Of beauty and blood: Camellia, the other floral icon of Japan
Camellias are such a common garden plant throughout much of temperate and subtropical Australia that many of us would not even bother to stop and take a good look at one. In Japan, however, it is a tree that is as much celebrated as the renowned cherry blossoms as a harbinger of spring.
Camellia species are evergreen trees and shrubs found through parts of eastern and southern Asia, with the greatest variety found in southern China to the highlands of Southeast Asia. As many would be familiar, the tea plant is a camellia of Chinese origin, Camellia sinensis. Camellias grow wild throughout much of Japan. Of the wild species, Camellia japonica (the so-called Japanese camellia, and ‘tsubaki’ in Japanese) is by far the most widespread, extending from the frost-free subtropical Okinawan islands to the northern parts of Honshū island with its long snowy winters when temperatures can sometimes nudge minus 20 degrees. The species also occurs naturally in the southern Korean Peninsula, parts of eastern China, and Taiwan. In this article, I will focus on this particular species and will be, for simplicity, referring to it as ‘camellia’.
In Japan, wild camellia can be found growing under an amazing range of conditions. They are often found as small understorey trees in evergreen and deciduous forests. In damp sheltered gullies, however, they can morph into stately forest trees over 20 m tall. They can tenaciously cling to rocks atop sea cliffs, buffeted by strong salty winds, as twisted shrubs less than a meter high. In regions of central and northern Honshū facing the Sea of Japan, a variety called ‘yuki-tsubaki’ or ‘snow camellia’ (Camellia japonica var. rusticana) is widespread. The snow camellia is a true botanical wonder, in that the spreading shrub survives being completely buried by snow 3 to 5 metres deep for up to 6 months every year—thanks to its flexible diagonal trunk that can lie flat beneath the snow cover without breaking, and a special ability to survive the lack of sunlight without shedding its evergreen leaves. The adaptability of camellia explains why they seem to be so tough in our Australian gardens—particularly during droughts and heatwaves—despite its origins in high-rainfall temperate climates.
The Japanese love for the camellia can be traced back to at least the 8th century, when it is mentioned in historical records and features in the poetry of the Japanese classic ‘Man’yōshū’ (‘Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves’). The deep red to pink flowers that slowly begin to unfurl in the freezing winter cold among the sombre dark-coloured leaves, then open up with abandon with arrival of spring warmth, have symbolised the virtue of resilience and beauty in modesty. With the development of the ‘chadō’ (tea ceremony) tradition from the 15th century onward, camellia became popular for floral decoration, striking resonance with the concept of modesty that is central to the Japanese tea tradition.
In Japanese culture, the camellia has also been traditionally valued for the oil that can be pressed from its nut-like seed. Cold-pressed camellia seed oil has long been used for cooking, and is considered a ‘healthy’ oil containing even a higher proportion of the monounsaturated fat oleic acid than olive oil. In former times, camellia seed oil was also used for hair styling and in oil lamps. The very dense and durable camellia timber was highly valued, though the supply has dwindled due to most large trees being felled.
During the Edo period (16th to mid-19th centuries), many varieties of camellia were developed in Japan and cultivated in gardens. The flower also featured richly in paintings, ceramics, music and traditional crafts. In the 17th century, Georg Joseph Kamel (1661–1706)—a Bohemian Jesuit priest and botanist, after whom the plant is named—introduced the camellia to Europe, starting a horticultural craze of sorts that continues to this day.
Behind the beauty, however, the camellia also has a dark side. In some regional folk traditions, old camellia trees are said to turn into ghosts—perhaps because of the pale, gnarled trunk and roots of aged camellia trees appearing ghostly at night. The habit of whole flowers dropping off trees without breaking apart into petals has been compared to heads rolling—it is said that samurais disliked camellias because of this reason. Even if it is not about beheading, the flower carries a connotation of falling—for this reason, the Japanese have traditionally avoided giving camellias to those suffering illness, and race horses are never given a name containing the word ‘camellia’.
The 1960s movie classic ‘Sanjūrō’ by the celebrated Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa is infused with camellia’s symbolism, both good and bad. The main character, Tsubaki Sanjūrō—whose name means ‘Thirty-year old camellia’—is an itinerant samurai who sets out with a group of young samurais to expose corruption in the ruling class. Much blood is spilt (i.e. many heads roll) along the way before Sanjūrō and his gang finally finds justice. The famous end scene depicts Sanjūrō shunning the admiration of his young samurais and setting off again on his never-ending journey. In essence, he encapsulated all the virtues that the camellia flower symbolises.
There are many places in Japan where spectacular camellias, both wild and cultivated, can be seen. The best known, perhaps, is the volcanic island of Izu-Ōshima, washed by the warm Pacific currents just to the south of Tōkyō, where some 3 million wild camellia trees grow. The island hosts a two month-long Camellia Festival at the end of winter, which draws a huge crowd from all over Japan. My personal favourites, however, are those spots in the Japanese countryside where you can quietly contemplate the flowers without the swarms of tourists.
