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The golden flower of the emperor

I never paid much attention to the golden flower, despite the fact that it's the symbol of Japan's imperial family. Chrysanthemums – the English name is derived from the Greek words chrysos (gold) and anthemon (flower) – were just too uptight. Very prim and proper and fussy and rigid.

They look plastic, I thought, until I accidentally bumped into a chrysanthemum display at Hikawa Jinja in Ōmiya and noticed the wide variety of cultivars. I jumped into my books and went surfing with Google, and think I owe the chrysanthemum an apology. It's a very interesting flower.

Unusual double colour. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

It was first cultivated in China in the fifteenth century BC, and was regarded as one of the so-called four noble plants: orchid, bamboo, plum blossom, chrysanthemum. The book Bencao Gangmu by Li Shizhen, which was written during the Ming Dynasty (13681644), lists hundreds of varieties. Nowadays, I understand, there are thousands.

The flower eventually found its way to Japan, where it was called kiku () and revered so highly that it became a symbol of the imperial family. Despite the flower's long association with the emperor, it was never an official emblem until the Meiji government designated it as the imperial crest in 1869.

Japanese uses the expression Imperial Throne (皇位, kōi) to refer to the monarch; English translates it as the Chrysanthemum Throne. The imperial crest is called the Chrysanthemum Flower Seal (菊花紋章, kikukamonshō) in both languages: it has sixteen front petals, with another sixteen rear petals visible at the edge of the flower. Shrines associated with the imperial family, such as Meiji Jingū and Yasukuni Jinja, have also adopted a chrysanthemum crest.



You don't have to go to the palace or a shrine to see the crest, though: just look at a ¥50 coin or the front page of any Japanese passport.


I've stumbled across various old legends associated with this flower, but I like the story of Keu Tze Tung the best. The youth was a favourite of Emperor Mu Wang of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC) in China, but during a trip he committed the grave sin of kicking the emperor's pillow with his foot. He was banned to a remote mountain region, but on the day of his departure, the emperor took pity on him and ordered him to repeat a Buddhist prayer every day for his salvation.

Keu Tze Tung followed his lord's instructions. One day he wrote the sacred words on a chrysanthemum leaf as he stood next to a stream. The dew that had collected on the leaf fell into the stream, and from that day onwards the stream had the power to prolong life. Keu Tze Tung lived to be 800 years old, and all the people of the district reached a grand old age as well.

This story has been turned into a Noh play called Kiku Jidō (菊慈童) or Chrysanthemum Boy, it's been adapted as a classic dance and it's a frequently used motif in textiles and lacquerware.

Not sure why, but this is my favourite photo of the day. Click to enlarge.

The other bit of trivial information that I find interesting is that the chrysanthemum, unlike most flowers, is associated with men rather than women. Perhaps in old China the flower represented strength, since it bloomed in the cold autumn when other flowers were dying.

Oh, and it seems to be a cure for all ills: its purported medicinal uses include acne, influenza, fever, sore throat, a pick-me-up, circulatory disorders, eyes, liver. Wikipedia lists them all and then drily notes, "No scientific studies have substantiated these claims."

There are numerous chrysanthemum exhibitions all over Japan in autumn, often at shrines. The bigger ones display not only individual blooms, but also dolls called kiku–ningyō (菊人形), which are made of hundreds of chrysanthemums. The biggest exhibition is probably in Nihonmatsu in Fukushima (Japanese link here; English story here), but in November you can see beautiful displays at these venues in Tokyo itself:

Koiwa Fudōson Zenyōji (links here and here)

I took my photos at Yushima Tenman-gū as well as Hikawa Jinja in Ōmiya. The kiku–ningyō at Yushima are all characters from the NHK drama Taira no Kiyomori ( 清盛).


Chrysanthemum dolls at Yushima Tenman-gū.
Left is Emperor Takakura (高倉上), right is Taira no Kiyomori ( ).
The woman below right is Taira no Tokuko (建礼門院).




Kiyomori and his best friend Minamoto no Yoshitomo ( ) 



I don't want to turn this into another saga, so I haven't included any references to art, books or movies, but there are many. I'm reasonably sure fellow bloggers, both Japanese and non-Japanese, will add their suggestions and favourites! I'm just going to bombard you with more photos. I can't identity all the varieties, but again, fellow bloggers will come to my rescue!


Chrysanthemum display at Yushima Tenman-gū














I spotted this pair of sneakers on steps outside the haiden (hall of worship).
It belongs to a priest.

Right on the other side of the haiden, a pair of sandals, also the property of a priest.
These two nondescript photos sum up why I love Japan so much.
Below, just in case you're tired of good taste, a heart and Hello Kitty. 



I was just playing with focus in these photos.

I love this spidery variety.



Odd shape. Unless I'm mistaken, it has 16 petals. I'm sure that's significant ...

Curly and twirly

I get giddy just looking at it.





Hikawa Jinja at dusk. Click to enlarge.



I thought this was a uniquely unique (i.e. strictly Japan only) chrysanthemum tree at Hikawa Jinja. Then I realized it's actually one small plant (or bush) that's pruned and trained and wrapped around a trunk to resemble a tree. It must require the patience of a saint. If you look at the last photo, you'll see the slender stem of the chrysanthemum plant next to a (different species) tree trunk.



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