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In praise of wisteria and older men

"There is much to be said for cherry blossoms, but they seem so flighty. They are so quick to run off and leave you. And then just when your regrets are the strongest the wisteria comes into bloom, and it blooms on into the summer. There is nothing quite like it. Even the color is somehow companionable and inviting."

The speaker is Tō no Chūjō, friend and rival – both in love and politics – of Genji, the main character in
The Tale of Genji.

The paragraph ends with these words: "He was still a very handsome man. His smile said a great deal." I fell in love with Tō no Chūjō when I read this: an older man, still handsome, who has a charming smile and prefers steadfast companionship rather than a thousand flighty flirtations. (It should be added that this ideal probably applies to his mistresses rather than to himself. This is, after all, The Tale of Genji we're talking about. Let's not get too starry-eyed.)

However, this post is not about the charms of older men, much as I believe a man's best years are his forties and fifties. It's about wisteria, called fuji () in Japanese. Its Afrikaans name is bloureën, blue rain. Isn't that a perfect description?

Wisteria at Hisaizu Jinja. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Wisteria is native to China, Korea, Japan and the eastern United States. The Japanese species is called Wisteria floribunda, and as Wikipedia says, it's "perhaps the most spectacular of the Wisteria family. It sports the longest flower racemes of any wisteria; they can reach nearly half a meter in length … in early to mid-spring." The flowers range from white to blue to violet, and they have a lovely sweet scent.

I'm not going to give you a long history lesson. Suffice it to say that a clan called Fujiwara (藤原, wisteria field) dominated politics in Kyoto in the Heian period. Their influence undoubtedly helped to entrench wisteria's popularity amongst the aristocracy.

Sei Shōnagon, author of The Pillow Book, which was written around 1000, included wisteria in her "list of splendid things". Here we go: "Chinese brocade, a sword with a decorated scabbard, the grain of the wood in a Buddhist statue, long flowering branches of beautifully coloured wisteria entwined about a pine tree."

More wisteria trivia: It's believed that wisteria loves sake! If a wisteria has flowered well during spring, its owner pours sake over its roots with wishes for good blooms in the next season.

Wisteria will be in full bloom in the next two weeks, so here's my recommendations for wisteria spots in Tokyo. There are many other places, but I haven't been there myself yet.

Hisaizu Jinja (久伊豆神社) in Koshigaya, Saitama, houses a 200-year-old wisteria. A rice farmer planted the wisteria at the shrine in 1837. It was his way to express his gratitude to Hirata Atsutane, a nationally famous scholar of classical literature who shared his knowledge with rural farmers on his frequent visits to the shrine. The wisteria still thrives. Today it spreads its branches over a trellis measuring 20 m by 30 m. (I've included an access map at the end of this post.)

Hisaizu Jinja

The magnificent wisteria trellis at Hisaizu Jinja

One of the best places in Tokyo for viewing wisteria is Kameido Tenjin (亀戸天神), a shrine that's been immortalized in many woodblock prints of its famous, steeply arched taikobashi or drum bridges. The bridges are beautiful, but not as enchanting as the wisteria. The flowers hang from trellises suspended over green ponds, and their smell is intoxicating. (The wisteria; the ponds smell, well, pondish.) The shrine has a wisteria festival in late April and early May. Unfortunately. I add "unfortunately" because festival implies food stalls. These stalls line the paths around the ponds, which makes it very difficult to get good photos of the bridges, their reflections and the flowers. Bah humbug! Who needs food? According to this site, full bloom should be early May.

Wisteria at Kameido Tenjin

Kameido Tenjin

Kyū Shiba Rikyū Onshi Teien (旧芝離宮恩賜庭園) next to Hamamatsuchō Station also has a lovely wisteria trellis with easy access.

The most beautiful wisteria is probably the one in Ashikaga in Tochigi, but it's a bit too far for me. 

So many flowers! Right now it's also the best time for azaleas and peonies, so thank heavens it's almost Golden Week. Just keep your fingers crossed that we'll have nice weather!

The trunk of the wisteria at Hisaizu Jinja. It looks like an animal in a cage ...

Drum bridge at Kameido Tenjin

Genji, wisteria and Kameido Tenjin, all together! This woodblock print by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864) shows Genji during a visit to the famous shrine.

Wisteria next to a canal in Kōtō-ku

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