One such spot is the camellia forest on the Kasayama Peninsula near Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, located in the far southwestern part of Honshū island. Here, on the gentle slopes of a tiny volcano overlooking the Sea of Japan, is a grove of some 25,000 wild camellia trees that have been restored to its former beauty (after decades of deforestation) through community effort. A small festival is held every February to March when the flowers are at their prime and the forest floor is carpeted with fallen red flowers. The festival does draw a fair crowd especially on weekends—however, take a hike on some of the easy to medium-grade walking tracks criss-crossing the peninsula and you can have all the solitude you wish for. Lush forests, rocky shores and old stone walls all contribute to a mosaic of fascinating scenery along your walk, alongside other attractions including an artisan glass studio that produces wares with a curiously beautiful greenish tinge resulting from the use of local basalt rock as their base material. The peninsula makes a great one-day outing and can be combined with sightseeing in the wonderfully atmospheric historical town of Hagi.
Further south in Japan, in the northern part of the island of Kyūshū, lies another of my favourite camellia ‘spots’ in regional Japan. The region of Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture is renowned for its centuries-old horticultural tradition—many of you would have heard of the ‘Kurume’ azalea hybrids which have been bred from varieties originating in this region. The area also has a long history of camellia cultivation and breeding, which becomes apparent in the beautiful rural outskirts of Kurume city. At the Kurume Camellia Garden, 2000 camellia trees of 500 varieties collected from all over Japan and the world can be seen—from autumn to spring, the landscaped gardens come alive with colour with a ‘borrowed’ backdrop of the fields and forests along Chikugo River, the largest river in Kyūshū.
The countryside surrounding Kurume Camellia Garden has a curious patchwork-like appearance, due to the fact that many of the fields grow trees and shrubs for the horticultural trade—a walk along country lanes in this region is like taking a stroll in a nursery! As an added bonus, the nearby Kurume World Azalea Center comes alive in spring with over 20,000 azalea bushes blooming in riotous abandon. Kurume region is one of the largest horticultural centres in Japan and a ‘must-see’ destination for all garden lovers visiting Japan.
At the other end of the country, the Pacific coast of Iwate Prefecture is home to some of the northernmost natural stands of camellia in the world. Along the Goishi Coast, the stretch of rugged shoreline stretching between the regional towns of Rikuzen-Takata and Ōfunato, wild camellias can be seen growing among pines growing on top of the sheer sea cliffs. The area is part of the Sanriku-Fukkō National Park that extends over 150 km along the Pacific coast of northern Honshū—an area devastated by the 2011 Eastern Japan Earthquake and associated tsunami. For the botanically minded, the forests here are interesting due to the mixing of cold and warm climate species—there are not many places where wild camellia can be seen alongside species of lilium, rose, rhododendron, daylily and iris that are native to the frigid northern areas of Japan.
Walking tracks along the Goishi Coast and other areas of the Sanriku-Fukkō National Park allow you to take in some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in Japan, characterised by sheer cliffs up to 200 m high and narrow inlets sheltering coastal villages where life goes on as it has for centuries. For camellias and cherry blossoms, the best time to visit is around April. May to July is my personal favourite, when many of the other wildflowers come out in succession. Nearby are Sekaino-Tsubaki-kan (World Camellia Center), a small botanical garden with a collection of camellias from Japan and the world, and Kumano-Jinja, an ancient Shintō shrine with possibly the oldest camellia tree in Japan—estimated at 1,400 years and planted when the shrine was first built. The old camellia, called ‘Sanmen-tsubaki’ (‘Three-face camellia’) is the only survivor of the original three planted on the eastern, southern and western sides of the shrine—the tree obviously has luck on its side, having survived the 2011 tsunami that washed up to the gate of the shrine.
For general travel information on the regions mentioned, a good starting point is the Japan National Tourism Organization’s official guide: https://www.japan.travel/en/. For information on the specific camellia localities described, please refer to the following webpages:
1. Kasayama Peninsula, Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture https://www.hagishi.com/en/search/list.php?c0=1&c1=4 [IMPORTANT NOTE: The walking tracks on Kasayama Peninsula are numerous and often poorly signposted. It is easy to lose direction, especially if you cannot read Japanese. Most of the peninsula is covered by forest and help may not be readily available. If you are planning to hike on trails away from the main tourist spots on the peninsula, we strongly recommend that you hire a guide who is familiar with the local area, or at the very least have a detailed map of the tracks. Please contact us if you require advice via the enquiry form at our website www.deeplyregionaljapan.com.]
2. Kurume Camellia Garden, Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture http://www.city.kurume.fukuoka.jp.e.ax.hp.transer.com/1070sangyou/2020nourin/3120shisetsu/2013-0220-1704-173.html (machine-translated English webpage; some of the information may not be accurate)
3. Goishi Coast and surrounds, Ōfunato, Iwate Prefecture,
http://translate.google.co.jp/translate?hl=ja&sl=ja&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.city.ofunato.iwate.jp%2F&sandbox=1 (machine-translated English webpage; some of the information may not be accurate)
As specialists in these regions, we would be pleased to provide you with any advice you require. Please contact us via the enquiry form at the bottom of our webpages. We offer private fully guided tours in all regions mentioned, both as carefully crafted pre-packaged itineraries and customised itineraries to cater for your specific interests. Self-guided options are also available on request. Please visit www.deeplyregionaljapan.com/tours-regions and follow the links to ‘Yamaguchi’, ‘Northern Kyushu’ and ‘Northern Tohoku’ for information on tours in Hagi, Kurume and Iwate areas respectively.
[Please note that all our tours are currently suspended due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.]