Skip to main content

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

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

Dear Dad, this one's for you

Dear Dad,

You would've been 100 years old today. I didn't do anything lawyerly on your birthday, but ... I've never told you ... but three years ago, when I was on holiday in the United Kingdom, I spent a day in the Temple area of London, visiting the Inns of Court and the Royal Courts of Justice. It was so easy to imagine you there. I would've enjoyed your company, and I wish we could've popped into a pub to talk. Or argue. Probably. Happy century, Dad. I hope you still have tennis, and rugby, and books, and a veld for a walk.

Miss you!

The daughter who was born last

Bush clover, the flower of autumn

It's a modest plant, easy to overlook, yet it used to be Japan's most beloved flower.

Bush clover (ハギ, hagi) is mentioned in 141* poems in the Manyōshū (万葉集, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Japan's first anthology of poetry, compiled in the 8th century. That far exceeds the 119 poems about the second-most popular flower, plum blossoms. The latter was revered as an exotic import from China; the former was praised for its rustic simplicity.

Bush clover grows about 3 m in height and has long, slender branches that droop across paths. The branches represent feminine elegance, but it's also a symbol of vigour thanks to its ability to produce young shoots from old stock. It flowers in September, when summer's heat lingers, but it's believed that if you can see dew drops on the plant's small green leaves, you know that autumn is near.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hōzuki Ichi (Chinese lantern plant market)

I've written about this market before; this time I'm shamelessly copying an old post. The photos are new, though. ;)

Every year on 9 and 10 July a Chinese lantern market is held at Sensō-ji. "Chinese lantern" is a plant: scientific name Physalis alkekengi, Japanese namehōzuki. They have translucent orange pods that might remind you of Chinese lanterns, and they were used as a medicine for fever, gout and just about any ailment you can think of.
The temple's precinct is packed with 200 hōzuki vendors selling plants for ¥2000 to ¥2500, and wind chimes (fūrin). This year my visit was brief, because Sensō-ji has become a rather unpleasant experience. Too many tourists. Sigh.

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.