A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

In Autumn MUMS THE WORD, as Japan`s Chrysanthemum Cultivators Dislay their Creations! The Chrysanthemum in Japanese History and Culture

091104_1325~01[1]Walking through Tsukuba`s old neighborhoods in October and November, you will very likely see some impressive chrysanthemums (kiku) displayed out by the front doors of homes and shops, their big, heavy looking yellow, white or pink blossoms  sitting atop their slender leaf laden stems, often supported  by round metal frames.  You will also  often find prize winning MUMS on display and even shows of chrysanthemum SCULPTURE ( kiku ningyo) throughout this season at venues such as shrines and parks.

   Though they are NOT a native species, KIKU have not only come to be known as one of Japan`s two important representative flowers of autumn ( the other being HAGI- bush clover), but they have also become the symbol of Japan`s Imperial Family, an institution which in English is in fact often referred to as the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Believed by the ancient Chinese to possess special medicinal powers, specifically the ability to cleanse one of spiritual impurities and provide ETERNAL YOUTH, there is evidence suggesting that chysanthemums were introduced to Japan as early as the 5th century. There are,  however, NO references to this flower in the first ( and perhaps greatest) of Japan`s poetry anthologies, the Manyoshu ( compiled in the 8th century).

Kiku at someones entranceway- Konda Tsukuba Kiku at someones entranceway- Konda Tsukuba

In the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794- 1185) Periods the aristocrats of the Japanese Court adopted the Tang Chinese custom of drinking chrysanthemum wine and rubbing ones body with cotton swabs soaked with chrysanthemum dew on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month( for the Chinese, odd numbers are YANG- bright and positive. Nine is the highest odd numeral ,which would make 9/9 the luckiest day of the year- right when the mums were in bloom). This event was officially called the choyo no sekku (重陽の節句), one of the five seasonal change days which the Japanese took on from China. These customs are described by Sei Shonagon in her Pillow Book  ( Makura no Soshi- 枕草子) and by Murasaki Shikibu, in her diary( both from the Heian Period).

By the way, this year, 2010, the 9th day of the ninth month (Choyo no Sekku) is today- October 16th!

Kiku motif on an Edo Period Noh Costume Kiku motif on an Edo Period Noh Costume 

Because of  the fact that the chrysanthemum was so prestigious, with its Chinese lineage and its supposed purifying and life extending powers  ( besides the beauty of the flower itself ! ) many of Japans noble families, from the Heian Period on, adopted it in one form or another into their family crests or onto their kimonos or furniture.

However, what makes the chrysanthemum especially symbolic of the Imperial Family of Japan, is the fact that the large round , yellow blossoms are reminiscent of THE SUN- the ancestor, according to Japanese mythology, in the form of AMATERASU, of the all Japanese Emperors. 

091111_1317~01[1]The first recorded connection between the chryanthemum and the Imperial family, however,  dates back only to the reign of the Emperor Ninmyo ( 仁明天皇 810-850), a grandson of the Emperor Kammu ( who had moved the capital to present day Kyoto). It is said that Emperor had a great fondness for yellow chrysanthemums and had them extensively planted on the palace grounds. He also liked to wear robes dyed yellow from these flowers.

The yellow KIKU which the Emperor Ninmyo loved The type of yellow KIKU which the Emperor Ninmyo loved

The KIKU was adopted on the Imperial Family`s crest by the Emperor Gotoba (  後鳥羽 1180-1239 ), who was also known to have a strong liking for these flowers.

It was not until 1926 ( Taisho 15), however, that the Chrysanthemum Seal became officially recognized.

During the Edo Period ( 1600-1868) the military class, continued ( or should I say revived ) the custom of celebrationg the 5 sekku, the seasonal changing days brought over from China in the Nara Period. Of course, the Chrysanthemum Day,  the Choyo no Sekku on the 9th day of the ninth month, was among them. 

The prestige of the KIKU filtered  down to the masses during this time and chrysanthemum breeding became a popular activity. Japanese horticulturalists developed countless varieties, in various shapes and colors.

Kiku display at the Meiji Shrine 2008 Kiku display at the Meiji Shrine 2008 

These growers formed associations which held displays and competitions of both just plain flowers and of scultures made utilizing them ( kiku ningyo). One of the most famous of these is held every year in Fukushima Prefecture`s Nihonmatsu City.

