Wisteria immersion at Kasuga Taisha Shrine and Shin-en Bot. Garden

This is the follow-up post to my other recent post  Wisteria Bonsai.  Nara is a city full of history and should not be overlooked when visiting Japan.  The years of 710-794 are known as the Nara Period.  In 768 the capitol of Japan became Nara and the Fuiwara clan had Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine built.  The grounds had been sacred to the Shinto faith for a very long time before and was likely a simple clearing in the ancient forest.  The shrine gained great prominence during the Heian Period.  I go no further with explanations as I have no business doing so.  Official Site Wisteria flowers are a symbol of Kasuaga Taisha and adorn the family crest of the Fujiwara clan.  After numerous questions and research, the most common symbolic meaning of wisteria is that of supplication or reverence (bowing flowers).  I’m sure there are other meanings as well. Perhaps just saying they are beautiful and moving on is best.   A few sources stated wisteria was the first plant to ever be referenced in poetry. Different plants have risen and fallen from grace here with Wisteria surpassing Prunus mume as the most popular during the Heian Period.   There are two types of wisteria commonly found Japan and for most of the garden world.  Wisteria floribunda aka “Nodafuji” (native to Japan) and Wisteria sinensis aka “Yamafuji” (imported from China).  My Japanese sources said there were two natives but I found no scientific literature to back that up.  Milletia japonica is called Himefuji, but not related.  Hence the danger of relying on common names.  If you call the Eastern United States home, we have Wisteria frutescens.  A cultivar called ‘Amythyst Falls’ seems very promising for use as bonsai stock.  America also has the two invasive non-natives and a wonderful hybrid of the two called Wisteria x formosa that eats small pets and nearby trees.  W. sinensis climbs counterclockwise while W. floribunda climbs clockwise.  There are a few other species, but rare.  Cultivars abound for the two commonly used Asian species and many are represented in my previous wisteria post and the bottom of this one. Wisteria have a symbiotic relationship with rhizobacteria so they can affix nitrogen.  Feeding with a nitrogen rich fertilizer is not reccomended; especially when flowers are desired as nitrogen will promote vegetative growth.  Young plants from seed may take years to develop short branches aka “spurs”.  Allowing plants to become pot-bound helps.  Another way is to provide mechanical stressors (my senior thesis) aka beating the crap out of the trunk to scare the plant into reproductive maturity.  Popular styles are semi / full cascade or an informal upright style.  Whatever shape you choose, the important thing is to give the racemes room to expand and fall.   On to the pretty pictures right?

The approach path up to Kasuga Taisha is about a kilometer long and lined with about 3000 stone lanterns; one for each Kasuga Taisha subsidiary shrine.  There are also plenty of “tame” Sitka deer          which have probably never foraged for food in their life.  All the ancient Cryptomeria japonica and wisteria vines in the primeval forest were truly amazing.

Only the lowest branches remain alive on this Cryptomeria. Likely the victim of lightning.

By far the largest single plant I've ever seen. I know, it doesn't come close to the one in California.....

Just inside the shrine, one of the two famous fujidana greets you.

Not massive, but with the historical preface, super cool.  A point Bjorn Bjornholm often makes about Japanese gardens is that gaining intimate knowledge of a place via dedicated research then seeing it in person allows for a whole new level of appreciation.  A flat rock is just a rock unless you learn it was the cornerstone of a Korean castle taken as a souvenir from a famous conquest.  This point can also be applied to bonsai in my opinion.  Some species and cultivated varieties take twice if not ten times as long to gain trunk girth or produce flowers / fruit.  It’s a matter of appreciation for the time and effort put into a bonsai.  An old formal upright Pinus parviflora is a good example.  It may not look “real”, but a truly good one is still amazing with all the careful attention to detail, branch placement, and knowledge of just how rare it is.

This 23 meter tall cryptomeria is estimated to be over 1000 years old. It appeared in a picture scoll called Gongen-kenki of Kasuga Taisha in 1309.

The cryptomeria above overlooks the clearing at the center of the shrine.  This area, called the “Apple Yard” was the place farmers and gatherers met to barter long before the current shrine was concieved.

The other famous fujidana, and my personal favorite, is in the back of the site.  

I could have spent the whole day wandering through the ancient forest surrounding Kasuaga Taisha’s main shrine.  Shinto sites are often easy to spot from a distance (especially in small towns) as they actually have trees above 20 feet tall surrounding them.  Places such as this have hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres protected from commercial logging indefinitely.

The Shin-en Bontanical Garden is an excellent place to visit almost year-round.  The gift shop had a bunch of lady-slipper orchids so I quickly left before buying something and headed towards the back of the site for more wisteria immersion.  Along the way, I passed this willow
and longed for some privacy and a shovel : ).

Shin-en has a number of ancient trees that blew over in a storm long ago named “The Reclining Dragons”.  I have yet to meet an old Camphor tree I did not like.     


This bot gardens claim to fame is it’s Manyo Collection.  A compilation called Man-yo-shu of 4,500 poems written by everyone from Emperors to peasants often references plants (1500/4500 poems).  Many are no longer in widespread cultivation, but preserved here with great care.  My favorite was this green flowering cherry.

Shin-en has over 20 types of wisteria species and cultivars.  The fujidana (wisteria arbors) were often connected forming tunnels and garden rooms.              

Creative methods of display and support were around every corner.  At one point I got lost and did not care; perhaps goal for every garden.  

Thanks for reading and I hope Nara will be put on your list of things to see when you visit Japan.  It’s great to read blogs, books, and magazines about this wonderful country.  However, ask anyone who has been here what it’s like in person and they will likely smile, then have trouble pin-pointing exactly what makes the trip worth it.