Information on Hanashobu, Ayame, Kakitsubata Iris flowers in Japan. In addition, information on when and where to see them in Japan. Plus bonus information for Saitama Prefecture.
Iris are quite a popular and significant flower in Japan. Their bloom is said to mark the start of summer. Irises were traditionally believed to hold protective powers and, as “shobu” can also mean militarism, reflected the spirit of Samurai warriors. As such, Iris were put in the baths of boys on Boy’s Day, May 5th by the Gregorian calendar. However, historically it was on June 7th which is the 5th day of the 5th moon. “There is nothing to equal the Festival of the Fifth Month, when the scents of the iris and sagebrush mingle so charmingly.” from The famous 10th Century “Pillow Book”. Thus, the boy’s festival, now most commonly called Kodomo no Hi or Children’s Day, is actually on a lot earlier than the period of bloom of Iris.
Iris flowers in Japan
There are three main varieties of Iris in Japan. Collectively they are generally referred to as “Japanese Iris”. Of the three, Hanashobu is most commonly called ‘Japanese Iris’ outside of Japan. Hanashobu is Iris Ensata. Ayame is Iris Sanguinea and Kakitsubata is Iris laevigata. Just to confuse things more, there is actually another type of Japanese Iris. Iris Japonica or, more commonly, Butterfly Flower. It is native to Japan and China. However, it is not usually bunched in with Hanashobu, Ayame and Kakitsubata. Possibly due to its distinct appearance.
❀Japanese Iris flowers❀
With the exception of the Butterfly flower, they are all very similar and I would lying if I said I could tell them apart easily. However, there are some hints to distinguishing them….
Hanashobu, “Japanese Iris” or Iris Ensata, were supposedly named due to their similarity to Sweet Flag which is called Shobu in Japanese. They are a water loving Iris. Their lower petals are larger than ayame iris. They come in shades of purple, including a red purple. They have a very clear “artery” or vein on the petals, which you can see in the photo above. The biggest giveaway is the yellow streak in the center of the flower. Hanashobu bloom from early to late June. In Japan’s flower language “hanakotoba” they mean happy news or a gentle heart. They are also said to represent elegance.
In Tokyo you can see Hanashobu Japanese Iris flowers in the Iris garden of Kitayama Park, Higashimurayama City (🔗Seibu Railways). You can also see 200,000 Iris plants in Mizumoto Park in Katsushika Ward (🔗Japan Travel). In Saitama, there are 20,000 Iris flowers in Someya Iris garden in Saitama City. It didn’t open last year on account of the Coronavirus, but they are planning to open in 2021. (Official website – Japanese language only).
The Ayame variety, Iris Sanguinea, of Iris grow on dry land. The featured image at the top of the post is an ayame Iris. Ayame bloom earlier than the other two Japanese Iris featured in this post. (But the Butterfly flower which I mentioned briefly, is even earlier again). The Ayame, Iris Sanguinea, variety bloom from mid May to Mid June. In some places you can actually see them in early May. They are generally shades of purple. In the English language Ayame represent hope, friendship and wisdom.
Perhaps the most famous place for Irises in all of Japan is Suigo Ayame Itako Gardens in Ibaraki (🔗Japan Travel). It is also one of the longest running Iris festivals in all of Japan. Their is a fabulous tradition in the park of brides, riding down the river in their stunning traditional wedding outfits. In Saitama, Kuki city has several different Iris gardens. The Iris is the flower of the city. Hence the principal mall is called Mallage Shobu. For Ayame, Shobujoshi park and Ukiya no Sato in particular come to mind.
Iris Laevigata Kakitsubata
Kakitsubata have the shortest bloom period of the three Japanese iris flowers. They bloom from mid to late May. Kakitsubata can grow in water or on wet land. They come in shades of blue, purple and white. They have a white streak near the center of the flower that helps distinguish them from ayame and hanashobu. You don’t really hear much about kakitsubata or Iris laevigata in English. Even in Japanese, the main references are to hanashobu and ayame. In the hanakotoba, Kakistubata mean “happiness will surely come”.
I think the most famous place specifically for Kakitsubata Iris (Iris Laevigata) is in Aichi Prefecture. There are thousands of Kakitsubata at Yatsuhashi Kakitsubata Garden. The prefecture has detailed information in the English language here (🔗Official Aichi Tourism website).
Other famous places to see Iris around Japan:
- Horikiri Shobuen Iris Garden, Tokyo (🔗 Official Tokyo Travel Guide)
- Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo (🔗Official website)
- Korakuen, Okayama (🔗Official English web page)
- Nanrakuen Garden, Ehime (🔗Japan Travel)
- Koiwa Iris Garden, Tokyo (🔗Must Love Japan)
Other Places to see Iris in Saitama
- Chikozan Park | Chikozan Park Greenery and Iris Festival
- Ageo Maruyama Park
- Heisei no Mori Park
- Tokigawa Iris Garden – please see bonus content in next paragraph
Bonus Content for Saitama
Tokigawa Town in the Hiki District of Saitama, just over an hour from Tokyo, is famed for its Iris Japonica. That is, Butterfly flowers. However, there is also a small Iris garden in the town with different varieties of Iris:
Tokigawa Iris Garden
The Iris Garden in Tokigawa is quite small and only requires a half hour or so to appreciate. Which is just as well as they are currently requesting, due to the coronavirus, that people spend no longer than 30 minutes in the garden. Also, as it is rainy season, if it is raining you might not want to stay out too long. You can warm up in the nearby award winning retro Showa hot springs! However, despite its relatively small size it is popular for its varieties of Iris. It also helps that the garden is located close to several other tourist attractions.
The garden was actually very badly damaged by typhoon Hagibis in Autumn 2019. Before the typhoon there were about 8200 iris in the park annually. Moreover, some of the boardwalks didn’t survive the storm and have since been replaced. I visited before the typhoon, in June 2019. There have been improvements since I visited, but I will stress that even still, this is the type of place you’d add onto other plans, not go out of your way to visit. I recommend that if you are travelling in the area by car that you check out the hydrangea at Suzumegawa Dam, which also bloom around the same time as the Iris.
The festival is usually held in mid June. However, in 2020, there was no festival on account of the Coronavirus outbreak. It is probable that the festival will not be held in 2021 either. However, the flowers are set to bloom around June. Given that all other blooms were early this year, it is likely that the Iris in Tokigawa’s Iris garden will also be early this year. Which means they may start to bloom as early as late May. Keep up-to-date with the event post which is updated frequently.
The Tokigawa Iris Garden is about a 13 minutes walk from the quaint JR Myōkaku Station on the Hachiko Line. You can also take a bus from this station, it takes about 3 minutes by bus. You can take a bus from the west exit of Musashi Ranzan station on the Tobu Tojo line. It takes about 15 minutes. The timetable is here (Japanese only).
The garden is 20 minutes by car from the Kanetsu Expressway’s Higashimatsuyama Interchange. You can park in the town hall’s car park.