various sorts for use in the arts, toys and ornaments of innumerable kinds, are all manufactured out of bamboo. Nothing makes a better tube for keeping unmounted photographs from the damp than does a section of bamboo. The dried sheath of the culm of the young bamboo serves for wrapping up such things as rice sandwiches, meat, and cakes, which are apt to stain their receptacles; also for the manufacture of sandals and the soles of wooden clogs. The leaves of the bamboo grass (which is a sort of bamboo) provide a clean, cool surface on which to lay fish in a basket, the basket itself being often of bamboo split and twisted. Such twisted split bamboos also serve to make strong hawsers, which are employed to swing ferry-boats, and even for the construction of bridges in certain rural districts, as no other material is so cheap and so easy to handle. One kind at least can, by a process of boiling, be flattened out into trays which are much prized. Another species, which is non-hollow, is cut into seals. The above list could easily be extended. But it may suffice to show that Japanese life without the bamboo is almost as hard to picture to oneself as pastry without butter, landscape without light, or a Britisher with out a grievance.
The numerous plants which common parlance lumps together under the general name of "bamboos" really form three distinct genera, known to botanists as Bambusa, Arundinaria, and Phyllostachys, each including many species. The number of species of bamboo found growing in Japan at the present day is stated by Prof. Matsumura, of the Tōkyō University and Botanical Gardens, at fifty, not including of course numerous varieties and sports. Thirty-nine are indigenous; the others have been introduced at various times from Korea, China, or the Luchu Islands, either for industrial use or as exotics for the adornment of rich men's gardens. Such are the hōchiku, or square bamboo, and the suwō-chiku whose stem, when young, is of a bright red hue. To our own thinking, some of the commonest species are also the most graceful, the mōsō-dake or "feathery bamboo," for instance, with its golden stem and overhanging plume-like fronds, clumps of which—though it, too, was introduced from China no earlier than A. D. 1738—are now among the most typical features of the Japanese landscape, and the sasa, or bamboo grass, that grows on hills and in country lanes, and whose leaves, bright green in spring, become edged with white as the year wanes, so that each comes to look like a little "cloud with a silver lining."
Most Europeans persist in regarding the bamboo as a delicate tropical plant, which would not stand our northern climate. We should like to show such persons the tall Japanese bamboos bending under the weight of the February snow, in parts of the country where the snowfall is measured, not in inches, but in feet. As a matter of fact, the bamboo in snow-time is a favourite Japanese art-motive.
By the Japanese themselves the bamboo is not regarded as a tree. In their eyes it forms a category apart, so that they speak of "trees and bamboos." Properly it belongs to the grasses:—it is just a giant grass, and nothing more. Its rate of growth is astonishing compared with that of most other members of the vegetable kingdom, sometimes several feet in the course of four-and-twenty hours. Indeed, from every point of view the bamboo presents interesting subject-matter for observation, while practically it is one of nature's choicest gifts to man.
Books recommended. The Uses of Bamboo in Japan, by Charles Holme, in Vol. I. of the "Transactions of the Japan Society." The Culture of Bamboos in Japan, by Sir Ernest Satow, forming Part III. of Vol. XXVII. of the "Asiatic Transactions," is an elaborate scientific treatise founded on the work of a Japanese botanist named Katayama, and abundantly illustrated. Mitford's Bamboo Garden is a more popular book, in which the subject is viewed chiefly from the standpoint of the acclimatisation of the bamboo in England. We ourselves have to thank Prof. Matsumura for information concerning the number of Japanese species of bamboo known up to date.
- In the opinion of Sir Ernest Satow, the number of indigenous species is much smaller than that stated by Prof. Matsumura. The question is a difficult one.