A feast for the senses: Ashikaga offers travelers more than just wisteria

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

Flitting between spring rains and warm sun, April is one of the country’s most fecund months. If the cherry blossoms dominate the first half of the month, it is the fragrant racemes of wisteria that entrap the senses in mid-April, running their course into mid- to late May. The flower — known as fuji in Japanese — has a firm place in the Japanese heart, cultivated to no small extent by writers, who have made much of the vine.

These gracious purple and lavender pendants have been lauded since the Nara Period (710-794), mention of them appearing in the “Manyoshu,” the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poems. Murasaki Shikibu has a good deal to say about the flower in her 11th-century novel, “The Tale of Genji.” Shikibu served as lady-in-waiting to Fujiwara no Shoshi who, during her lifetime, became known as “Fujitsubo” for the lush trellises of wisteria cultivated in her inner garden. Also in Shikibu’s time, the flower was planted in the courtyards of ancient Kyoto’s inner palace, where power rested with the Fujiwara family, whose name translates to “wisteria field.”

More recently, Edith Shiffert, a longtime habitue of Kyoto, wrote a short poem on the subject: “That color purple/Draped from treetops on mountains/The wisteria!” Shiffert was writing about wild wisteria, a hardy varietal that can grow in harsh conditions, its roots and bark said to have medicinal qualities.

I have come to the Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi Prefecture to see the spectacle of considerably more cultivated wisteria, their forms as concisely and manipulatively shaped as bonsai trees, or the espaliered roses of an English garden. The fragrance of the wisteria on the approach to the park opens memory and senses, hurtling me back in time to southwest France and a tunnel of purple and white wisteria in the lovely water garden at Latour-Marlaic, where I first experienced la glycine, as the French call the flower.

Unlike Latour-Marlaic, where visitor numbers are light, the parking lot at the flower park is already filling up as I arrive early in the morning. Like the cherry blossoms, there is a feeling of urgency in viewing the wisteria, a sense that timing is everything. Fortunately, the park grows a profusion of different species, so successive blooming takes place over a four-week period. Interestingly, entrance fees are adjusted according to the degree of blossom; ergo, when in full bloom, ticket prices are at their steepest.

The park is home to two species endemic to Japan: the purple, or blue, wisteria floribunda and the white shirobana fuji. Another varietal cultivated here is the yae fuji, a lilac-colored, rosette-shaped, double-flowered species with petaloid stamens.

Although the seeds, pods, stems and leaves of wisteria species are poisonous, ancient Japanese accounts tell of the plant’s fresh leaves and flowers being eaten. Flower specialist Sumiko Embutsu writes of wisteria’s bark being beaten until soft, then woven into fabric for clothing.

The park’s garden displays the flowers in varying forms, some free-standing, others creeping along the tops of walls, gracing concrete tubs and, at their most impressive, purple and white inflorescences hanging from large pergolas known in Japan as fujidana. One of the most spectacular wisteria trellises is said to be over 150 years old.

There is a touch of the theme park, with attractions including a tunnel of white wisteria, a wisteria dome and islands of flower beds floating on artificial ponds. The more naturalistic settings work better for me, undulating slopes at the edge of the park, where wisterias, planted alongside flowering bushes of azaleas, benefit from a backdrop of natural hills.

Commercialism asserts itself as you exit the park, passing through a souvenir hall stuffed with goods. As I leave, a number of tour bus visitors are sampling wisteria-flavored biscuits, while a group of pensioners tuck into cones of wisteria ice cream.

From Ashikaga Flower Park Station, it’s just two stops on the Ryomo Line to Ashikaga Station, where it’s a five-minute walk across the Tanaka Bridge and the appealingly landscaped embankments of the Watarase River, to the town center. The powerful Ashikaga shoguns, de facto rulers of the country during the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), lent their name to a town that is strongly associated with silk production and the study of Confucianism.

