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Azaleas: brazen, bodacious and bootylicious

Cherry blossoms are undeniably Japan's main flower attraction, but enough already with this coyness that barely lasts a week. A fragile flirtation is all well and good, but it has to be spiced up with some brazen, bodacious, hot-blooded passion.

Enter stage left … azaleas, or tsutsuji (つつじ) in Japanese.

If the cherry blossoms are all about subtlety and delicacy, azaleas are dashing exhibitionists that shake their booty in dazzling shades of pink, red and magenta. Ballerina vs flamenco dancer. Or, as I said in a previous post (last year when I had zero readers), blushing maiden vs flamboyant hussy.

I'll tell you about my top azalea spots in Tokyo, and then, for the truly dedicated, I'll give a short summary of the flower's history in the city.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Nezu Jinja (根津神社) in Bunkyō-ku is breathtaking in azalea season. It was built in 1705. It survived America's fire-bombing during WWII, and is one of only three shrines in Tokyo with original buildings from the Edo period that have "Important Cultural Property" status. The shrine is in a small park with 3000 azalea bushes that will deliver a guaranteed gut punch when you see them. Nezu's azalea festival is from mid April till early May; the best time is the last week in April. Entrance to the shrine is free, but it costs ¥200 to enter the azalea hill.

Nezu Jinja

The neighbourhood of Komagome has a long association with azaleas (see "history trivia" below), and you can see gorgeous examples in Rikugien in Bunkyō-ku. The garden has a hill, Fujimi-yama (Fuji View Mountain), that is 35 m high and covered in azalea bushes. Hint: go early and get out before 10 am, when the senior army arrives in a blast of bossy instructions.

Rikugien

Ninomaru (二の丸) in the East Garden of the Tokyo Imperial Palace is a delight in any season. It's seldom crowded, and you can sit under a tree and simply enjoy the sound of running water, birdsong and insects. I'm not sure why the park is so quiet: perhaps because it's far away from major residential areas, perhaps because it has a fairly solemn atmosphere and patrolling policemen thanks to its proximity to the palace.

Ninomaru

Kyu-Furukawa Teien in Kita-ku combines a European manor house with a formal French rose garden (both designed by Josiah Conder) and a classic Japanese garden with a pond (designed by Jihei Ogawa). The garden is built on two levels, and azalea bushes form a border between the geometrical rose garden and the dense camellias (つばき, tsubaki) and Japanese chinquapin (, shii) that lead to the pond on the lower level. I'm afraid I don't have photos of the azaleas in this garden, but I'll rectify that oversight this season!

Kyu-Furukawa. The azaleas are not flowering in this photo, but you can clearly see the bushes.

That's it: my four best azalea spots in Tokyo. Now, a very short summary of the history of this lovely flower in Tokyo, condensed from A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo by Sumiko Enbutsu, as well as various websites.

Tokyo's azalea boom started in the 1650s, when samurai gardeners turned their attention from classical flowers like peony to this new attraction. One of the most famous nurserymen was Itō Ihei Sannojō, who lived in Somei in northern Edo (present-day Komagome). He sold his plants at prices that everybody could afford, even us plebs of the shitamachi, and turned his neighbourhood into a mecca for azaleas. You can still see his legacy in the beautiful azalea bushes planted at Komagome Station.

More history trivia: Sannojō's son, Masatake, was commissioned by the eighth shōgun, Yoshimune, to design his garden at Edo Castle. Yoshimune is the same guy who brought cherry trees – hitherto a hobby of the aristocracy – to the masses of Edo. It is believed that he was influenced by Masatake.

Final trivia: Sannojō's nursery was called Kirishimaya, named after the Kirishima mountains in central Kyushu. This is where you'll find Mount Takachiho, where Ninigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu and great-grandfather of Jimmu, descended from heaven with three celestial gifts (sword, mirror and jewel) that signify the divinity of the emperor.

Don't you just love mythology?! No? OK, if I can't wow you with myths, I'll dazzle you with photos! I've included access maps: Nezu Jinja, Rikugien, Ninomaru and Kyu-Furukawa Teien.

Nezu Jinja

A priest and an azalea merchant chat at Nezu Jinja.

This is what you see when you sit in the tea house at Rikugien.

Ninomaru

Ninomaru

Ninomaru

Pretty in pink


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