Just south of Fukuoka City on the island of Kyushu, Japan is the small city of Dazaifu. This town is saturated with history, once serving as a major political center, and hosts one of Kyushu’s most famous and visited shrines, Tenmangu. The shrine is well known for its extensive collection of ume trees, Prunus mume, and is a focal point for school kids to come and pray for good luck on their exams. Almost never is the shrine or nearby streets and shops free of tourists, both native and foreign.
One of the shrine’s less known features is its large pool garden full of the Japanese iris (Iris ensata) that explodes into flower right in step with the monsoon rains of early June. Known as hanashoubu in Japanese, today many hundreds of varieties exist, from pure whites to pinks, every shade of blue, rich purples, the whole spectrum of intermediate shades of these, plus multicolored and intricately patterned flowers. The center is commonly marked with yellow, a feature that harkens back to the wild plant that can still be found in wetlands over much of southern Japan, I. ensata v. ensata, called nobanashoubu in Japanese.
In Tenmangu’s iris garden one can get a eyeful of the variety that have been produced over the last several hundred years. Within the Japanese cultivars there are three primary groupings – Edo (hailing from Tokyo under its old name), Higo (developed under the auspices of the Daimyo of Kumamoto, Hitoshi Hosokawa), and Ise (improved cultivars created in the Ise-Matsusaka area of Mie Prefecture). A more obscure group hails from Ayame park in Nagai City, Yamagata Prefecture, and are called the Nagai group. They were rediscovered after the breeding efforts that took place in Edo (old Tokyo) and are thought to be closer to the original wild plants. In other parts of the world, notably America and Belgium, new lines of Iris enstata have been bred in recent years and are becoming popular even in Japan.
What follows is a pictorial essay for the most part. Naming of Japanese plants is often bewilderingly complex and idiosyncratic (even to Japanese people!), though the names of individual cultivars will be indicated with each picture along with their cultivar group. All pictures in this article were taken at Tenmangu Shrine in Dazaifu City.
This Japanese iris garden, though far from being the biggest in Japan, is still chockfull of Iris enstata, known as Shoubu in Japanese. Plants grow in circular cement planters year round.
A wider view of the garden reveals its quaint setting amongst the hills and surrounding forests of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and hardwoods. Even the monsoon rains won’t keep flower lovers away from the display.
The Higo group of cultivars dominate at Tenmangu’s iris garden, and the lovely ‘Yorunoniji’ is a great example of their beauty. Its name means “night rainbow” – as with many Japanese names, it is both obscure and poetic.
A radically different looking Higo plant is this ‘Benihanagasa’. The colored outer margin of the flower segments is called fukurin in Japanese, meaning “ornamental border”.
The spectrum of colors in shoubu cultivars can be shocking at times, with this flower being somewhere between a pure pink and lavender (cultivar name – ‘Komadomesakura’, of the Higo group).
Often when one thinks of marsh growing iris, the color blue comes to mind, and this Higo variety, ‘Mizutenisshikki’, delivers. The original wild varieties have this color, but much more narrow flower segments.
A large plant of Iris ensata in full flower is an eyeful. This gorgeous clump of ‘Yamesugata’ (Higo group) is a splendid example.
Despite being the more primary group of cultivars, this Edo plant, ‘Seishonagon’ is one of the few flowers of that group I’ve photographed at Tenmangu Shrine. It could be that Tenmangu’s proximity to Kumamoto Prefecture has biased the balance of the collection here.
Also not to be outdone is this clear pink Ise group cultivar, ‘Announootome’.
Finally, a couple Nagai group cultivars. First up is ‘Nagaibenisuzume’, literally meaning “red sparrow from Nagai”. I guess sparrow’s in northern Japan are deep purple-red! Despite the color, this form is more simple looking than many of the primary group flowers, harkening back to wild plants.
The odd flowered ‘Takanotsume’ is another Nagai group plant. The upturned and narrow tipped flower segments are thought to resemble claws, hence its name which means “hawk’s claws”. The flowers on this plant are interesting, yet far less grand than the Edo, Ise, and Higo cultivars – another indication of this group’s strong affiliation with wild forms.
Tenmangu Shrine is a easy walk from Nishitetsu Dazaifu Station which is the terminus of a short spur off the main north-south line with Futsukaichi Station the place to change trains (about a 15 minute ride south of Tenjin Station in central Fukuoka City). If coming by car, take highway route 3 south towards Dazaifu and turn north on 36 (left) for around one third of a kilometer. There are many private parking lots scattered around the southeast side of the shrine’s grounds, and prices vary a lot, so take a good look before settling on one (cheaper ones start at 400 yen for an unlimited stay, but can be as much as 300 yen per half hour!). Nearby the shrine grounds, and accessible from there as well, is the Kyushu National Museum, one of Japan’s most important cultural museums. If you want to see a lovely moss/maple garden, Koumyouzen Temple is a short walk away. Be prepared for large crowds anytime between 10 AM and 4 PM throughout the area!