Tag Archives: flowers


17 May





Hi blog.
We are fully into May, with the spring growth changing from light to dark green, and the tea harvest underway.
I have mentioned “May sickness” (Gogatsubyo) previously, and I think that this year I’m suffering from it!
I tend to wake up with the sunrise, which is now sufficiently early enough to disturb my sleep before five in the morning. The “Golden Week” long weekend also took its toll with late nights and early mornings.

Last year I wanted to write about the wisteria, but the flowering period is very short and I actually missed out on getting any decent shots. This year, I was better prepared – but only just.

The sign I was watching out for.

Wisteria is actually a genus of plants, legumes to be exact – making them close relatives of the beans. They may appear like trees, but are actually woody vines and are typically found climbing walls, trellises or trees.

New flowers on a trellised wisteria.

The genus is called fuji (藤) in Japanese – not at all related to the famous mountain – but this name also applies specifically to the Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda). Fortunately, the Japanese wisteria also goes by the name Noda fuji (野田藤) to help avoid confusion. The other major wisteria species endemic to Japan is the silky wisteria (Wisteria brachybotrys) or yamafuji (山藤).
Both these plants are very similar, but can be distinguished by the direction that they twist and twine – floribunda wraps in a clockwise direction while brachybotrys twines in the opposite direction.

At the end of April and beginning of May, these wisteria species produce long racemes which burst into huge trails of purple-indigo (or occasionally white) flowers. On a trip to the countryside last year the forest hills were tinted purple with masses of wisteria flowers. [cue “Purple Haze”]

Given that the 140-plus year old hasama-no-fuji at Ashikaga Flower Park covers over 1000 m2, it is not hard to imagine the effect of hundreds of flowering plants.

The Hasama-no-fuji. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Encounters with wisteria along my work route have included trellised plants, tree-like stand-alone plants, bonsai, and a large vine spreading from its supporting tree to nearby power lines.

“Why bother with a trellis when power lines are free?”

Unfortunately, photographing most of these would have meant a very visible ethnic minority sticking his mobile phone deep into other people’s yards… never a good idea.

These were outside a wall…

A closer view of those flowers.

Actually, my relationship with wisteria goes back nearly 25 years. However, it was not with a real plant, but the imitation flowers held by the “fuji musume” (wisteria maiden) doll my school gave me.

Wisteria have played a part in Japanese lifestyles for centuries. The woody stems can be woven into chairs or baskets. New shoots, flowers and seeds are occasionally eaten (the flowers may be battered and deep fried, and the seeds were once prized as a treat). Parts of the roots were used in traditional medicine, although much of the English-language writing suggests most parts of the plant are toxic)

Wisteria were a common theme in literature and art, and several forms were used in Japanese heraldry.

A “sagari-fuji” hereldric design. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

But the most common encounter with wisteria for most Japanese people is in surnames. While Suzuki and Sasaki constantly vie for the distinction of most-common surname, Sato (佐藤) constantly ranks at number three. Other common names with the wisteria ideogram include Kato, Ito, Saito, Shindo, Kudo, Fujita, Fujimoto and Fujiwara.

What surprised me was the number of eight and nine year-old children who were blissfully unaware of the wisteria.
“Open your eyes, kids! There’s a whole world out there!”

I’ll be following my own advice.








Takao – a hill by any other name

22 Apr

Mt. Takao is a popular hiking retreat for urbanites – within one hour of central Tokyo, several routes, including one paved all the way (perfect for those elderly types who buy all the essential hiking gear which never seems to get dirty, much like suburbanite Australians driving big 4WDs to the shopping centre and no further), and two options to bypass the steepest slopes: a funicular and a chairlift.

At just 599m, there is no way Takao deserves a titular “Mt.” (And I have NO qualms about mocking people who list it as a “mountain” they’ve climbed – especially when I suspect they made half the trip by means other than their own two feet.)  On the other hand, it is a good daytrip to get away from the city and actually have the opportunity to encounter something different.

Just to get you in the spirit of things, here’s a little article from The Daily Yomiuri December 27, 2007.  (Sorry, no link as the Yomiuri doesn’t archive articles).  Serious hiker Ian described it as “pure GOLD”

Rescues spike on popular hike / Novice climbers flocking to Michelin Guide 3-starred Mt. Takao

The Yomiuri Shimbun

This year has seen a marked increase in the number of hikers needing to be rescued from the 599-meter high Mt. Takao in Hachioji, Tokyo, with 43 people in 41 incidents having been rescued this year as of Tuesday compared with 26 people rescued in 20 incidents last year.

