A sea of purple, delighting the populace for hundreds of years

Famous iris gardens near Tokyo

Blooming iris garden at Meigetsu-in
In every shade, from grape to periwinkle, a Japanese iris garden in bloom is a feast of purple (these are at Meigetsu-in temple, in Kamakura)

 In the West, it’s rare to see more than a couple of delicate butterfly-like Japanese iris artfully ringing a pond at the local botanical garden, but in Japan, they grow whole fields stuffed with every variety and color combination imaginable, to create a sea of graceful nodding purple, as far as the eye can see…

Blooming iris varieties
Up close, they are gorgeous, and I never get tired of looking at the color variations and their many graceful shapes
Blooming iris garden at Meigetsu-in
Seen en masse, they’re a harmonious quilt that gently sways and flutters in the breeze (Kōraku-en garden in Tokyo)
Blooming iris garden at Hondo-ji temple in Tokyo
But visiting an iris garden is more than just a frenzy of flower ogling—iris gardens are made for contemplation, designed to slow you down and appreciate the pleasure of a quiet stroll through a watery landscape (Hondō-ji temple in Tokyo)
Blooming iris garden at Meigetsu-in
They commonly feature this kind of zig-zag bridge, a wooden walkway that skims the pond where they grow and encourages a slow meander through knee-high blooms (at Meigetsu-in temple, in Kamakura)
Blooming iris garden at Hasedera temple in Kamakura
Other gardens cluster them in floating planters that sway and drift with the breeze, giving a colorful focus to a lush green koi pond (this one at Hasedera temple, in Kamakura)
Blooming iris garden at Koraku-en in Tokyo
This famous display at Koraku-en garden in Tokyo skirts its magnificent wisteria trellises, as if the purple skeins of May broke apart and burst forth, seeding infinite varieties of new purple blooms in early June
Blooming iris garden at Meigetsu-in
It’s common to plant every variety together, like at this secret garden at the Meigetsu-in temple in Kamakura that’s only open for one month a year, while they’re blooming
Blooming iris garden at Mizumoto park in Tokyo
But the Mizumoto public park in Tokyo is so vast, it has huge fields planted in single varieties (with a few immigrants!) that line a long stretch of the Oba River. You can walk for nearly an hour and still be seeing new irises!
Blooming iris garden at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo
Another place that plants only one variety is the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, but it’s for an entirely different reason. This variety is the exactly type that’s featured on a National Cultural Treasure in their colloection…
Blooming iris screen by Korin at the Nezu Museum in Tokyo
…this iris screen, painted by Kōrin. It’s only exhibited while the iris in the garden outside are blooming.
Woodblock prints of the Horikiri Shobu-en
Iris gardens have been A Thing for hundreds of years, and the samurai of the Edo period especially loved them, not just because their leaves are sword-like, but because their name in Japanese sounds like the world for “contest” or “bout.” Both of these woodblock prints (by Hiroshige on the left and Yoshida on the right) feature the Horikiri Shoubu-en…
Blooming iris garden at the Horikiri Shobu-en
…which is still going strong today (although it’s surrounded by Tokyo suburbs now, instead of a vast swamp with an isolated tea pavilion!)
Blooming iris garden at Shobunuma
Other riverside iris plantings, like this one at Shoubunuma, give the locals an excuse for a festival every year
Blooming iris garden at the Nai-en garden at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo
And while some used to be reserved for all the iris-viewing needs of royalty (like this famous one at the Meiji Shrine)…
Blooming iris garden at Kiyosumi Teien in Tokyo
There are plenty of purple pockets hidden in public parks everywhere, just waiting to delight you as you turn the corner in early June! (This one surprised me at the otherwise un-flowery Kiyosumi garden in Tokyo)

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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