• Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Cameron Allan Mckean

The seeds of obsession | Asagao 1 Tokyo Morning Glory

, 2015/08/17

Every year In Iriya, downtown Tokyo, the Japanese Asagao flower festival is held. The festival memorializes the location of the earliest nurseries but the real history of asagao is carried in the plant’s seeds.
Hanya Yoshiyuki: The seeds of obsession

It’s summer in the garden city during the mid-1800s. Outside, the night air smells of soil and flowers. Turgid leaves — still stiff from the rain of the wet season — jut out from wooden balconies, poke over fences and stretch onto roads or over the pebble pathways of shrines. Edo, the name for old Tokyo, was not only one of the largest cities in the world in the 19th century, it was also one of the greenest. Traveling through it in the 1860s, Scottish botanist Robert Fortune admired Edo’s gardening culture in his travel diary — particularly the pot plants outside wooden homes in shitamachi (the “low city,” built on Edo’s floodplains). Yet if he had come 50 years earlier, when having a garden was more of a luxury, the city would have looked very different. Gardening was a pastime of the Shogun and his retinue, who obsessed over rare and beautifully mutated flower strains. But as the city expanded and gardens increased, more nurseries began appearing, and soon the commoners of Edo became just as plant-obsessed as the elites. Nurseries battled each other for decades to cultivate rare and unusual mutations of flowers, which further encouraged a floriculture-mania that took over the entire city, on and off, for close to a century. Hanya Yoshiyuki’s family are part of this history: they have run nurseries in east Tokyo since the Meiji Era (1867-1912). Hanya says, “I’ve been doing this since I was 18, this is all I’ve done — I always knew it was what I was going to do.” Although the plant madness of the 1800s wasn’t limited to one species, one plant in particular came to embody it: Ipomoea nil, the Japanese morning glory, known as asagao (literally, the “face of the morning”). On a small plot of land in a cramped neighbourhood in Edogawa ward, Hanya is tending to one of his many asagao plants, carefully threading its vines through plastic pot plant frames to create a “lantern” for the upcoming summer asagao festival. Some of the flowers around us are blue — as though a piece of lapis lazuli stone were softened and unfurled. Others are pale brown — the color of red smoke or a faded kabuki costume (“that’s my most popular color” Hanya says). Others still are striated — electrified by jagged white lines. And all will wither away as the sun gets higher in the sky. “I think that’s why people like them so much,” Hanya says. “They flower for such a short time.” As the city changed it’s name from Edo to Tokyo, in the mid-1800s, the nurseries and asagao salesmen began to be forced further and further away from the accelerating urban development in the city center. The last nursery in Iriya moved out in 1912. “Now many people are growing in Chiba and Saitama,” Hanya says, referring to the hinterland regions of Tokyo. But after World War II, the original growing area in Iriya revived the old tradition and the Iriya Asagao Matsuri began. “I sell all my flowers at that festival,” Hanya says.



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