The rise is being attributed to a spike in the number of beginner hikers attempting to scale the mountain without appropriate gear.

However, others argue the spike in rescues is due to a spike in climbers triggered by the mountain being featured in the most recent Michelin guidebook on Japan, published in April.

The guide gave the mountain three stars as a tourist spot.

Mt. Takao is located about an hour from central Tokyo by train and has many easy routes for beginners.

A recent boom in mountaineering helped push the number of visitors to the mountain to about 2.5 million people last year.

Michelin published in French “Voyager Pratique Japon” in April, which features 820 sightseeing spots across Japan.

Noting that Mt. Takao is “located close to a big city, but is richly endowed with nature,” the guidebook gave the mountain its highest rating of three stars. Mt. Fuji was the only other mountain to garner three stars.

According to the tourism section of the Hachioji municipal government, in November about 250,000 tourists came to view autumn leaves, about 25 percent more visitors compared with the same period last year. The guidebook is believed to have partly contributed to this increase.

English, Chinese and Korean guideposts were set up in September at the start of hiking trails in response to the increase in foreign visitors.

However, the increase of hikers also has increased the number of accidents involving hikers, such as getting lost and falling down slopes.

According to a survey by the Metropolitan Police Department’s antidisaster division, about 15 to 20 incidents a year were reported for the past three years until last year.

However, over 40 incidents have been reported this year. In June, Takao Police Station started a mountain rescue unit.

Many of those who have needed rescuing have been beginners attempting to climb the mountain with little planning, including being dressed in clothing unsuitable for hiking.

In October, a 51-year-old man dressed in a suit and leather shoes asked to be rescued after he began climbing in the afternoon and was unable to follow the trail after it got dark.

In November, a 49-year-old drunk man was injured after falling about three meters.

A 37-year-old man had to be rescued after suffering dehydration after trying to ride up the mountain on a bicycle without drinking water.

Although the peak of the hiking season has already passed, many hikers visit a temple near the top of the mountain during the year-end and New Year’s season and to see the sunrise on Jan. 1.

Kenichiro Maruyama, head of the mountain rescue unit, has a warning for reckless hikers. “If you underestimate Mt. Takao, you may lose your life. You must prepare rain gear, survival food and a flashlight at least,” he said.

(Dec. 27, 2007)

I had the kids in tow, so anything other than the paved No. 1 route was out of the question (but I made the kids climb the whole way, heh, heh.)   One positive thing that can be said about the paved trail is that it discourages hikers from leaving it, and prevents further damage to the local ecosystem.  Plants grow right up to the trail edge, and it was good to see my kids take an interest in their surroundings.


Of particular interest to the kids were bracken ferns with their new spring fronds, the acauba with their large red berries, and the cobra lily urashima, which was a new experience for me too.

Fronds, particularly those from Pteridium aquilinum  – known as warabi (蕨) – and Osmunda japonica – known as zenmai (薇) – are a common food product here, and it is lucky that collecting plants is forbidden on the mountain hill, otherwise these areas would be virtually strip-mined and we’d have hordes of middle-aged to elderly women trampling all over the place.  With fronds like that, who needs enemies?


I can’t identify the type of fern or bracken, but the fronds caught the attention of my kids.

The aucuba (Aucuba japonica) is a plant I only knew by its Japanese name, aoki (青木) learning its English name while researching for this post.  Actually, aucuba is a latinization of aokiba, a regional name for the plant.  It thrives even in the shade of broadleaf canopies, and the large red berries are rather attractive.


The large berries (over 1cm long) of the acauba.

The cobra lily Urashima may be a subspecies of Arisaema thunbergii, or a separate species (Arisaema urashima), depending on who you listen to.  Ah, nomenclature wars.

After spotting this plant (OK, actually the kids spotted it and pointed it out to me, but let’s not get hooked up on details), I dived into my guide book and thought it may have been the crowdipper (Pinellia ternata), although the crowdipper lacks the purple colouring.  Later reading suggested that the crowdipper, which is an early import from China, was very similar in appearance to the cobra lily Urashima.  The latter, a native, has a purple tinge.  Furthermore, this plant was listed on the official Takao website.

