May in Japan means Golden Week: the country’s week of national holidays, the transition from mild spring to sweaty summer, and azaleas.
Azaleas are known as tsutsuji in Japanese, usually written in the phonetic hiragana script as the characters for the word (see above) are so mind-numbingly complex. The name was originally tsutsuki, simply meaning ‘continuation’or ‘following’, referring to how the flowers bloom in a row, one after the other. However, this was pleasantly corrupted to the softer sounding tsutsuji.
Most of azaleas, particularly the more brilliantly colored ones, are natives of far east Asia and have been cultivated in Japan since the Kamakura period, but especially during the Edo period. There are now over 300 known varieties.
Botanically speaking, the azalea is not a genus in its own right. It is part of the Rhododendron family. However, a distinction is made in Japanese, as in English, between the two – rhododendrons being called shakunage.
However, even within what are recognized as azaleas, there is a further division between the tsutsuji that blooms in May, and the satsuki which blooms in June. (Satsuki actually means ‘May’ in Japanese, but when the Japanese calendar was brought into line with the Western one, the months – but not the name of the flower – changed.)
The tsutsuji pictured here were photographed in Kamakura a few days ago. Azalea of this color are known botanically as Rhododendron indicum.
Finally, from the distinguished Japanese haiku poet, Issa (1763-1827):
just as wonderful
as the expensive garden stone...
Books on Japan's Flora & Fauna
Sunday, May 14, 2006