Google+ Rurousha 流浪者: September 2012

Sunday, 30 September 2012

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.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

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), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your path.

It's all very depressing.

Manjusaka, incidentally, can also be pronounced manjushage. The flower has many other names, but many of them are no longer used.
  • I've come across an old name that's not used in Japan anymore as far as I know, chicken blood plant (鶏血草, keiketsusō), due to its colour.
  • It's known as shibitobana (死人花), flower of the dead, because it blooms while you visit your ancestors' graves.
  • It's called yūreibana (幽霊花), because the flower looks like a ghost.

Higanbana in a graveyard in Shibamata

Graveyard in Shibamata

Mock Joya tells a story in his book Things Japanese (1958) that I haven't been able to verify anywhere else. I keep telling you: once a copy-editor, always a copy-editor. Check, verify, question, be anal. Anyway. He says early missionaries from Portugal brought the plant to Japan. (I doubt this very much, since the plant is originally Chinese.) As they travelled across Japan spreading the gospel and venereal diseases, they planted bulbs by the wayside. "Where the patches of the red blossom end, you will know, will be the place where we have died," they told their fellow missionaries.

The best higanbana park near Tokyo is Kinchakuda near Hidaka in Saitama, which I wrote about here. If you don't want to travel so far, you can visit Koishikawa Kōrauken near Iidabashi Station, Kyu Shibarikyu Onshi Teien next to Hamamatsuchō Station or Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa.

I went to Koishikawa this morning. I wanted to safari to Kinchakuda, but Mother Nature is throwing a temper tantrum called Jelawat, which is heading towards Tokyo as I write this, so I thought it prudent to avoid long train journeys.

Kinchakuda is already in full bloom, but Koishikawa will probably be at its best towards next weekend. Provided it survives this typhoon. Sigh.




Koishikawa Kōrakuen

Koishikawa Kōrakuen

Flashes of red and a spot of sunlight in Koishikawa Kōrakuen's forest

Higanbana against hagi (bush clover) in Koishikawa Kōrakuen

Thursday, 27 September 2012

A shrine that ensures luxuriant pubic hair

I've outdone myself! The intrepid researcher who found sacred places for dead stories, marathon runners, bad eyesight, recovering stolen items, murderers, expecting mothers, etc, etc, etc … this brave hunter has now found a shrine that ensures luxuriant pubic hair. Specifically for women.

You think I'm joking?

Seiryū Jinja in Katsushika

When I first read about this, I was surprised. Let me explain this as delicately as possible. I grew up surrounded by natural blondes in a country where women spend half their lives on beaches, in other words, trimming is fairly common. Then I started going to onsen in Japan, where I saw hundreds of naked women. It was … different.

It reminds me of the first time I saw an advertisement for "bridal shaving". It wasn't referring to the body part I thought it was referring to. Here's an excerpt from Laura Miller's book Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics:

Face shaving is an ancient beauty work in Japan, and many woodblock prints from the sixteenth century onward depict women using long, thin razors to plane their faces. A shaved face and neck is also a prerequisite for brides before they are covered with the thick white makeup worn at the wedding ceremony. For non-bridal, everyday beauty work, women can purchase razors for face-shaving. [Women are advised to] shave their faces two or three times a month to make it easier to put on makeup.

Anyway. The shrine. Here's the story.

Once upon a time there was a young woman from a wealthy family in Katsushika. When she reached a nubile age, her parents arranged a marriage for their daughter. As luck would have it, the young girl fell in love with her parents' choice, and a date for their union was arranged.

All seemed set for a happy ending, but it was not to be. As the wedding day approached, the young girl became increasingly quiet, withdrawn and depressed. Finally, barely a day before the wedding, she flung herself into a neighbourhood pond and drowned. Her body floated to the surface, and the reason for her shame was finally revealed: she suffered from "not having hair in a place where you should have it" (あるべきところに毛がない arubeki tokoro ni ke ga nai). That's according to the guidebook Tokyo goriyaku sanpo (東京ご利益散歩), which could be translated as "a stroll through the practical benefits offered by shrines and temples in Tokyo".

The Hairless Pond

Wait! There's more!

Local residents started referring to the girl's watery grave as the "Hairless Pond", but soon afterwards the surrounding area, which up to that point had been barren, started sprouting abundant grass. A nearby shrine was accredited with the power to cover what used to be bare, and to this day it is associated with this problem. The shrine is called Seiryū  Jinja (青龍神社) or Blue Dragon Shrine. I'm quite sure the blue dragon has his own story, but I haven't followed it up yet.

Is that blue or green?

I've seen two Japanese versions of the pond's name: 毛無池 and 怪無池. Both can be pronounced Kenashi-ike, but the former means "no hair pond" and the latter means "no injuries pond". Nobody seems to be sure how that last name originated. I've read that warriors used to pray at the shrine before they went to battle, asking to be spared death or injury. Other stories say that all attempts to drain the pond have ended in either violent rain storms or serious injuries to the workers, in other words, if you don't want to drown or get hurt, don't even think of approaching this place.

Finally, just to confuse you a bit more, there's yet another legend that if you pray to the giant white snake that lives in the pond, he will ensure good rain in the area.

The more I think about the origin of this folktale, the more I wonder. We may think it's silly to kill yourself because you don't have pubic hair, but what if there really was a young girl who suffered from delayed sexual development? It could be a far-fetched interpretation, but in the good old days we had to explain unusual phenomena via stories, not science.

I enjoyed researching this post, even if I couldn't find answers to all my questions. I was chortling happily as I Googled pubic hair. It may be thriving in Japan, but in the United States it's become very unfashionable. Read this and thisIf I may quote from the latter: "Indiana University researchers Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick found in a recent study that nearly 60 percent of American women between 18 and 24 are sometimes or always completely bare down there."

Completely? Eish! I guess you'd never see an American woman at this shrine, says she, with her tongue firmly in her cheek.

References: I first read about this temple in the book Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan by Ian Reader and George Tanabe.

The entrance to the shrine

青龍神社 or Seiryū Jinja

Walking towards the shrine with the pond on the left

Standing at the shrine itself, looking back towards the torii

Vegetable plots behind the shrine

Look! Sky Tree! Wheee!

Fishermen. I hope the white snake doesn't spot them.

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Monday, 24 September 2012

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.


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 …


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!

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

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.



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

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