The local name is urashimaso (浦島草) – literally “Urashima grass” –  and the most widely accepted reason is the long spadix appendix (try saying that quickly!) which brings to mind the fishing rod and line of the fairy tale character/folk hero Urashima Taro.


The flower and sapix of the cobra lily Urashima. The appendix can reach up to 60 cm in length.

I was hoping to encounter some fauna other than Homo sapiens, but the vast majority of creatures preferred to be heard than to be seen.  Bush warblers made their presence known, and at a spring (where water trickled out of the rock face) we could hear frogs calling.


Takao has a long association with the Shugendo religion, and the Takaosan Yakuonin Temple of one of the Shingon branches is a major drawcard for visitors.

Because it is a sacred mountain hill, small shrines and statues line the trails and temple grounds.  But the most famous icon is the tengu.


“Beware of tengu”

I won’t go too deeply into tengu beyond the two main types, tengu (a red-faced, long-nosed mountain spirit) and the karasu-tengu, which has the face of a crow.


Tengu acting as guardians to the fierce-looking Buddhist diety.

Tengu or Daitengu.

Karasutengu. This and the previous photo were taken within the temple grounds.

Giant tengu mask to the right of the entrance of the main temple building.

And on the left, karasutengu.

A tengu as on of the Nio statues.

A karasutengu as the other Nio statue.


Another element of the supernatural on Mt. Takao is the legend surrounding the Takosugi (“Octopus cryptomeria”).  Apparently, the roots of a large crytomeria tree were blocking the construction of a path for pilgrims.  A couple of variations exist, but the main gist is that the tree wrapped its roots back behind its trunk – in a single night – reminding people of an octopus.  One variation of the story is said to date back 600 years, even though the tree in question is believed to be 450 years old.

A large crytomeria tree, over 30 metres tall. There are lots of these near the temple.


The “Tako Sugi” (蛸杉). See how the roots have turned back around the trunk instead of spreading out. The person in the picture gives you some idea of the size. Unfortunately, the roots have been fenced off to avoid further damage from hikers touching them.


We celebrated our climb to the summit (all 599 metres, he says cynically) with some overpriced ice cream, before deciding which route to take down.  I managed to convince the kids that taking a dirt trail leading to a suspension bridge would be more interesting – which it was.

View from the summit. That’s downtown Tokyo in the background.


We also encountered plenty of gold-banded lilies (Lilium auratum).  These attractive flowers are natives to Japanese mountains and hills, and appropriately have the name yamayuri (山百合), literally “mountain lily”.  Apparently, the bulbs and shoots of these plants were a food source in ancient times, and even today are sold as vegetables in supermarkets.

A cluster of immature gold-banded lilies.


Closer up.


A signpost at a trail junction pointed to the Ja Waterfall.  Even though that path would not lead back to our station, meaning it would be a return trip, my eldest decided she would like to see the waterfall.

The fall itself was not particularly spectacular, but there was a “mizugyo” dojo, for the ascetic practice of sitting or standing under a waterfall while reciting sutras or prayers.  We saw someone, clearly having a connection with the temple, leave the dojo.

The Ja no Taki (“Serpant Waterfall”)

Gateway to the dojo.

Someday I would like to try mizugyo/takigyo/takiuchi – provided it is in summer!


A short rest and then the climb back to where we left our original path.  My youngest decided he was too tired to climb, so I had to carry him part of the way.  We made it back to route number 1, and it was downhill all the way.  And murder on my knees!


Mt. Takao is not a mountain.  But it is a mountain of fun for those around Tokyo who want to get away for a day.

The Other Flowers

3 Apr

April is upon us – the beginning of a new financial and academic year, and for me, a change of schools.

Entrance ceremony is on April 8th this year, but the early arrival of the cherry blossoms and the amount of rain we can expect between now and then will almost ensure there will be almost no blossom on this day when cherry blossom’s attendance is mandatory…

But, I beg you, spare a thought for the other flowers.

I’ve recently covered magnolias, but it was the change of work places that made me take more notice of another spring flower, the dogtooth violet, trout lily or katakuri.

A patch of dogtooth violets near Inariyama Park, Sayama.

