Monday, June 28, 2010

Hydrangea, Solace During The Rainy Season

The languor of the rainy season is offset by the barrage of hydrangea in the neighborhood, the native plant of Japan. It is now adored worldwide with new fancy specimens created through crossbreeding.

I was a long time absentee house/landowner in Hino, Tokyo, because of my work assignment abroad. However, after returning to Japan, I have frequented, by bicycle, the Takahata City library where the local English book reading club members met twice a month, including exchange English professors at a nearby university. On my way to the library is the Takahata Fudo-son Temple, counted among Tokyo region’s three major temples dedicated to Fudo Myoo (Acala Vidyaraja). The temple contains a lot of cultural assets, some of which are designated as "Important Cultural Assets", including the five-story pagoda. I used to drop in to pray for my family, as the temple deity is a guardian of fire defense and traffic safety (see hydrangea by the Takahata Pagoda).

Many Temple festivals such as Bean Throwing and Dharma Marketing, the Hydrangea Festival attracts thousands of visitors from June to July, featuring 7,500 Ajisai flowers blooming peacefully under the rainy season sky. The English book reading club members often visited there, finishing the class early. We sometimes had bus trips to Kamakura to see hydrangea at Tookeiji, Myogetsuin, etc., known as the hydranga temples.

Regarding Japanese/Chinese characters of hydrangea, I found some controversial legends. One is Bai Juyi (772-846), the mid Tang Dynasty poet, who had influenced the Japanese, once sang this poem when he was stationed in Hang Zhou as an administrator.

"Since when and where this cute plant came
to this remote temple hermitage flower bed
Nobody could tell me and its name either.
So I am privileged to name you
Purple Sun-shining flower"

Some people say that the plant was brought by a Japanese Mission to Tang. Some people claim that the plant he saw was not the hydrangea, but the lilac. It was Minamotono Shitagou who wrongly interpreted and applied Bai Juyi’s naming to the Japanese Ajisai. There’s no photos or pictures to prove what Bai Juyi saw, so I say just let people believe what they believe.

Bai Juyi’s poems are my favorite, particularly “Everlasting Sorrow", a longer narrative ballad he sang for Yang Guifei and the pond she loved.
I visited the pond in Xian a few years ago.

Another controversy is the hydrangea species named “Otaksa” by Dr. Phillip Franz von Siebolt(1796-1866) and rejected by Dr. Tomitaro Makino (1862-1957), father of Japanese botany. Otaksa by Siebolt was named after his mistress “Otaku-san”. Dr. Makino preferred the more conventional Hydrangea Macrophylla used by the famous Carl von Linne (1707-1778), father of modern taxonomy and founder of binominal nomenclature, and Carl Peter Thunberg(1743-1828), author of Flora Japonica. Thunberg (50 years ahead of Siebolt) and Siebolt visited secluded Japan through Nagasaki, both as doctors sent from the Dutch East India Company, and found hydrangea impressively strange and marvelous, changing into multi-colors. It is puzzling why we do not see paintings of hydrangeas by Cezanne or Renoir.

*Top photo courtesy of Haruo Toda, Hachioji
*2nd photo courtesy of Joanne Oppenheim, West Hampton

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Imamura-san,

Thank you for your interesting and informative blogs, which I only discovered today by chance.

As for the mystified flower in Bai Juyi's poem, I've also been curious about his naming, which coincides with its Japanese name 'Ajisai' (紫陽花) but is not common in China -- we usually call it '繡球花' (literally 'embroidered ball' for its resemblance with the love token girls toss to their beaus). However, the former name is in the record. One educated guess is that Japanese scholars adopted Bai's coinage and spread the kanji in Japanese literature (as Ajisai appears as early as in 'The Tale of Genji') for Tang poetry was quite fashionable in Japan then.

And as modern botany has already corrected itself in many cases, Asian plants first found in Japan by Europeans, even some still named Japanese, are not necessarily native to Japan or Japan only. So is the case of Hydrangea. It grows originally in Sichuan, China, as well. Probably it was not widely cultivated in other parts of China, so Bai claimed to be 'ignorant of the flower'.

By the way, I'm from Hangzhou, the city Bai Juyi was once closely associated with.

eric at westlaker dot org