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Tokyo's best iris gardens

If you asked me what flower I associate most closely with Japan, my answer might surprise you. Not its famous cherry blossoms. Not Buddha's own flower, the lotus. Not even the emperor's symbol, the chrysanthemum.

Huh-uh. Iris. We refer to it in English as "the Japanese iris", but that's a bit misleading, since there are several distinct species. I would guess that most people probably mean hanashōbu (Iris ensata or Iris kaempferi) when they refer to a "Japanese iris", since that is undoubtedly the most beautiful member of the family. It was developed from wild irises by samurai gardeners in the Edo era.

Hanashōbu. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Then there's ayame (Iris sanguinea), called blood iris in English; as well as shaga (Iris japonica), which doesn't seem to have an English name. Another famous species is the kakitsubata (Iris laevigata) or rabbit-ear iris, which was immortalized in a famous tanka written by Ariwara no Narihira in the Heian era. (It's been alleged that the infamous Genji was based on him.)

から衣  karakoromo
きつゝなれにし  kitsutsu narenishi
つましあれば  tsuma shi areba,
はるばるきぬる  harubaru kinuru
たびをしぞ思  tabi o shizo omou

English: "I have travelled so far, and my heart aches when I think of my Chinese robes and my beloved wife." (Don't you just love the fact that he misses his Chinese robes as much as he misses his wife? Men!) Incidentally, did you notice that the first syllables of the five lines spell "ka ki tsu ha(ba) ta"?

Below are Wikipedia photos of the rabbit-ear iris, blood iris and shaga:


After that background, here's my list of top iris spots in Tokyo. The best time to view irises is from mid June to early July.

Hondoji in Chiba (again)

Hondoji. Again. It has a superb iris garden. If you visit only one temple in/near Tokyo in this rainy season, go to Hondoji. I wrote about it here and here.

Hondoji. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.








Koishikawa Kōrakuen in Tokyo

The garden remains a firm favourite in all seasons, and it doesn't disappoint in June: it has a small but lovely iris garden with a wide variety of species.

An added advantage is that you can stroll through the garden's forest, around its various ponds, and enjoy the green maple leaves. I suggest you go early, though, since the garden gets invaded by hordes of bossy, chattering, flag-following seniors from 10 am onwards.

Koishikawa Kōrakuen




Meiji Jingu Inner Garden in Tokyo

I add this one reluctantly. I used to enjoy it, but then somebody decided that the well inside the garden was a power spot, and now Tokyo's young girls flock there to … I don't know. I doubt they do. Perhaps the worst of the craze is over and you can once again get into the garden without waiting in line for hours, but this garden has the same disadvantage as Koishikawa Kōrakuen: it gets badly crowded during iris season, and you'll be assaulted by parasols, old-timers and school groups. Go very early.

Meiji Jingu Inner Garden



Abstract art

Sawara Botanical Garden in Chiba/Ibaraki

Its full name is Suigō Sawara Aquatic Botanical Garden or Suigō Sawara Suiseishokubutsuen (水郷佐原水生植物園). It is, quite simply, awesome. It has 1,5 million irises belonging to 350 iris species, and you can take a ride on a flat-bottomed boat with traditional musicians accompanying you. You'll be transported back to old Edo in a wink. The only reason why it's not my first choice is that it requires a bit of a trek to get there: a 90-minute train journey from Tokyo, plus another 20 to 30 minutes by bus or taxi.

I wrote about Sawara in detail in this post.

Sawara Botanical Garden









I've included access maps to Hondoji and Sawara Botanical Garden.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

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