The dogtooth violet (Erythronium japonicum) is a member of the lily family, and is native to Japan as well as parts of China, Russia and Korea.  It is the only member of the genus Erythronium native to Japan.

Typically known as katakuri (片栗), it was once known by the name katakago (堅香子).  It is also known as the Spring ephemeral.

It grows at a variety of altitudes from plains to 2000 metre class mountains.  It shows a clear preference for broad-leafed deciduous forest environments, but can be found in conifer forests too.

A closer view of the same patch.  This area is fenced off and protected by the local neighbourhood.

The plant is estimated to live for between forty to fifty years, and it generally takes seven to eight years for a plant to grow from bulb to flowering age.  In addition to germinating from bulbs, they can also grow from seeds, which are spread by ants.

Unfortunately, the dogtooth violet is vulnerable to loss due to the usual reasons – urban encroachment on its environment and poaching of the plant.

A single dogtooth violet flower. These are in fact true lilies.

Dogtooth violet was once important as a source of starch, known as katakuriko (片栗粉) – literally “katakuri powder” – extracted from the bulbs.  Fortunately, this has been almost entirely replaced with starch from potatoes or taro, but still retains the katakuri name.  Although the aim of some of today’s “poaching” is possibly this hard-to-get commodity, it is only a small fraction of the damage done by collectors or even just people trouncing around off the beaten track and crushing everything underfoot.  Like I said, the usual suspects.

My first encounter with this flower was during a little walk out in the Chichibu-Okutama area (exactly where has escaped me) around 1999 or 2000.  Perhaps somewhere I still have an old snapshot.

More recently, I was delighted to discover a patch growing on my work route two years ago.  Unfortunately, my recent change of schools means I will no longer pass this violet delight in the late March to early June period.  It also means the photos for this post are older ones taken with my old mobile phone…  Sorry about that, Chief.

While my new commute route does not include any dogtooth violet flowers, it does take me through a small copse, tea fields, and past a section of forest.  Where the wild things are.

Dust storms and Magnolias

21 Mar

I apologise for my lack of blogging activity recently.  The end of term tests being held essentially mid-term, graduation ceremony preparation, preparing for a karate grading (which I failed miserably…), getting ready to change schools, and various other factors have been keeping me away from the keyboard, or at least, distracting me enough.

The weather has been unstable lately – days of 22℃ or more followed by days reaching barely half that, sudden bursts of cherry blossom catching the catering industry off-guard, and dust storms.

A group of Mississipi red-eared sliders sunning themselves on an unsually warm day in mid-March.

Cherry blossoms out earlier than usual.

This year has been notorious for its pollen levels.  The March 9-10 weekend allegedly produced more cryptomeria pollen than the total for the previous season.  People who have never suffered from hay fever before have developed symptoms.  I thought I might be developing an allergy, although the doctor suggested a sinus infection.  It’s still too early to tell, and anyway, the medicine I was prescribed is the same one my wife takes for her hay fever!

The media has been having a field day with the levels of PM 2.5 blowing over from China (the domestic media loves bagging China), but for some reason neglects to mention localised dust storms, which are possibly a much more real and present health risk.

Local farmers have ploughed their fields, but not planted cover crops or irrigated.  Then 30m/second winds pick up the fine dust and, you can guess the rest.  Oh, well.

A WSW gale blows dust across route 50, and into my face!

Flowers are out in increasing numbers and some of the deciduous trees are shooting bright green leaves.  While the cherry blossom is the perennial star of spring, it is hard to overlook the magnolias.

They’re flowers, they’re white, they’re on trees, but they’re not cherry blossoms… magnolias.

Two kinds of magnolias are frequently seen in parks and gardens, the Yulan magnolia (sometimes confused with the Mulan magnolia), and the kobushi magnolia.

The Yulan magnolia (Magnolia heptapeta or Magnolia denudate) grows to between ten and fifteen metres tall, and is famous for its large white flowers.  Its Japanese name, hakumokuren (白木蓮), indicates that it is a white tree flower that resembles a lotus.  Certainly, the six petals and three sepals – also white – are reminiscent of lotus flowers.  The flowers give off a pleasant citrus fragrance.

Side view of the Yulan magnolia opening.

The same flower seen from above. You can see the similarity to a lotus flower here.

