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

Hydrangea (AJISAI-紫陽花) in Japanese History and Culture (revisited)

Hydrangea ( ajisai) on a rainy day in Tsukuba
By Avi Landau

Japan’s month long rainy season (tsuyu, 梅雨) usually ends in mid-July, and that means there are  precious few days left to savor its SPECIAL BEAUTY. Many Japanese consider Ajisai (紫陽花, or hydrangea) to be the quintessential flower of this season, as they look just right when wet, and enshrouded in mist. And though these flowers can be found almost anywhere you turn your head in Tsukuba, thousands of Tsukubans make long trips (or should I say pilgrimages?) to famous ajisai temples, especially in Kamakura. Nearer to home there are 2 other nationally renowned hydrangea-viewing meccas, the Amabiki Kannon near Makabe, and the Taiho Hachiman Shrine in Shimotsuma. Both highly recommended at ANYTIME. All the more so in this season.

The flower has a long history in these islands and  many scholars actually assert that it is indigenous to Japan and in fact introduced to China from here. After centuries of breeding, numerous varieties have been developed and new colors, pinks and whites, brought out. By taking a look at the etymology of the Japanese name AJISAI, we can see that in earlier times the flowers were mainly blue, as the sounds used to make up the name originally meant a GATHERING OF BLUES (aji-from atsu (集まる) or gather , and ai (藍), indigo blue.

Hydrangea have another Japanese name, however, nanahenge (七変化), or seven transformations, which derives from the flower’s unique characteristic. The colors of the petals change according to the chemical make-up of the soil! This feature has given the flower rich symbolic meaning in Japanese art and poetry — especially to represent a fickle and changing heart. It is because of this characteristic too, that hydrangea were shunned by the warrior class in the feudal period, because for them, changing colors, or by extension loyalties, was anathema .

For Westerners, however, hydrangea can be seen as a symbol of silent devotion, as its scientific name, otaksa, appears to refer to Otaki-San, a woman from Nagasaki’s pleasure quarter, who was the  mistress of the German naturalist P.F. von Siebold, who went on to introduce ajisai to Europe .

One more point. These flowers are to be looked at and NOT EATEN. A couple of years ago, there was a nationally reported case of food poisoning which occurred down the road from my house in Tsukuba at the curious and pricey Italian restaurant Toeimon Sakae. The chef, in keeping with the season-conscious aesthetics of Japanese cooking(despite this being an Italian eatery), garnished a dish with the very IN SEASON leaves of hydrangea. These were subsequently consumed by the unsuspecting  diners.

This resulted in what must have been an unforgettable scene, right out of Monty Python. You see, the leaves of ajisai have always been used to induce vomiting, especially when poisons were consumed. Imagine then, the eight customers wretching uncontrollably, spewing out their expensive dinners onto the antique furniture and tatami mats (this restaurant is in a magnificent thatched roof farm house!).Surprisingly,the penalty for this chef`s oversight was a mere one-day suspension of business.

While you’re out there enjoying the  AJISAI DAYS remember: LOOK BUT DON’T TASTE.


  • Nora says:

    We can just appreciate a lot of these beautifully fresh AJISAI days,
    even with lot of joy to be again since tree weeks in Tsukuba.
    Very glad to read you, Avi…
    Have a good new week and much of fun with your family!

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    In our garden we have several Ajisai now we are enjoying. Ajisai in Chinese letter “紫陽花”usually we cannot pronounce as Ajisai if we don’t know how to read. We could pronounce SHIYOUKA. 紫=violet,陽=sun, 花=flower , meaning violet sun flower, by this some how we can imagine Ajisai flower. I knew by this Avi-san’s article what the origin of Ajisai word is. Thanks.
    Recently young Japanese parent using quite a unique pronunciation method to their children, causing me old-timer often not only have to consider their gender and how to call when be shown names of Chinese letters only. I feel sympathy for teachers of every kind of schools.