On the modesty of Tokyo azaleas

That speck in the distance is a salaryman who just walked past these azaleas in Kanda, Tokyo. Do you think he noticed them?

The people of Mobile, Alabama, pride themselves on their azaleas. The people of Tokyo, Japan, hardly seem to notice theirs.

I lived in Mobile for two years as a kid circa 1980, and even at a young age couldn’t help noticing that azaleas were a big part of civic life. The Azalea Trail was a much-touted scenic route along the city’s azalea-lined streets. (Here’s a map.) The Azalea Trail Maids were one of several species of southern belle who could be seen posing here and there for photos in fancy period attire. (They were Mobile’s equivalent of Kyoto’s photogenic maiko.) And my parents, who were into jogging, participated in the annual Azalea Trail Run. There’s even an azalea cultivar called “Pride of Mobile.”

Now that I live in Tokyo, where azaleas are at least as abundant, I get a pleasant natsukashii feeling whenever I see them blooming each spring. But in contrast to their Alabama cousins, the azaleas of Tokyo come and go with no fanfare at all.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason is that the azaleas come into bloom not long after the sakura cherry blossoms have put on a spectacular and culturally significant display that would be a tough act for any flower to follow.

In “A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo” (a highly informative little book that I commented on in the post “Hanami History“), Sumiko Enbutsu writes that azaleas became popular garden flowers in Edo in the late 1600s because they were cheap enough that even commoners could buy and grow them.

But, she also writes, “this lovely flower, so abundant and beloved in Japan since ancient times, has been neglected in the decorative arts…[It] has never been honored as a central theme in Japanese paintings, nor chosen as a motif for floral emblems. One reason for its failure to capture the imagination of Japanese artists could be the inglorious way the flower dies, its petals sagging and sticking to the leaves, unlike the breathtaking shower of cherry blossom petals in the breeze.”

But the azaleas captured my imagination, so I set out to photograph them. I discovered that these flowers, although delightful to behold in person, are extremely hard to photograph.

While cherry trees are tall and can be used as a frame or backdrop for a scene, Tokyo’s azaleas grow on low shrubs and can only be photographed from a crouching position, which limits the compositional possibilities. Also, while cherry trees enjoy pride of place in spacious parks and along scenic riverbanks, Tokyo’s azaleas tend to line otherwise nondescript streets where tall buildings deprive them of direct sunlight for much of the day. I have found azaleas on traffic islands and around the edges of parking lots. I have seen them planted beneath the windows of car dealerships and chain restaurants. They grow along the foundations of the windowless cement walls of the sports club where I swim. They cluster at the base of metal utility boxes.

Just try to get a conventionally beautiful photo out of any of those scenes. It’s not easy, especially if you want it to have a sense of place. (The best I could do is at the top of this entry.)

When you look at Tokyo’s azaleas in person with your own eyes, the drab surroundings fall away. You find yourself conscious of the flowers and little else – but a camera sees everything.

After pondering this for weeks – azaleas have a much longer season than cherry blossoms – I finally realized that the drab surroundings were the whole point. Azaleas in Tokyo have a job to do, and they do it well. They appear in the boring, sterile, concrete and asphalt surroundings that Tokyo has in such abundance, and make them beautiful and charming places for weeks on end each April and May (and this year a little of June). Just imagine what the pictures below would look like without any flowers in them.

If you visit Tokyo in the late spring, stop and notice how pretty they are, and how abundant. But don’t expect to find them on a postcard.

Azaleas line a street in Omiya, Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. The shade they are in is cast by the elevated tracks of the Shinkansen bullet train.

More azaleas in Omiya. Imagine what this street would look like without them.

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