Woodcut by Hiroshige depcting maple leaves

Maple Viewing: Japanese Traditions

Maple Viewing: Japanese Traditions

 

Maple Viewing (Momijigari) is the tradition of visiting areas where the maple trees have turned red.  The Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) at Shizuka Ryokan are exploding with colour this month. There are a variety of maple species growing at Shizuka Ryokan, in a range of colours—from blood red through to subtle bronze.

At Shizuka, we have come to realise that the Japanese maple tree is a wonder across all seasons. In winter, the trees have no leaves and the branches are framed against the Hepburn sky. In spring, new growth, flowers and colours appear. In summer, the leaves provide shade for guests (and birds) and in autumn, the fall of the leaves marks the ephemeral nature of existence.

Shizuka Ryokan’s gardens are a place to reflect. Shizuka Ryokan features a tsubo-niwa, or courtyard garden, an essential part of traditional ryokans. The architecture of Shizuka Ryokan is organised around a raked gravel garden that has a maple tree growing out of it. (In Japan, raking gravel took on a symbolic significance for the Buddhist monks–more on that in a future blog post!)

The Japanese maple is native to Japan, China, Korea, Mongolia and Russia, where it grows in mixed and understorey forests.  There are hundreds of varieties, with a wide variation in leaf colour and texture. Maples are prized for their 7-palmed leaves and colours. There are generally two types of tree shape: upright and horizontal.

Botanists have a field day identifying Japanese maples. There are so many different cultivars a system of categorisation has developed. They are divided into 7 groups. 5 of the groups depend on their leaf forms:

  • Amoenum Group: Each leaf is divided up to two-thirds to the leaf base
  • Palmatum Group: Each leaf is divided two-thirds to three-fourths to the leaf base
  • Matsumurae Group: Each leaf is divide more than three-fourths to the leaf base
  • Dissectum Group: Each lead is divided into lobes, which are dissected into sub-lobes
  • Linearilobum Group: Each leaf is divided from the tip to the base into narrow, straplike lobes

(The final 2 groups are dwarf cultivars and cultivars that don’t fit the other groups)

Four leaves from four different species of Japanese maple tree.

Acer palmatum cultivars – From left to right A. palmatum wild type, A. palmatum ‘Amoenum’, and A. palmatum ‘Matsumurae’ (‘Dissectum’ is similar to ‘Matsumurae’) [Photo credit: Abrahami/Creative Commons]

Close up of Iris growing at Shizuka

Irises: Japanese Traditions

A blooming Iris in the gardens of Shizuka RyokanThe ancient art of gardening is alive and well at Shizuka Ryokan. Our gardens display a beautiful selection of traditional Japanese plants such as bamboo, ginkgo, persimmon, sakura (cherry blossom), maple, shiso (a herb used in our kitchen), magnolia, Japanese quince and hibiscus. At dusk, the pine trees fill with sulphur-crested cockatoos, and the fruit trees attract fast moving parrots, leaving streaks of the brightest greens and reds. Kangaroos feed on the grass. A kookaburra sits on the wooden bridge at the ryokan entrance, waiting for chef Akiko-san to appear with sashimi. It is this fusion–of Japanese tradition in an Australian setting–that makes a visit to Shizuka Ryokan potent and unique.

This month, the Irises are in bloom. In Japan, Iris cultivation is considered a high art, and the Japanese have developed more than 2000 cultivated varieties. These cultivars display large, beautifully coloured and patterned flowers, with exceptional wide falls (the petals that hang down) and narrow standards (the upright petals).

The name Iris comes from the Greek word for rainbow, an apt name for a species that blooms in a wide range of colours. There are around 300 species of Iris. They are treasured for their large flowers—in colours of blue, purple, maroon or white—and their contrasting pattterns of dots, stripes, veins and edges. Many Iris have ruffled flowers, with multiple floral parts.

There are three species of Iris commonly grown in Japan—hanashobu (Iris ensata), kakitsubata (Iris laevigata) and ayame (Iris sanguinea). Outside of Japan, Iris ensata is referred to as ‘Japanese iris’. It has a bluish purple colour and references to it in Japanese art and literature date back to the 12th century. Iris ensata is native to Japan, China, Korea and Siberia.  It is believed that farmers would plant irises in or near their rice fields because their blooming coincided with the start of the rainy season—the time for transplanting rice plants from seed beds to the fields.


To learn more we recommend The Japanese Garden, a fantastic book written by Sophie Walker.

Utagawa Hiroshige painting of Iris garden.

Utagawa Hiroshige’s painting of an Iris garden. Hiroshige greatly influenced Van Gogh.