As a new intern at Fukuoka Now, I was assigned my first report: exploring the ajisai (hydrangea) festival in the grounds of Hakozakigu Shrine. June to early July mark the rainy season in Japan, but this shouldn’t deter you from stepping outside. The season is also widely known as ajisai season, or the only season where the hydrangeas are in full bloom. Rainy days are the best time to go see the ajisai according to many blogs, but also according to traditional Japanese poems, which romanticized the flower from as far back as the Heian period. The petals look especially beautiful when glistening under the dewdrops and enshrouded in moisture. Hakozakigu Shrine offers an annual ajisai-viewing event for this reason.
The Hakozaki-miyamae subway exits directly onto the path to the shrine, but I decided to use the main gate facing Hakata Bay as I was intent on seeing Takatoro, the 6-meter-tall stone lantern that stands just next to the entrance. It was first built in 1817 on the shore of Hakata Bay as a landmark for fishermen navigating their way back home. The wind and rain reduced the lantern to a pile of rubble that was later reconstructed and moved to its current location in 1882.
You can find the lily garden halfway between the main gate and the shrine. As you stroll amongst the trees, the lilies and the occasional ajisai fluttering in the soft breeze, your mind will begin to wander and you’ll forget the bustling city outside. And if you get hungry from the promenade, there is a neat little cafe along the way.
Passing the gigantic tower gate as I entered the Hakozakigu Shrine grounds, the first thing that caught my eye was the bright red fence where visitors hang small wooden plaques inscribed with their wishes and prayers. Inside the red enclosure is the 800-year-old pine tree, Hakomatsu. Although a bit of an unappealing story, it is said that when the Japanese Empress Jingu gave birth to the crown prince, she put her placenta in a box and buried it under Hakomatsu as an offering. The pine tree became a sacred landmark; it is thought to bring good luck.
While we’re on the topic of Hakozakigu Shrine’s rich history, the site isn’t all about peace and meditation. In fact, it is believed that the shrine helped repel the Mongol invasion through prayer to the deity for whom it was created; Hachiman, the god of war and archery. Although the shrine was eventually burnt down as a result of the attempted invasion, so worshiped was it for its power to protect against enemy forces that it was reconstructed with the words “tekikoku kofuku” (lit. surrender of the army nation) in red calligraphy, which you can see on the tower.
Close to the shrine is the enclosed bronze statue of the late Emperor Kameyama who prayed for the surrender of the Mongols, and has since been worshipped as a god of overseas and maritime protection. People still bow in front of the statue and pray to this day. Do rinse your hands with the wooden spoons before praying at one of these sites!
Behind the shrine, you can find the entrance to the ajisai event. Follow the path to see 3,500 ajisai of various kinds. The place is so rich in color and healthy foliage that you will soon forget the clouds that usually come with Japan’s rainy season. Most impressively, you can smell the sweet fragrance of ajisai as soon as you enter the shrine. There are seats and resting places where you can relax and enjoy the scenery. Ajisai aren’t just pretty, this flower is rich in meaning and symbolism; it is used to make amacha (lit. sweet tea), which is poured over the head of a small statue of Buddha, as a bathing ritual, during the annual kanbutsu ceremony and given to visitors to drink during the ceremony.
Ajisai have been popular since the Nara and Heian eras (perhaps before since many argue it is native to Japan), but it hasn’t always been so. During the Edo period, ajisai was considered fickle and an object of contempt in the loyal samurai culture due to its inconsistency. In fact, another name for the ajisai is nanahenge (lit. seven transformations), alluding to the variability of the petals’ color according to the acidity of the soil. The petals wear hues of blue when the soil is acidic, and when alkaline, they usually lean towards pink. Today however, ajisai come in varying colors of white, blue, pink or even yellow.
The symbolic meaning of ajisai in modern times is still a debate; some say it symbolizes loyalty and pride (specifically in hanakotoba, or the language of flowers), while others believe it represents instability and ephemerality, much as the samurai did. This explains why it is used in the Buddha cleaning ceremony and its presence in temples, but also its absence in Japanese floral family crests, despite the popularity and history of the flower.
At the entrance of the ajisai viewing area, you can also buy Japanese bread and sweets at Full Full Bakery, a small one-man stall which opens at 11:00. You can satisfy your sweet tooth with walnut raisin bread, various shortbread cookies, or brown sugar karinto (a sweet and deep-fried traditional Japanese snack). If you have a craving for salty foods, try out the French baguette with a Japanese twist; mentai (cod roe) baguette. I had to convince the shy owner to let me snap a picture with him bashfully posing in front of his stall!
Before you leave the Hakozaki grounds, you can get your omikuji (a strip of paper on which one’s fortune is written) by offering ¥100, or buy a small omamori (protective amulet) as a souvenir from one of Japan’s highest ranked Hachiman Shrines. And don’t forget to face the large gates and bow before you leave as a sign of respect!
Venturing out from Hakozakigu Shrine, there are many different shops you can visit. My favorite is the charming little boutique, Meikado, which sells all sorts of traditional Japanese snacks and candy.
And if you are ready for a meal (as I was), I definitely recommend Ishiya, an okonomiyaki restaurant run by a cheerful married couple, and one of my favorites in Fukuoka. It is only a 15 minute walk, or one subway stop away. You can take your pick from the large selection of okonomiyaki, and either order a hearty portion to share with friends, or a single serving if on your own. There is also a small self-serve area for fresh vegetables and fried seasoned radish sticks. Don’t get too ambitious with the okonomiyaki sizes though; they are definitely more filling than they seem!
The ajisai-viewing event is definitely a memorable experience and one I would highly recommend. And if you wish to take a piece of the vivid-colored experience home, you can pick from a selection of ajisai with prices ranging from ¥1,000 to ¥4,000 (and above). These can be found at the very entrance of the garden.
Click here for directions from Hakozaki-Miyamae Subway Station to Hakozakigu Shrine.
• 6/1 (Wed.) ~ 6/30 (Thu.)
• ¥300 (Free for JHS and under if accompanied by guardian)
• Hakozakigu Shrine
• 1-22-1 Hakozaki, Higashi-ku
Text and Photos: Alba Tinelli, for Fukuoka Now