The Japanese iris garden at Tenmangu Shrine, Dazaifu, Kyushu, Japan

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 hearkens 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.

Iris Pool Garden
The iris pool garden at Tenmangu Shrine, Dazaifu, Kyushu, Japan is brimming full of Iris ensata this wet June morning – right in step with the summer monsoon.

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.

Iris enstata garden

This Japanese iris garden, though far from being the biggest in Japan, is still chock full of Iris enstata, known as Shoubu in Japanese. Plants grow in circular cement planters year round.

Dazaifu Tenmangu Iris Garden

A wider view of the garden reveals its quaint setting among 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.

Iris enstata Yorunoniji

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.

Iris enstata Benihanagasa

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”.

Iris enstata Komadomesakura

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).

Iris enstata Mizutenisshiki

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.

Iris enstata Yamesugata

A large plant of Iris ensata in full flower is an eyeful. This gorgeous clump of ‘Yamesugata’ (Higo group) is a splendid example.

Iris enstata Seishonagon

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.

Iris ensata Announootome

Also not to be outdone is this clear pink Ise group cultivar, ‘Announootome’.

Iris ensata Nagaibenisuzume

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, hearkening back to wild plants.

Iris ensata Takanotsume

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!


6 Replies to “The Japanese iris garden at Tenmangu Shrine, Dazaifu, Kyushu, Japan”

  1. Just started purchasing the Japenese Iris cultivars. Had such a great success last summer with their beautiful blooms. I was very pleased viewing this website. Loved to visit these gardens in Japan! Awesome colors!

  2. Actually, nagaibenisuzume can be 長い紅雀 nagai (long) beni ( (lipstick, as in kuchibeni) and suzume is correct as sparrow… That way it makes more sense to me 🙂

    1. Hey Gaijin! Normally, I’d agree with you, but in this case Nagai (長井) refers to Nagai City in Yamagata Prefecture. In this city’s Ayame Park the Nagai group of Shoubu were selected. Thanks for your comment though. It is Shoubu time very soon!

      Tom (another gaijin)

  3. Hello I love your japanese Iris, I grow them in South Australia, I have 108 types, I would like to buy seeds to grow. They are my favourite flower and plant.
    Could you let me know if you sell the seeds
    Nancye KOpunic.

    1. Hi Nancye,

      I’m glad you liked the article. I’m afraid none of these are my plants. Gardens here are extremely small, so I don’t have any in my tiny one at the moment.


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