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

Flowers after a great fire | Asagao 2

, 2015/09/01

There was nothing left after the March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo — nothing but cars, bodies and the charred frames of houses. By the time the B-29 bombers had dropped their payloads and begun flying back toward U.S. bases in Saipan and Tinian, Tokyo’s downtown area — known as shitamachi, or “the low city” — was completely enveloped in a firestorm. More than 100,000 people died in the conflagration, but other things were also dragged into the flames: memories, scientific knowledge, traditions, art, and — although it’s hard to see the value of this in the face of such human carnage — flowers, too. This was the one event that affected the tradition of growing asagao (Japanese morning glories) more than any other. Rare strains were wiped out, seed banks destroyed and nurseries razed. “It was disastrous” says 83-year-old Tsuneo Cho, from his office in Tokyo’s Iriya neighborhood. Cho spends his time organizing one of the largest flower festivals in Japan, the Iriya Asagao Matsuri, held from July 6-8 each year. “After the war, people wanted to rebuild the city — they remembered they had the asagao,” Cho says. “They used the flower as a motif to rebuild the city.” A group of locals and a government group created the new summer festival to reconnect the area with its golden days, a time when it was filled with rice paddies and plant nurseries, who sold to Tokyo’s plant-crazy population in the 1800s. Today, it’s hard to imagine this area overgrown with green. It’s an infinite regress of concrete and glass. Cho walks ahead of us along the road, visualizing how the old city would have looked before the last nursery left in 1912. “Here nurseries would have been battling each other for the best flowers, mixing and matching to make the best one,” he says, pointing to a crowded city street. He takes us to the festival site — another major road. “At the first festival, none of the plants were able to flower,” he says. Although more than 400,000 people visit the festival these days, those early events were quiet. “We brought geisha from this area to the center of Tokyo to promote it 50 years ago,” he says. “We even took out ads on radio and tv.” Our walk ends at Kishimojin Temple, the heart of the festival. As we have been walking, his stories have jumped across time, but now he takes us back to the first asagao boom. He stands on the pebble path of the shrine and tells us how the asagao’s shy flowers were symbols of summer in shitamachi. Kabuki actors and geisha would come here after their work finished to socialize in the cool early morning air and watch the ecstatically colored flowers open up in the pre-dawn light. Back then, the hardest part was getting the flowers to bloom at the right moment for competitions. Things change. “Keeping control of the cars is the hardest thing about the festival now, that’s our biggest worry.”



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