The Mulan magnolia (Magnolia quinquepeta or Magnolia liliiflora) – also known as the lily magnolia, tulip magnolia, red magnolia, purple magnolia, Jane magnolia and woody orchid – is quite similar except for the colour and the length of its petals and sepals.  The elongated petals and sepals give it an orchid-like appearance, and this was reflected in the older Japanese name mokuran (木蘭), literally “tree orchid”.  Today it is taken to be more lotus-like, and the modern names are mokuren (木蓮) – “tree lotus” or shimokuren (紫木蓮) – “purple tree lotus”.

Although the Mulan magnolia made its debut into the English-speaking world as the Japanese magnolia, neither it nor the Yulan magnolia are Japanese natives.  Both originate from China.

The kobushi magnolia (Magnolia kobus) is native to Japan.  Its flowers are easily distinguished from the Yulan magnolias by the lack of obvious sepals.  It produces clusters of red fruit that look like a clenched fist, which give it its common Japanese name kobushi, although the characters used to write the name (辛夷) are identical to those used in China for the Mulan magnolia.

The kobushi magnolia flowers are said to resemble cherry blossom when viewed from a distance – although the magnolia flowers earlier – and some regional names reflect this.

Kobushi magnolia flowers. These trees blossom earlier than other magnolia species.

Count the petals… six slightly elongated petals and no obvious sepals… it’s a kobushi magnolia.

I’m hoping the warm weather will continue (no guarantees there – I remember when we had heavy snow on the last day of March one year), but even more importantly, I’m hoping we get a few more nights of rain so we don’t get any more dust storms.  I’m sick of washing topsoil out of my eyes!


Jekyll and Hydrangea

13 Jun

Well, the Bureau of Meteorology officially declared the rainy season as having started on June 9th for Eastern Japan.  We had a cool (under 20) and persistent rain for the whole day, and it looks like lots of humid weather, warm to hot temperatures, and plenty of rain over the next few weeks.


A lot of flowers are heavily punished by the rain, and the April and May flowers have largely withered, or been pulverized.

While knotweeds and grasses thrive, and the garden turns threatens to turn into a jungle without regular weeding (this was the same patch that was a frozen tundra just four months ago), there is little to add variety to grey skies and green vines.  Except, that is, for June’s mightiest flower, the hydrangea.


The most common member of the hydrangea family found in Japanese gardens is the bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), also known by other common names such as French hydrangea, lacecap hydrangea, mophead hydrangea, penny mac and hortensia, often depending on the subspecies or cultivar.  Laceheads, for example, are probably the original form, and have a ring of larger sterile flowers surrounding a cluster of smaller fertile ones.  Some believe this to be a survival strategy – sacrificing the fertility of some flowers in order to make the cluster more attractive to potential pollinators.  In the case of mopheads, all the flowers are the same size and appear in a ball – and are sterile.


A lacehead-type hydrangea, the orginal form.




“I don’t mind the rain” – one of the few flowers left standing proud after a heavy shower.


The Japanese name for hydrangeas is ajisai (紫陽花).  The pronunciation is said to be a corruption of the word azusai, (集真藍), meaning “a collection of indigo-coloured things”, while the Chinese characters literally mean “purple sun flower”, but originally applied to a different plant.  The normal pronunciation of the character combination gives us shiyoka, which, although obscure, is also used.  Another name is shichihenge (七変化), which refers to something having multiple forms.  Yet another name is hassenka (八仙花).


Hydrangeas are well-known for their colour to be influenced by soil pH, although the word influenced is pivotal.  Other factors include nutrient levels (especially aluminium), blossom age, and individual cultivars.  A row of plants next to each other can produce the range of colours from white to pink to blue to a deep purple.  [Cue “Smoke on the Water”]



Brilliant blue



In the pink…


A rainbow of colours in neighbouring plants. There’s more than just pH involved.


Apart from their aesthetic appeal, hydrangeas have one other use.  Despite the leaves of the plant being toxic to humans, goats and cows, a tea-like infusion can be made from the leaves of Hydrangea macrophylla var. thunbergii.  Apparently sweet (I haven’t tried it), the infusion is called amacha (甘茶) – literally “sweet tea” – and the name is also applied to the plant itself.  The tea is used in celebrations for Buddha’s birthday on April 8th, in which it is poured over small statuettes of Buddha.

