By Avi Landau
Of all the various and numerous flowers which bloom in Japan in late spring and early summer, it is probably the azalea (TSUTSUJI, 躑躅) which most commonly meets the eye- especially in towns and cities. This is because this hardy, flowering evergreen shrub is not only found commonly in private gardens and around homes ( in the form of hedges), it has also been planted extensively in most parks, in front of office buildings, hotels, government facilities, and most outstandingly- along roads and highways ( meaning that it must be quite pollution resistant as well).
Thus, coming to any Japanese city in May or June ( or this year, 2018 – as early as April), you will most likely find your path lined with bushes bursting with red, white, and especially reddish-pink blossoms. If you are walking or cycling and waiting at an intersection for the light to change, take a look at the azalea bush which is most probably blooming beside you. Like me, you might find it to be like a dazzling, fluorescent coral-reef, which should give you a good boost of energy for when the light finally does turn green.
For the ancient Japanese poets, azaleas, especially those which grew wild dotting mountainsides with patches of brilliant pink and red, represented the flame of burning passion. Here is a poem from a classical anthology ( The Kokinshu) in which the rock azalea is used as an image to represent unspoken romantic yearning: 思いづるときわの山の岩つつじいわねばこそあれ恋しきものを (OMOITSURU TOKIWA NO YAMA NO IWA TSUTSUJI IWANEBA KOSO ARE KOISHIKI MONO WO) -
which I translate as: Memories of love, like wild azaleas bursting into bloom on evergreen mountains- my stony silence pulsates with yearning for you
More than a thousand years ago, when poems like this were composed, azaleas, which are a species native to Japan, could almost exclusively be found growing wild in the mountains. In those days of yore, it was two times a year that the Japanese mountainsides turned red- in autumn with the changing leaves of the maple trees- and in early summer with the blooming of the azaleas.
In the Edo Period (1600-1868), the popularity of azaleas among flower-lovers skyrocketed and breeders developed many varieties ( there are now in fact many thousands) and numerous temples and gardens around Japan became famous as azalea viewing spots.
When I ask Japanese friends if they have any special memories or feelings in connection with tsutsuji ( azalea), many tell me that when they were kids they used to pull off the blossoms and suck out the nectar. These same people then go on to say that they wouldnt do this any more as they would be worried about pesticides, acid rain contamination OR RADIATION.
Scouring several texts on Japanese folk customs and beliefs, I have found that in past ages the azalea blossoms had many special uses. First, as they bloomed in late spring, they were strongly connected with the begining of the AGRICULTURAL CYCLE. On the 8th day of the 4th lunar month ( uzuki yo-ka, 卯月八日), azalea blossoms would be attached to rods which were set upright as antenna ( yorishiro) to attract the gods who help things grow in the fields.
Azalea could also be burned on that same day in order to help locate any missing persons. The direction in which the smoke drifted would indicate the direction in which to begin the search.
Also, since there is great variation from year to year in the extent to which the azalea bushes are covered with blossoms （with there sometimes being only a few flowers while in other years the entire shrub is engulfed in color）, people used the azalea`s blossoming patterns to predict that years upcoming weather. In northern Ibaraki Prefecture, azalea with abundant blossoms meant that there would be a lot of lightning in that year. In other parts of Japan, a similar system was used for predicting the amount of snowfall in that upcoming winter
(Dont expect your Japanese friends to have heard of these folk beliefs, however. I have been asking around, and it seems that they are a thing of the past.)
Still, there are more azaleas around now than there have ever been. They add lots of brilliant color to Japan`s cityscapes. Don`t just drive by- give them a closer look!
Mt. Tsukuba is a famous place to enjoy azalea (you can see advertisements promoting azalea viewing there on TX trains in this season. But as I have pointed out in this post- you can enjoy azalea just about everywhere in Tsukuba at this time of year.