Skip to main content

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.

Hōkai-ji

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 …

Kaizō-ji

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!
(Manyōshū)

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

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.

Jufuku-ji

Jufuku-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




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…

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…

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

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

Thunder myths in Japan

Last night we had a magnificent thunderstorm in Tokyo, so today: a post about thunder! I've also discovered that there's a thunder temple in the shitamachi, but I'm going to keep you in suspense. I'll try to get there today, provided it stops drizzling, but it probably justifies its own post. Meantime … Raijin (雷神)
The god of thunder is called Raijin, Kaminari-sama or Raiden-sama, and he loves to eat the belly buttons of children. When there's thunder, parents tell their kids to hide their navels so that Raijin can't kidnap them.
Quakes, thunder, fire and father
Traditionally the Japanese feared four things in ascending order of severity: 地震·雷·火事·親父, jishin (earthquake), kaminari (thunder), kaji (fire), oyaji (father). The father was the most terrifying because in old days he had complete control over his household. (I can hear men sigh with longing, "When did it all go wrong?") I've also seen a slight adaptation:地震·雷·火事·大山風. The first three terrors r…

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

The bridges across the Sumida River

The Sumida River covers a distance of 27 km from Kita-ku to Tokyo Bay, but its most interesting section is – of course! – the one that runs through the shitamachi.
Today, in the second part of my Sumida series, I'll cover the lower section from Shirahigebashi to Eitaibashi. I originally included extra information about the river's main shrines, for example a shrine that's dedicated to the river god himself, but the post got so long that you would've fallen asleep halfway through. Let's focus on the bridges, and then I'll interrupt my series with an extra post about the gods.
This section has the most interesting bridges, several of which were constructed by Kawasaki Steel Construction (currently Kawasaki Heavy Industries) after older bridges collapsed in the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The company rebuilt a total of 25 bridges using 16 000 tonnes of steel after that quake, including Shirahigebashi, Kiyosubashi and Eitaibashi. The Sumida bridges became famo…

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…

There are no happy endings in Japan

She pined for the beauty of her lover, who was fair to look upon as the flowers; now beneath the moss of this old tomb stone all has perished of her save her name. Amid the changes of a fitful world, this tomb is decaying under the dew and rain; gradually crumbling beneath its own dust; its outline alone remains. Stranger, bestow an alm to preserve this stone; and we, sparing neither pain nor labour, will second you with all our hearts. Erecting it again, let us preserve it from decay for future generations, and let us write the following verse upon it: "These two birds, beautiful as the cherry blossoms, perished before their time like flowers blown down by the wind before they have borne seed." Two lovers, immortalized as the legendary bird hiyokudori (比翼鳥). It has only one eye and one wing, and is therefore helpless until it finds its mate and becomes a complete bird that can see, fly and be happy. The bird is a symbol of lovers who can only find happiness when they are u…