The infusion is also said to act as an insect repellent.  I’ll have to take their word for it.


A Wikipedia image of a statuette of Buddha bathed in amacha.


Amacha on Amazon… you can buy it in tea bags!


The association between June and hydrangeas is a strong one.  One of the most common visual themes is snails on a hydrangea leaf in the rain.  While snails do little to change the dreariness of the weather, the hydrangeas add some colour.


Another lacehead. The bright flowers around the outside are sterile.


‘Tis the Season to be Sneezy

10 Apr

Spring continues to advance – days with double-digit maximums are the norm (although northerly winds and single-digit days persist), small vegetable patches that looked decayed and lifeless just a few weeks ago have been hoed and are now full of promise [cue “Circle of Life”], various magnolias are in bloom (unfortunately, getting photos means sticking my camera into other people’s yards), and the weather reports include daily updates on the status of cherry blossoms.

My persimmon tree is in bud.

Daffodils, known locally as suisen (水仙). Not many people realise that they are not native to East Asia.

A type of lily known as katakuri (片栗). It is a source of an expensive starch.

A magnolia. Yes, I did have to stick my mobile phone over a fence to get this one!


One of my favorites, along with “pillage” and “plunder”! In additon to having a pretty flower, the canola is an edible vegatable.

A Japanese quince or boke (木瓜) in flower.

Raise the Pink Lantern! These lanterns adorn the Azuma river during cherry blossom season.

The river banks are lit up at night for nocturnal enjoyment of cherry blossoms.

A sudden low-pressure cell passed over Japan on the 3rd of this month, bringing typhoon-strength winds (over 25 m/second in the centre of Tokyo) and rain, and causing at least four deaths.


Another sign of spring, although this starts in late winter, is the onset of hay-fever in millions of people.  (In my darker, more cynical moments, it is the Japanese allergy to nature)


Hay fever is known is Japan as kafunsho (花粉症), which literally means “pollen syndrome”.  Many Japanese people are genuinely surprised to hear that hay fever exists in other countries.  I am not a hay fever sufferer, and many assume that it is a uniquely Japanese problem.


The leading cause of hay fever is the cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica) or sugi (), often – incorrectly – called the Japanese cedar.

Cryptomeria at work. The orange-brown areas are the pollen building up.

This tree was the preferred timber for construction of housing, and thousands of hectares were planted, at the expense of biodiversity, during the housing shortages after World War II.  As the economy picked up and then fell, the trees became less economical to harvest compared to imported timber, and the monoculture plantation forests have been left largely unmanaged.


As trees age past 20 years, they can produce large amounts of pollen, which increase as the tree ages.

Added to this is the lack of grass in populated areas.  Grass helps catch pollen once it makes contact with the ground.  Concrete, asphalt and pounded clay allow fallen pollen to be taken up by the wind and blown “back into circulation”.

Furthermore, research suggests that dust and air pollution may aggravate allergic reactions to pollen, so city dwellers are more likely to develop hay fever symptoms.  Nature strikes back…


There is a whole industry based around hay fever – masks (used during the cold and flu season, but hay fever season greatly increases their demand period), yoghurt (said to help increase resistance), medications and air filtering devices.  Another staple of the weather report is the pollen forecast.


Governments are starting to take action.  There have been proposals to cut down cryptomeria and replace them with broadleaf trees – like they were before the crytopmeria plantations.

One major proponent of this is Tokyo governor Ishihara, mostly because he started suffering from hay fever…

Camellias – Everyone’s Cup of Tea?

23 Dec

Winter is upon us, and days with single-digit maximums are not rare.  On a sunny day, outside temperatures may reach twelve or thirteen degrees, making walks during the sunny period not unpleasant at all – assuming that there is no wind, of course.

Japan is home to a number of winter-flowering evergreens, and I will be looking at three of these which belong to the same genus – the camellia.

Technically, Camellia is a sub-tropical genus but it thrives in temperate climates, and Japan represents its northern-most limit.


As I write this, the sazanqua or Christmas camellia (Camellia sanzanqua) is in bloom.  The plant is also known by its Japanese name sazanka (山茶花).  Native to south-western Japan, it is a popular park and garden tree throughout the country.  Its leaves have been used in parts of western Japan to make tea-like infusions, and oil can be extracted from the seeds.


