(The Story) Morning Glory

The Iriya Morning Glory Fair will be held from July 6 to 8 in and around Iriya Kishimojin temple near Ueno in Tokyo. The article below appeared in the July 2014 printed edition of The Japan Journal.

Back in the days before 1868, when it was still known as Edo, the goings-on in Tokyo were very much tales of two cities—Yamanote and Shitamachi. As its name suggests, Yamanote (“foothills”) referred to the hillier areas to the west of the Imperial Palace, and this was the spacious part of the metropolis that the affluent upper classes were happy to call home. By contrast, Shitamachi (“low city”) signified the cramped marshy districts closer to the sea where the hoi polloi lived cheek by jowl. Though it would be hard to think of a single flower that might somehow best symbolize Yamanote, in the case of Shitamachi that blossom would definitely have to be the morning glory.

Known as asagao (“morning face”) in Japanese, morning glories usually close in the afternoon.

Unable to indulge in such aristocratic pursuits as cultivating bonsai dwarf trees or chrysanthemums, day laborers and artisans took to growing the twisting vines of morning glories, and they became known as the commoner’s flower. They often grew the plants in small pots with a small trellis on which the vines could climb. Though she was not herself a native of Edo, the eighteenth-century poet Kaga no Chiyo charmingly expressed the affection with which morning glories were held in the following haiku, in which she would rather go and borrow water from a neighbor than disturb her flower:

The morning glory

entangles the well bucket.

I ask for water.

Morning glories are not native to Japan but were introduced from China in the eighth century. Originally, though, the plants were not sought after for the appeal of their trumpet-shaped flowers. Morning glories were initially grown for their black seeds, which fetched high prices for use as a diuretic and laxative. However, the aesthetic charms of the flower began to win people over, and in the Heian period (794–1185), they began to be cultivated in the gardens of nobles. It was precisely because they themselves did not have any gardens that the humbler citizenry of Edo and Osaka took to the plants and began keeping large numbers of them in pots outside their houses.

By the early nineteenth century, growing morning glories had developed into quite a craze when it was discovered that the plants possess the remarkable ability to be grown into many unusual varieties. Morning glories were cross-pollinated to produce specimens with great diversity of shape, and they were also cultivated in an enormous range of colors—from pinks, yellows and reds to purples, whites and blues as well as in striped, speckled and mottled colorations. One catalogue dating from that period depicts 180 formally recognized varieties. So great was the fad in its heyday that highly unusual flowers changed hands for small fortunes.

Though perhaps not quite as wildly popular as when they were all the rage in the nineteenth century, morning glories are still greatly admired. For many Japanese, the very first plant they ever grow in their lives is a morning glory. Schoolchildren commonly grow them from seeds, often as part of an assignment for the summer vacation, and they dutifully keep a record of their plant’s progress in a journal.

To witness the largest display of morning glories in the country demands a trip to the Iriya Morning Glory Fair, which is held from July 6 to 8 in and around Iriya Kishimojin temple near Ueno in Tokyo. Every year, hundreds of thousands of potted morning glories draw hundreds of thousands of people with a soft spot for the blooms. True to their name, the flowers tend to fade by around 9 a.m., and so many people make a point of getting to the fair particularly early so as to view the morning blooms in all their glory.

That was what Florence du Cane did, as she engagingly recorded in her classic horticultural study, The Flowers and Gardens of Japan, which was published in 1908: “It is at four o’clock in the morning of a scorching July or August day that the plants will look their best: the buds will just be opening, the faded flowers of yesterday will have fallen, and all will be fresh and make you forget the heat of the day that is dawning.”

David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.

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