I’ve been wanting to go check Ueno Park’s peony garden for forever, because it’s one of the few places in Tokyo where you can see winter peonies!
You may be familiar with peonies that bloom around May, when the weather is a bit more clement. However, there is a special way to cultivate them that allows peonies to bloom in the winter too, even when it snows. Apart from Ueno, in Tokyo you can see winter peonies in the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens, which also host two very popular rose festivals in both spring and autumn. There happens to be beautiful winter peony gardens in Shimane (Yuushien Garden) and Niigata.
Peonies (botan – 牡丹) were imported into Japan from China by Buddhist monks and thus initially used for their medicinal properties. That’s also why you’ll find peonies near temples and shrines. Another reason could be that these flowers go along well with the buddhist concept of impermanence of life, since peonies bloom magnificently but for a brief period of time. Despite being common, in Japan the peony is considered the queen of flowers, and is considered to bring good fortune.
Flower symbolism is widespread in Japan, as you can see flowers in mostly every form of art, from paintings, to carvings, tattoos and kimono patterns. When used in kimono patterns, peonies symbolise growth, and are particularly popular for furisode (kimono for unmarried women). On the other hand, peonies are used in tattoos as symbols of masculine power and devil-may-care attitude.
There are two types of Japanese peonies that bloom later, kan botan and fuyu botan. The process to obtain winter peonies is fairly simple. For kan botan, in spring and summer the plants’ growth is inhibited by placing them in a cool environment. Fuyu botan bloom naturally with the warm weather, and are later made grow faster inside greenhouses. The difference is that kan botan are bare, while fuyu botan have a nice set of leaves. They can still be damaged by snow and frost in winter though, so that’s why they are protected by straw shelters, that remind of Japanese shrines. Despite being artificially cultivated, winter peonies quickly became a symbol of strength and luck, especially since their blooming period is around new year.
Ueno Toshogu shrine grows 600 peonies of 110 varieties in spring and 150 peonies of 40 varieties in winter. Entrance to the garden is 1,000 yen per person and you can also buy peony plants and seeds from the shop. You can stay as long as you want as there are little rest areas and a toilet around the garden. Toshogu shrine is inside Ueno Park, just close to Ueno zoo, so it would be a very nice spot to stop by if you’re visiting the area.
Here and there there were little compositions made with peonies to celebrate the new year. It seemed like there were couples looking for wedding inspiration, as they were taking pictures at peonies of specific colors. I made at least a picture for each peony, so it took us a while to reach the end (lol).