It was called the king of flowers, back in the Sui and Tang dynasties in China. Emperors cultivated them, painted them on scrolls and composed poems about them. Emperor Xuanzong love them so much that he allowed his citizens a holiday just to view them.
Japanese scholars who travelled to China learned about this peony fad and brought the flowers with them to Japan, probably in the 8th century. You can still see the descendents of these first arrivals at Hase-dera in Nara.
|White peony. Click on the photos to see bigger versions.|
The military elite of the fourteenth century loved all things Chinese, and the peony became one of their most important motifs. It was probably around this time that artists started combining the king of flowers and the king of animals. You can see images of peonies and lions in prints, on kimono, in kabuki plays and … apparently it's a very popular tattoo.
|"Lion, peony and firefly" by Utagawa Yoshitora (1840-1880)|
Tokyo's best-known peony garden is at Tōshō-gū in Ueno Park, which I wrote about here, but this year I ventured further afield to Yakuō-in (薬王院) in Mejiro, where you can see peonies propagated from Hase-dera's famous flowers. Yakuō-in stands on a steep hill in a quiet neighbourhood. It was rebuilt after World War II, and it was built on stilts to resemble Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. The main peony garden is at the foot of the temple, but there's a smaller garden towards to entrance. I found it interesting that there's no attempt to protect the flowers against the midday sun. At Tōshō-gū they're covered by paper umbrellas in summer, but at Yakuō-in they're left to wilt, and wilt they do: they may be big, but they're fragile.
|Yakuō-in is built on stilts.|
I got lost on my way to the temple. That was a bad idea. I'm from the flatlands in the east, but the area between Shimo-Ochiai and Mejiro is very hilly, and I was working myself into a lather as I marched along. I found it, eventually, and I always enjoy wandering through Tokyo's suburbs. Just as well, because after I'd enjoyed the flowers, I set off – up an endless flight of steps, never mind a slope! – to find a very special tree that has intrigued me ever since I read about it. Shinjuku ward has many zelkovas, but this one stands slap-bang in the middle of a road about fifteen minutes on foot from the temple.
This area used to be the shōgun's hunting lodge, but in the Meiji period it was divided between two nobles, Baron Konoe and Viscount Soma. Dwindling fortunes forced them to sell it in the 1930s, and in the 1960s the government started clearing the area to build apartments. The residents decided Over Our Dead Bodies. They approached Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (yes, the Lockheed guy) at his home in Mejiro, and he promised to preserve the woodlands. Today not much remains apart from Otomeyama Park and this single zelkova, which used to stand in front of the Konoe residence. The current road has been split in two to save the tree, and a straw rope, which indicates a holy site, has been tied around the tree.
Otomeyama Park is nothing special, simply a smallish area of natural wildness, but it's one of the few places in Tokyo where you can still see fireflies! If you'd like to go, the best time is at the end of July.
So then. Next time somebody tries to tell you that Tokyo is an ugly mess of electrical wires and oblivious zombies, tell them about this place, where fireflies sparkle and roads step aside for trees.
|Peony detail on a wall at Yakuō-in|
|Smaller peony garden at Yakuō-in. I'm always the youngest person by roughly one century at Tokyo's flower spots.|
|Main peony garden at Yakuō-in|
|Fishing at Otomeyama Park|
|Slap-bang in the middle of the road|
|Rope around zelkova|
|"Lion dance" by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)|
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