People are posing on the arched bridge at Kameido Tenjin, a celebrated shinto shrine in Tokyo. The pond is framed by an extended trellis with light purple wisteria.
This photograph is a good example of how Japanese photographers in the 19th century gratefully borrowed from themes used in ukiyoe woodblock prints. A few decades earlier, in 1856 (Ansei 3), ukiyoe artist Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重, 1797–1858) had included this same scene in his series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (名所江戸百景, Meisho Edo Hyakkei).
Hiroshige was just one of dozens of Japanese artists that produced drawings and prints of the famous pond, arched bridges and blossoming trees of Kameido Tenjin.
Dedicated to poet scholar and statesman Sugawara no Michizane (菅原 道真, 845-903), today this Shinto shrine attracts a seemingly endless stream of students who pray here before their examinations.
But over the ages, it has especially been popular for its dazzling displays of blooming wisteria. During the Edo Period (1603–1867), throngs of people would gather here every spring to admire the delicate flowers.
Hanami (flower viewing) is now mostly associated with cherry blossom, but in the past all kinds of blossoms brought the inhabitants of Edo (current Tokyo) out to party.
One reason was the severe travel restrictions of the Edo Period which tied people to the city. Commoners were generally only allowed to leave their town for pilgrimage. Although unbelievably popular, pilgrimage was not without danger. Travel could be a life-threatening adventure, writes Japanese author Jukichi Inouye (1862-1929) in his 1910 book Home life in Tokyo. This, believed the author, encouraged people to make better use of entertainment closer to home:1
Each year, the flower seasons started with plum blossoms. Blooming in early March, they were seen as the harbingers of spring. As snow could occasionally fall while the plum trees were already in blossom, the image of a plum tree blooming under a layer of snow was used to represent faithfulness in adversity.
By late March, plum was followed by cherry blossom, the most popular viewing season of the year. It was at its height in the first half of April.
Mukojima became a “fairy-land” during the cherry blossom season, wrote American author and geographer Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856–1928) in 1910:2
Later in April, the Tree Peony started blossoming. As this tree required special care, they were generally displayed in private gardens and nurseries, and rarely seen in public places.
Wisteria started blooming soon after the Tree Peony. Kameido Tenjin was the best place to view them. Here “their pendulous racemes look doubly beautiful as they are reflected in the pond over which they hang,” wrote Inouye.3
Another April flower was the azalea. One of the best places in Tokyo to view them was Ōkubo Village (around current Ōkubo Station). In 1899 (Meiji 32), Emperor Meiji even visited the area to admire the azaleas here.
In early June, large numbers of people admired the iris gardens in Horikiri and Kamata. The one in Horikiri (Horikiri Shobuen Garden) still exists, but sadly the Kamata Iris Garden closed down in 1921 (Taisho 10).
Iriya in the north of Tokyo was famous for morning-glory, which was in full bloom in August. On the way back, people would visit Shinobazu Pond at Ueno Park to admire the lotus there.
Together with cherry blossom, Japan’s most important flower was arguably the chrysanthemum, the symbol of the Imperial family. While cherry blossom represented spring, chrysanthemum represented autumn in Japan. It bloomed from September through November:4
Very few of these places managed to survive beyond the Meiji Period. Modern public transportation allowed people to escape the city. They still went out to admire seasonal flowers, but increasingly did so far from Tokyo.
In her 1910 article in The Century Illustrated Monthly, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore already mentions “many special cherry-blossom excursion trains” that took people far away from their homes.5
More than a century later, the inhabitants of Tokyo have not lost their love of flowers. The Imperial Household Agency even has a flower calendar on its website to show which flowers can be found on the Imperial Palace grounds, and when they bloom.
Edo–Meiji Flower Calendar for Tokyo
Flowers, their seasons, and some of the most popular areas in Tokyo where people enjoyed hanami during the Edo and Meiji periods.6
Spring (March ~ May)
|Plum • Ume (梅)||Early March
|Peach • Momo (桃)||Early March ~ early April
Peach attracted few viewers, writes Inouye. Possibly because it was overshadowed by plum and cherry blossom.
|Cherry Blossom • Sakura (桜)||Late March ~ early April
|Tree Peony • Botan (牡丹)||Late April
Viewed at private gardens and nurseries. One was Yoshinoen (吉野園) at Yotsume (四つ目) in Honjo (本所, current Sumida-ku).
|Wisteria • Fuji (藤)||Mid-April ~ May
|Azalea • Tsutsuji (つつじ)||April ~ May
Summer (June ~ August)
|Iris • Hanashōbu (花菖蒲)||Early June
|Hydrangea • Ajisai (あじさい)||Early June ~ early July
Although native to Japan, hydrangea got little attention until it had been improved in the West and was reimported. This started happening from the Taisho Period (1912–1926). Inouye mentions hydrangea only once in his book, and it rarely appears in ukiyoe. Its current popularity dates from after the end of WWII in 1945.
|Morning Glory • Asagao (朝顔)||August
|Lotus • Hasu (蓮)||Mid-July ~ August
Autumn (September ~ November)
|Chrysanthemum • Kiku (菊)||September ~ November
|Seven Flowers of Autumn • Aki no Nakakusa (秋の七草)||September
The seven flowers of autumn were Japanese clover (hagi), Japanese pampas grass (susuki), Japanese arrowroot (kuzu), large pink (nadeshiko), yellow flowered valerian (ominaeshi), thoroughwort (fujibakama), and Chinese bellflower (kikyō). Mukojima was one of the spots where people went to see these flowers.
|Maple • Kaede (カエデ)||November
Winter (December ~ February)
|Camellia • Tsubaki (椿)||December ~ April
Camellia attracted few viewers. Possibly it was too cold to party outside.
Do you have a favorite place to enjoy these natural treasures in our modern world? Please share them with us in the comments!
1 Inouye, Jukichi (1910). Home life in Tokyo by Inouye. Tokyo: The Tokyo Printing Company Ltd, 287.
2 Scidmore, Eliza Ruhamah (March 1910). The cherry-blossoms of Japan: Their season a period of festivity and poetry, The Century Illustrated Monthly, Volume LXXIX, No. 5: 653.
3 Inouye, Jukichi (1910). Home life in Tokyo by Inouye. Tokyo: The Tokyo Printing Company Ltd, 297.
4 ibid, 304.
5 Scidmore, Eliza Ruhamah (March 1910). The cherry-blossoms of Japan: Their season a period of festivity and poetry, The Century Illustrated Monthly, Volume LXXIX, No. 5: 650.
6 The flowers and locations in the seasonal tables are referenced from old guidebooks, ukiyoe, vintage photographs and Home life in Tokyo by Jukichi Inouye (1910), pp. 287–305.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). Tokyo 1890s: Wisteria at Kameido Tenjin, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on May 27, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/866/wisteria-at-kameido-tenjin
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