A sazanqua flower.

Sometimes confused with the sazanqua is the camellia or Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica).  In Japan it is known as tsubaki (椿) and is considered distinct from the sazanqua.  Conventional wisdom holds that the flowers of the sazanqua fall apart and drop in pieces; whereas in the case of the japonica, the whole flower drops intact from the tree – fans of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Tsubaki Sanjuro no doubt recall this.

An early-blooming camellia flower


Movie poster for “Tsubaki Sanjuro”. In this movie, the ronin assumes the surname Tsubaki (椿), meaning camellia, and you can see the white camellias on the left.

Apart from its use as a decorative plant, the camellia is important as a source of oil.  This oil can be used for cooking (it has been described as “olive oil of the orient”) but is also widely used in cosmetics – camellia oil has been used for centuries as hair treatment.  My kids were prescribed pure camellia oil to help clear up a skin disorder, and camellia oil is also the preferred oil for treating swords and knives.

There are laws dictating how oil is labelled – only oil from the japonica is true camellia oil.  Oil extracted from the sazanqua must be labelled differently.


The last member of the camellia genus I want to look at is not a Japanese native, but is heavily entrenched in Japanese culture, and is economically important to the area around Tokorozawa.

Camellia sinensis has leaves similar in shape and colour to the sazanqua, and bears white flowers of similar shape, but much smaller.  In fact, it would probably be grown most commonly as a hedge if it wasn’t for the popularity of the drink made from its leaves.

That’s right – it’s the tea plant.


A tea flower.

I won’t go into the history of tea, suffice to say that tea – the plant known as chanoki (茶の木 or 茶樹) – was first planted in this area over a millennium ago.  It was apparently grown primarily as a windbreak – and vegetable plots are still often separated by hedges of tea – but over time the soil and climate of the Sayama Hills, Iruma River and Tama Hills produced a tea that has become one of the “big three” of teas (Uji, Shizuoka and Sayama).


Nuts of the sanzanqua (left) and tea (right). Oil can be extracted from either of these.

Sadly, fallout from the Fukushima No.1 reactor has contaminated some tea gardens in the area, which has damaged the sales of tea.  Several growers (some in operation for over a century) have gone bankrupt.  I hope the situation improves soon.

What’s the story, morning glory?

7 Oct

The morning glory (Ipomoea nil), is one of the most successful of garden plants in Japan.  Its local name is asagao (朝顔), literally “morning face”, but is another import from China.  It may have been introduced for its medicinal properties – the seeds are toxic and were (and continue to be) used in Chinese herbal medicine as a purgative.

The local name is probably due the flower opening early in the morning.  Each flower blooms for just one day.

Morning glory in the morning

Morning glory in the morning

A closely related, more recent import is the moon flower or moon vine, Ipomoea alba.  Native to the sub-tropical and tropical Americas, it earns its place on this blog for its Japanese names and the nature of its blooming.  The Japanese names yorugao (夜顔) or yugao (夕顔) mean “night face” and “evening face” respectively.  The flower blooms in the evening, and is fully open after dark.

moon vine

moon vine

And just to make the patten complete, there is a plant in the same family locally known as hirugao (昼顔) – noon face!

I see red, I see red, I see red

6 Oct

Walking along the Azama river at this time of year, one can see patches of these attractive flowers

red spider lillies

The red spider lily (higanbana or manjushage) is possibly THE seasonal flower.  Thousands of people flock to Kinchakuda in nearby Hidaka City to see fields of them.

The plant is most likely native to China, but has been cultivated in Japan for centuries.

We have recently had the autumn equinox, and the period that follows is known as Higan.  This is an important time for visiting the graves of ancestors.  The red spider lily is often found around gravesites due to having a poisonous bulb, which helps keep vermin away from the graves.  This association means that it is considered unlucky (or at least poor taste) to give bunches of the flowers to someone.  One superstition says that bringing the flowers home will result in a house fire.  (Probably derived from the flame-like appearance of the petals and the flammability of pre-modern housing)

white red spider lillies

"Do you have them in a different colour?"

I was also lucky enough to come across some white variants, a type unknown to many locals.

The Azuma River is on my route to and from work.  I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for other “discoveries” in sububan Japan.

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