The Buddhist Priest Nichiren made of Kiku at Nihonmatsu The Buddhist Priest Nichiren made of Kiku at Nihonmatsu 

Of course, in poetry the KIKU came to be used extensively as a symbol of autumn and other things….. one of these being homosexual love ( the center of the blossom was thought  to look like an anus!).

091111_1326~01[1]There are also about 20 smaller native wild varieties of chrysanthemum which bloom at various times of year ( and 8 in Ibaraki Prefecture!). And though not as spectacular as the giant show varieites, they are still beautiful and EDIBLE!

Another custom related to these native chrysanthemums is making KIKU-MAKURA ( mum pillows). Kiku petals are thoroughly dried out and stuffed into cases to make pillows. These were said to be good for headaches, and of course, cleansing away spiritual impurities (kegare).

                                                                                       The Kasama Kiku Matsuri ( 笠間の菊まつり)

If you would like to make an interesting day trip from Tsukuba which would include chrysanthemum viewing ( including some amazing sculptures), as well as pottery shopping or making, why not head up, by car or train, to Kasama, where the Kiku Matsuri ( Chrysanthemum Festival) will be held from Oct. 16th to Nov. 23rd.

Many of the more interesting events related to the festival will be held within the precincts of the Kasama Inari Shrine.

I will be there tomorrow and will post some pictures.

Here is some more info on how to get there by train:


and the Kasama Inari Shrine`s English language web-site:


Remember MUMS the word!

A dish made of chrysanthemums and spinach (horenso no kikuka ae) prepared and beautifully presented by Midori Matsuda


Here are some photos of the chrysanthemums grown by local residents which are put on display in November at Tsukuba`s Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja Shrine for the Kiku Matsuri:

Kiku at The Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja Shrine (2010)

Kiku with their petals supported by metal rings- Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja- 2010

Kiku Matsuri at Tsukuba`s Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja ( November 2010)

The worship hall of Tsukuba`s Ichinoya Yasaka Jinja with the chrysanthemum display on the left ( November 8, 2010)


  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Thanks Avi-san you taught me many ancient aspects of chrysanthemum(what a long and difficult spelling and pronunciation to compare Kiku ) in Japan.
    My last office was located near Yushima-jinja near Okachimachi-station in Tokyo, very famous shrine for examinees for any kind of schools as a helping god, it has a beautiful tiny garden popular with Ume-flowers in February, also KIKU-Matsuri in October.
    I enjoyed every year their gorgeous display of Ume and Kiku ( common women’s names until half a century ago).
    I used to be a collector of postage stamps when I was a boy, Japanese postage-stamp system began since 1871, four years after Meiji-revolution, and from 1872 they have Kiku crest until 1947 on all stamps, symbolizing Imperial Japan, also war-ships of Japanese Imperial navy had figure heads of Kiku crest except destroyers and submarines those were too small to be regarded as battle ships.
    After World war 2 new Japanese constitution announced the change from Imperial Japan to Japan, Kiku crest on the stamps disappeared.
    In diplomatic area the government still uses Kiku crest, My passport has crest of Kiku. That is the Kiku which is very useful for me.
    Unnecessary addition: I also gathered foreign stamps and knew many things for example names and faces of presidents of USA, huge inflation in Germany after World1, Helvetia means Swiss, etc. Now there are very few youngsters to collect postage stamps, instead many are collecting so many Ultra-man-like-cards eagerly. Backward or progress ?

  • Keiko says:

    Hello Avi-San. I found kiku on display at the Yasaka Jinja in Ichinoya. There were many types of kiku cultivated by local people.

  • Avi Landau says:

    Thank you Keiko-San! I went to the shrine today to check out the kiku on display. Before actually entering the shrine, to get into the proper frame of mind, some friends and I had the matsutake lunch special at the nearby Ichinoya Restaurant, and after slowly savoring the fragrant fungi and getting properly into the spirit of the season, we walked on over the Ichinoya Shrine itself.
    The large trees were just starting to turn color and the distintive smell of gingko nuts which had fallen to the ground made added strongly to the atmosphere.
    The only ones there, we could have a long, undisturbed look at the kiku which were of a wide range of variety,shape and color.
    The perfect way to spend an autumn afternoon.
    Thanks for the excellent tip!


    I took some photos and added them to my post. Have a look.