chrysanthemum

1000 bud chrysanthemums at Shinjuku Gyoen

These giant chrysanthemum displays are a marvel of human manipulation of nature. Called an “ozukuri bed” (大作り花壇), this technique for pinching, pruning and training chrysanthemums (菊) originated in Shinjuku Gyoen in 1884. In the first half of November, it’s a featured display each year.

On a conceptual level, I love the orderly rows that transform nature into a skilled craft. And I know that chrysanthemums are a national symbol of Japan. Yet, however monumental and transitory, I fail to find these flowers beautiful. What do you think?

There’s another style where the chrysanthemums are trained to look like a cascading river of petals. I like how they are in special bamboo huts with blue curtains and red tassels.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Encouraged by my host Suzuki Makoto sensei at Tokyo University of Agriculture, I recently visited the Edo Gardening Flowers exhibit being held at the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art until November 26,2009. The exhibit has spectacular colorful wood block prints showing flowers and plants in a variety of urban settings including kimonos, at festivals, commercials nurseries, educational materials, Kabuki actors, and Noh dramas.

The exhibit theme is that the Edo period experienced a “gardening culture” in which a passion for gardens and flowers permeated all social classes, including court nobles, shoguns, feudal lords and the common people. According to the catalogue, “the Japanese people’s passion to flowers surprised the American botanist Robert Fortune as seen in his diary upon his visit to Japan in the late Edo period.”

An interesting comparison is also made between between the widespread practice of Edo gardening and also the interest of common people in wood block prints. It is wonderful to see the use of flowers and plants in both high culture realms and in depictions of everyday life during the Edo period.

Two of my favorite prints are collections of plants used by children to learn the names of flowers. The one below, from the back cover of the exhibit catalog, has the names in hiragana. The exhibit also includes Edo era ceramic plant pots.

Edo gardening in wood block prints

Some more images after the jump, and also a list of plants seen in the wood block prints.

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Plants at Kawagoe festival

Plants at Kawagoe festival

At the Kawagoe festival, or omatsuri, last weekend, there was a small street full of plant sellers, including this one focused on succulents and cactuses. Other featured plants included chrysanthemums, many of them sold without plastic pots. Many neighborhood festivals include a group of plant sellers, in addition to portable shrines, street food and other activities.