On the border of Saga and Fukuoka Prefectures in northern Kyushu, is the “tsutsuji temple”, Daikozenji. Tsutsuji is the general term used for azaleas in the Japanese language, and this temple is stuffed full of them such that in late April and early May the place is aflame with their flowers. During this season thousands flock to the wooded slopes where the temple sits, nestled in a forest of cedar and maple trees, to view the spectacle. This temple has a history dating back nearly 1300 years, and is associated with the Tendai Sect, a form of Mahayana Buddhism. The various temple buildings are built at the base of Chigiriyama (“Pledge or Promise Mountain”).
Though the temple is a tourist attraction these days, it remains nevertheless a religious sanctuary where prayers are given to ward off evil, to ensure traffic safety, and to keep families safe. As with other Buddhist temples in Japan, death and funeral rites are a major focus as well (compared to Shinto shrines which are involved with traditional marriages).
Nowadays Daikozenji is best known for its mass plantings of azalea bushes – all 50,000 of them! The temple grounds cover some 75,000 square meters, or just about 18.5 acres. Much of the area behind the temple buildings (the bulk of the property) is literally covered in azaleas under a canopy of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), various native hardwoods (notably Castanopsis sieboldii), and a variety of maples (said to number 500 in all).
Paths lead up the mountain to various scenic points, including one hill that is resplendent with azaleas under a thin canopy of trees – the main spectacle of the garden. Elsewhere the pattern is pretty simple – forest underplanted with azalea bushes, most standing one to two meters tall, in a near continuous patch. Here and there one can see the native Rhododendron known as shakunage in Japanese, R. degronianum, as well as two Viburnums, V. japonicum and V. plicatum.
Just behind the temple buildings is a little vale that serves as the center of the garden. Here the cedar trees are bit larger and maples abound, creating a cathedral-like atmosphere. Here too are the ever present azaleas, viburnums, and a smattering of other plants including Calanthe orchids. Plant diversity is highest in this area though this garden is not known for great variety. Here too are ten wooden flower viewing houses, one of which is open to the public during flowering season. The other nine are rented out for private parties. They sit on platforms hanging off the hillside and have windows all around allowing for excellent views. Small streams gurgle down past them into pools full of koi. Without a doubt this part of the garden is the most magical.
The main group of azaleas began to be planted during the late Taisho period (1912-1926) and by 1950 Daikozenji became famous for its spring flowering display. In 1957 it was given its nickname “azalea temple” (tsutsuji tera) by Kurume City’s Rotary Club. Since that time its fame has grown and now is one of those must see places in the local region. It’s parking lot is huge, stuffed with private vehicles and tour buses during the main flowering period (late April) and again in mid November (when the maple trees show their fall colors).
Check out this video of Daikozenji in late April – in it you’ll see hirado tsutsuji in flower, Calanthe sieboldii and C. discolor, and the fresh green leaves of spring:
On my first visit to Daikozenji some years ago I noticed that the bulk of azaleas planted there were of just a few varieties, all of which reminded me greatly of what are known as “southern indica hybrids” in the USA. A bit of research lead me to their actual identity, which in Japanese is called hirado tsutsuji, a group of hybrid azaleas that have been grown for at least the last 300 years. The name comes from the Hirado area of Nagasaki Prefecture on Kyushu island where they were first cultivated. Today a number of forms have been maintained, and it is these that cover the hillsides of the temple grounds.
Hirado tsutsuji are hybrids of three native Rhododendron species of Japan, R. mucronatum v. ripense, R. macrosepalum, and R. scabrum. They typically grow up to 2 meters tall, sometimes more, are semi-deciduous, and range in color from deep purples, pure whites, to pinks and are commonly spotted with purple. Large flowered, they are some of the earliest azaleas to bloom in Japan, alongside Kurume hybrids (which are rare in this temple garden). Reliably cold hardy to USDA cold hardiness zone 7, they are nearly fully evergreen in warmer areas, but may be semi-deciduous in colder regions, particularly if conditions get dry in winter.
Here are some details about each parent species:
R. mucronatum v. ripense (AKA R. ripens) – known as kishitsutsuji in Japan. Wild plants have lavender flowers and grow up to two meters tall. They are native to Honshu (from Okayama and Shimane Prefectures and westward), Kyushu, and Shikoku.
R. macrosepalum – called mochitsutsuji in Japanese. Like R. mucronatum v. ripense its flowers are purple, but tend to be richer in color and grows up to two meters tall. Interestingly, this plant is found from Okayama Prefecture on Honshu northward to Yamanashi Prefecture. It therefore is only sympatric with R. mucronatum v. ripense in a limited area of western Honshu.
R. scabrum – known as keramatsutsuji in Japan. This species is confined to the southern islands, from the Amami Islands and southward to Okinawa. It grows up to three meters tall and typically has bright orange-red flowers.
How these plants first became hybridized is a bit of a mystery given their mostly separate distributions. Also interesting is that in Japan they are often given the name R. x pulchrum, which is the natural hybrid between R. indicum v. formosanum and R. mucronatum v. mucronatum. All Japanese sources I’ve seen list the three above species as the parent plants of hirado tsutsuji. My guess is that there has been a mixup in Latinate names by Japanese authorities – a common thing since Japanese names are favored over Latin ones. Nevertheless, the relationship between this hybrid group and some “southern indica hybrids” (notably R. ‘Formosa’ and ‘Fielders White’) seems to be close.
If you are in the Fukuoka or Kurume City areas in late April or early May I highly recommend seeing this amazing display. If you are lucky monks will be chanting sutras (Buddhist prayers) over the garden’s speaker system, which adds quite a bit of flavor to the show. You’ll also have to walk through the little hamlet of Komatsu to the temple’s stairs – the entire way is surrounded by vendors selling local wares, agricultural products (late season oranges and honey for example), ready to eat foods, and azalea bushes of course!
If you don’t have a car, you can get bus service during the flowering period (from April 20th to May 6th this year, 2013) from Japan Railways (JR) Kiyama Station. The Nishitetsu Bus Company provides rides to and from the station to the temple on a regular basis during the azalea flowering period – 190 yen one way for adults, and 100 yen for children (spring 2013). The temple’s address is 3628 Oaza Sonobe, Kiyama-Machi, Miyaki-Gun, Saga-Ken, postal code 841-0203, Kyushu, Japan.