Seasonal Association: Winter
When To Wear It: all year
A Note on Seasonality: Some sources of classical poetry place matsu in the category of a winter motif. I tend to agree with this assessment as pine has a very strong association in my mind with O-shogatsu (New Years) as well as it’s inclusion in the trio of shochikubai (the three friends of winter). Others do not agree with this. However one fact that is indisputable is that matsu is an auspicious motif and therefore can be worn all year round.
There are two main kinds of pine trees that grow in japan. Kuromatsu ( 黒松 black pine) grows in coastal areas and akamatsu ( 赤松 red pine) grows on mountains and in fields.
Their long life (sometimes hundreds of years) hardiness, and the fact that they are green all year round make them an auspicious symbol of longevity.
Pine is used in a wide variety of items in Japan. Lumber, windbreaks, fuel, torches, and bonsai all use pine wood. The soot from burning pinewood is used to create ink for calligraphy. In addition, matsutake mushrooms can only be found growing around the base of akamatsu.
Spiritually, pine is heavily linked with the gods of the Japanese pantheon. Noh plays usually feature at least one supernatural character, and the background for all noh stages is a painting of a single pine tree.
During O-shogatsu (お正月Japanese New Year) homes are decorated with a pair of kadomatsu (門松gate pines). These decorations are said to provide homes for the gods during their visit to Earth.
For more information on pine, Begin Japanology has created an excellent video on the subject.
The kanji that make up shochikubai include matsu (pine) take (bamboo) and ume (plum blossom). The name comes from the Chinese reading of the characters instead of the Japanese reading (sho=pine, chiku=bamboo, and bai=plum blossom). This combination is known as the “Three Friends of Winter.” It’s a very auspicious combination, and although all the motifs are associated with winter, it can be used year round. It is especially popular during the Japanese New Year. Bamboo and pine are always included in decorations called kadomatsu (門松) although it’s still a little early in January for plum blossoms to be blooming.
Here are the two most common ways of depicting matsu.
Kasamatsu (笠松) Hat of Pine
In this motif, the pine foliage forms a hat while the branches form the ties of the hat, Although personally, I think it looks more like a mushroom than a hat.
Matsuba chirashi (松葉散らし) Scattered Pine Needles
This motif resembles scattered pine needles on the ground. The needles are always depicted in pairs that are attached at the base of the needles.