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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.

White bush clover. The flowers are very small.

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.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Nowadays the flower attracts little attention. There aren't any good bush clover viewing spots in Tokyo that I know of, apart from a single trellis at Mukōjima Hyakkaen Garden, so I toddled off to Kamakura to visit two famous bush clover temples. I went on two different days, and it was so hot and humid on both days that I got positively grumpy. It drizzled on the second day, which meant my feeble insect repellent washed off, which meant the mosquitoes attacked, which meant I was swatting at umbrellas/parasols and scowling at babies. Kamakura is beautiful, but the tourists, oh great Buddha, the tourists!

Edit added on 25 September: Mukōjima Hyakkaen Garden has a bush clover festival from 8 September till 8 October.


My first trip was to Hōkai-ji, or to give it its full name, Kinryuzan Shakuman-in Endon Hōkai-ji (金龍山釈満院円頓宝戒寺).

This Tendai temple is linked to the Hōjō regents of the Kamakura shogunate, who built a temple called Tōshō-ji. Then, in 1333, a rival clan led by Nitta Yoshisada attacked Kamakura. The Hōjō clan, clearly outnumbered, barricaded themselves inside Tōshō-ji, set іt оn fire аnd killed themselves.

Bush clover hides Hōkai-ji from your view.

Emperor Go-Daigo ordered Ashikaga Takauji, who would become the first of the Ashikaga shoguns, to build a new temple to mourn for the dead. This temple, today's Hōkai-ji, was built on the premises of a Hōjō residence. Later, becаuse residents claimed thаt the neighborhood wаs still haunted by Hōjō ghosts, a shrine called Tokusō Gongen wаs erected within the temple tо placate the spirits. The shrine still stands next tо Hōkai-ji's main hall.

Tokusō Gongen

A memorial service is held annually on 22 May, the day of the mass suicide.

Bush clover flowers are usually pink, but the bushes at Hōkai-ji are white. To explain why, I have to give another history lesson. (Sorry!) White is associated with Minamoto no Yoritomo, the leader of the Genji clan. After his death, the Hōjō clan usurped his power and retained his emblem colour.

The Genji's big rivals, the Heike, used red as an emblem colour, and they're represented by the reddish pinkish bush clover flowers at …


The Rinzai Zen temple Kaizō-ji (海蔵寺) was built in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), when Kamakura was no longer the nation's capital.

Approach to Kaizō-ji

Red/pink bush clover

Main temple at Kaizō-ji

One of the most interesting features at this temple is its wells. Kamakura has ten wells (鎌倉十井, Kamakura jussei) which are famous because they produce unusually fresh water that is free of the saltiness of most wells in this area. I should say "produced", because only one of them still flows, and that's the so-called Bottomless Well at Kaizō-ji.

Bottomless Well

The temple has sixteen other wells, which you'll find if you follow a path that meanders through private homes towards the left of the temple. They're in a yagura, or cave, that was dug during the Kamakura period. All sixteen wells are 70 cm x 40 cm, and they're all still running. Nobody's quite sure what their purpose was. Archeologists say it was for burying ashes; the temple says they represent a Bodhisattva.

Red bush clover at Kaizō-ji. If you follow the path to the left of this building,
it will take you to the cave with the sixteen wells.

Yagura with sixteen wells. It was too dark inside the cave to take decent photos.

The temple has lots of interesting stories associated with it, but that's another post for another day.

More bush clover trivia

The Manyōshū identifies the bush clover as one of the seven autumn flowers (秋の七, aki no nanakusa). The other six are:

valerian (オミナエシ, ominaeshi)
Miscanthus sinensis (オバナor ススキ, obana or susuki)
Chinese bellflower (キキョウ, kikyō)
Dianthus superbus (ナデシコ, nadeshiko)
Eupatorium japonicum (ジバカマ, fujibakama)
kudzu (クズ, kudzu)

Sumiko Enbutsu says in her book A Flower Lover's Guide to Tokyo that Kyoto aristocrats associated the seven autumn flowers with the grassy highlands of the Musashino Moor – "the vast grassland with no mountain in sight filled them with wonder and evoked the romantic image of a long journey into wilderness". Wonder what they would've thought of Africa's savannah. I digress.

Bush clover poems

When so little of his life remained,
He asked, Are the bush clovers
Yet in flower? – Alas, my master!

These days as the dawn
Reddens over fields of dew
Before my dwelling
Bright colours have come again
To the underleaves of clover

A courtesan and I
Slept in the same house where
Bush clover bloomed beneath the moon
(Matsuo Bashō)

Bashō's haiku is supposed to refer to life's transience. (Doesn't everything in Japanese poetry?) The haiku draws an analogy between bush clover, which blooms briefly, and the courtesans, who drift from man to man with no permanence in their lives.

Edit added on 25 September: Leo referred me to another translation of Bashō's poem, which I've added below because it's better:

At the same lodge
Slept some courtesans
Lespedeza flowers and the moon

* Different sources mention slightly different figures. I have the book, but no, I'm not going to count them myself. It's 140-ish. OK? It might interest you to know that the Manyōshū contains about 4500 poems composed over 400 years. Cherry blossoms, which now send everybody into raptures, occupy the eighth position in frequency of mentions of all flowers.

More photos:

This is the outer torii on the approach to Kamakura's famous Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.
Hōkai-ji is only a few minutes on foot from  Hachiman-gū. (See first map below.)

Path leading to  Hōkai-ji

Stone marker that explains the history of the  Hōjō clan 

Bush clover branches drooping across the path

Looking back towards the road

The temple is popular with photographers in bush clover season.

A small Jizō statue hiding in the bush clover

Approach to Kaizō-ji. Blah photo because it was raining.

Standing at Kaizō-ji's main gate, looking back

Beautiful calligraphy at Kaizō-ji

I passed a temple called Jufuku-ji on my way to Kaizō-ji.



This is Eishō-ji, also on the way to Kaizō-ji. It used to be a convent.
More blah sky. Drizzling.

Bush clover at Eishō-ji

Bush clover at Eishō-ji

Eishō-ji has a beautiful bamboo forest with millions of mosquitoes.

Bush clover trellis at Mukōjima Hyakkaen Garden in Tokyo.
This photo was taken before it started blooming.

Bush clover bud at Mukōjima Hyakkaen Garden

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