The town is home to Ashikaga Gakko, a school that boasts of being Japan’s oldest academic institution. There, a statue of Confucius, made in Shangdong Province in China, takes pride of place in the grounds. A second, seated image of the master, made of wood and dating to 1535, occupies the center of the complex’s Confucian Hall. Zen priests once taught classes on the I Ching here, a work often interpreted in the West as a mystic or occult treatise that is — more precisely — a text of attempted scientific divination.

Old school: The picturesque moat surrounding the Ashikaga Gakko school complex.
Old school: The picturesque moat surrounding the Ashikaga Gakko school complex. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

None of the school’s structures are original. Like literature and film, to fully appreciate architectural reconstructions in Japan, the viewer must enter into a suspension of attachment to the authentic. With the exception of the school’s main gate, a narrow wooden structure dating from 1668, a major renewal of the institute’s main structures took place in 1990, though the results remain remarkably faithful to the originals. The sites, including the hōjō (Abbot’s quarters), a large prayer room, library, living quarters and a sensitively laid out landscape garden, convey the dignity and status of this former school of high learning.

Vestiges of authenticity, traces of Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-26) era teahouses, textile emporiums, and storehouses converted into souvenir shops, can be glimpsed in some of the mercantile architecture along the town’s monzen-machi, the name given to shopping streets close to religious sites. Where there are markets and commercial activity in Japan, there are temples, and Ashikaga is no exception: the shopping street nudges its customers in the direction of Bannaji temple.

Associated with the esoteric Shingon sect of Buddhism, the temple’s main hall is a fine structure made from darkly grained wood. The Tahoto, a two-tiered pagoda, stands in the grounds, a feature of the complex that has survived the passage of time. Standing opposite, a 30-meter-high ginkgo tree, known as the “Sacred Marriage Tree,” in honor of couples who once held formal pre-nuptial meetings under its foliage, is another traveler through time, said to be over 500 years old.

Walking back to the old merchant street, Matsumura Memorial House, a private residence put up in 1925, sits back from a side lane. Affluent landowners with connections to the lucrative silk trade, the Matsumura family would have enjoyed an uncommonly comfortable life among the house’s elegant rooms and tasteful garden.

There is an uncanny stillness to the cool, dimmed interior, its contents apparently left just as they were. It is as if the original inhabitants had simply removed themselves for the day to allow for visitors, but would be reoccupying their home later that same afternoon, not as ghosts circulating among the dust motes of their former rooms, but in flesh and blood forms.

It is only a kilometer or so on foot from here to Ashikaga Orihime Shrine. A long flight of stone steps leads to the compound, which affords commanding views of the town and river.

Purple reigns: A wisteria pergola adds vibrancy to the colorful Ashikaga Orihime Shrine.
Purple reigns: A wisteria pergola adds vibrancy to the colorful Ashikaga Orihime Shrine. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

The dazzling red and green features of the shrine building are not especially old and date to the shrine’s reconstruction in 1937. The shrine’s name, Orihime, is much older, however, and has its origins in the ancient folk story that is celebrated during the star festival Tanabata. In the story, two lovers — Hikoboshi the cowherd and Orihime the weaver — are forced to opposite ends of the sky, permitted to meet just once a year. Appropriately, the name of the shrine embodies its function as guardian of the town’s silk trade.

As my eyes adjust to the brilliant colors of the shrine, a breeze rises, sending a familiar scent my way, leading me to a large wisteria pergola at the edge of the compound, its purple pendants transporting me back to my earlier visit to the flower park.

As I inhale the heady, spring scent, a shrine maiden passes by bearing a tray laden with sake cups. It reminds me of a popular belief, that wisteria plants love sake. Some gardeners are even known to pour a glass or two of the liquid fertilizer over their roots, in the hope of perfect blossoms the following season.

Limited express (70 minutes/¥1,790 one way) and semi-express (two hours/¥970 one way) trains depart from Tokyo’s Asakusa Station to Ashikaga Station. The Ashikaga Flower Park is two stops away on the Ryomo Line. Prices vary by the quality of the flowers: March: ¥300-1,200, mid-April onward ¥900-1,800, end of May-June ¥500-1,200, July-Feb. ¥300-900.