People often utter an odd voice “what’s this?” when they encounter something unusual or rare. “Nanja?”corresponds to“What’s this?” in Japanese. Nanja Monja perhaps goes a bit stronger than Nanja, similar to saying "What’s this, for Heaven's sake"?
A special tree, native to Fujian, China, was given the name Nanja Monja. In Japan the tree is designated as a natural treasure. Its distribution in Japan is sporadic. One bay in the upper Tshushima Island in Nagasaki Prefecture, Korea Strait, boasts more than 3,000 of these trees. When trees go in full bloom, the entire bay gets whitened. So Tsushima people gave the tree another name “Bay Illuminator”.
The month of May is the blooming season. I heard 120 trees are in full bloom right now at the mouth of the River Onga. I asked my sister, who knows the area, to drive me and my wife there. It is inside Oka Minato Shrine, Ashiya, an old day port that saw departures of the legendary Empress Jingu (AD 169-269) to Korea and the local Lord Kuroda Samurais to Shimabara, Nagasaki to suppress the Christian's Revolt (1637), headed by teenager Shiro Amakusa.
The Nanaja Monja in Ashiya was just marvelous. They are all young trees, branches hanging in showy clusters at eye level. I had read that the trees bloom at night and shed in the morning. We were there at 9:00AM, so the timing was very good. First, I thought the flower was similar to jasmine I had growing in my San Diego residence, but less fragrant than jasmine.
Coming home, I found it belongs to the osmanthus family. Google led me to a Samurai botanist, Toyofumi Mizutani, near Nagoya (1779-1833) who named the tree “One Leaf Tago”, differentiating from Toneriko or Tago, which features multiple leaves. The scientific name of Tago is Fraxinus Japonica Blune. The records show that Mizutani met Philip Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a German physician and the one who introduced hydrangea to Europe, when Siebold traveled from Nagasaki to Edo.
In the U.S. the closest tree is the White Fringe Tree or Fringer. The official name is “Chionanthus retusus”, chion meaning snow and anthus flower. An American Japanese sent the photo of Fringer in Huntington Garden, Pasadena. But it looks different as he called it "Old Man’s Beard" and it belongs to the Olive Family. He says some describe Fringer as a Gossamer lace look.