In the Solitude of Wisteria Trees (Part 1)

Nonfiction by | July 24, 2023

“Come join me in the regrets for the passing spring
And wisteria aglow in the evening light”
-Murasaki Shikibu, Tales of Genji


The sky was overcast from the afternoon rain. Gray but thankfully not too dreary. All that was left was a slight drizzle. Some of these raindrops have settled on my glasses, but I didn’t bother to brush them away.  I maneuvered my phone through the clusters of wisteria before me. My goal was to achieve a “peering through the vines” self-portrait.

Little by little I found my groove and my angle. I was pleased.

I was doing yet another hitori tabi—or solo traveling in Japanese—this time in Tochigi, a prefecture north of Tokyo. Since I moved to the Land of the anime and kawaii things in October 2017, I’ve slowly cultivated a tradition of chasing and documenting perennials. It began on my first spring here, when I chanced upon cherry blossom sightseeing maps at the train station. I sought to check out the accessible spots, and from there I was hooked. The following month, I was in the company of friends and roses. The next year I added hydrangeas and irises to this list. Yes, I travel for flowers.

Over the next years, I made it a goal to visit a wisteria garden—the ones that lead you through winding pink tunnels or expansive trellises. I finally ticked it off in April 2022.

Tochigi’s Ashikaga Flower Park is home to some of the largest and oldest wisteria trees in Japan. I came there in search of the famed hundred-year-old wisteria trees that were said to inspire the Tree of Life in James Cameron’s Avatar. To be honest, I’ve forgotten how it looked like, but I do remember being amazed by the gigantic tree with pink cascading vines and a soft glow about it.

The one before me wasn’t as majestic. Neither were the other ones in the grove I was in. These looked young but approachable. They allowed me to study the flowers up close.

The purple blossoms dribbled down the vines like droplets of water. They could easily fall off with one wrong move. Wisteria is known as fuji in Japan. (Similar but not to be mistaken for the mountain. Their kanji characters are different.) I find it amusing that the flower’s kanji is a combination of the symbols for grass and water rising. It put me in a glass-half-empty-half-full kind of quandary.

After all, the wisteria is also admired for its form, with its arched trunks and its blossoms facing downwards. It was as if the whole plant was deep in prayer. Fittingly, the flower is used in the crest of a branch of Buddhism in Japan, using it as a symbol of humility and reflection.

I pulled away from this grove and navigated my way to the center of the park. The afternoon light was waning. The night illuminations would begin soon. I stopped to take photos of yellow and orange poppies. Even the azaleas. A tall pergola of baby pink wisterias snaked around the courtyard. The cherry blossoms were long gone, but spring was still in full swing.

While cherry blossoms or the sakura is the first flower that come to mind whenever one speaks of Japan, wisteria have earned a place in the country’s history and art.

We can see these viny blossoms as a common motif in kimonos and ceramics. Fuji Musume or Wisteria Maiden has been a favorite theme in paintings. Much like the goddess Venus, this woman has been reinterpreted many times. It has also inspired a traditional dance which tells the sad tale of Fuji Musume that came to life, longing for man who viewed her painting. She walked around with a stalk of wisteria as she waited a reply to her love letters.

True enough, wisteria has a character that evokes longing and nostalgia. Perhaps it’s in the tranquil purples and blues mixed with whites and pinks. Perhaps it’s in the manner the flowers dangle and seemingly float midair. Or perhaps it’s in the melancholic way the vines droop, as if longing for a past that may either be happy or sad. In this light, wisteria has frequently been tied to nostalgia in Japanese literature.

The 11th century masterpiece Tale of Genji describes fuji as a companion to the sadness that comes in the passing of springtime. Author Murasaki Shikibu compares it to the snowlike sakura which, while beautiful, is fleeting in nature. The wisteria comes out at an opportune time, much later in April, sitting with observers to lament time gone by.

Taking my sweet time around the park, I followed another path of young wisteria shrubs. A mix of excitement and longing bubbled up in my chest. Then through a clearing, I finally saw it: a trellis more than a thousand meters wide.

Over it hung a curtain of lilac and purple flowers with the specks of royal and sky blue.  Bumblebees buzzed through the vines as if they too were on holiday. Underneath, people milled around with their eyes fixed on the blossoms overhead.

On opposite sides stood two grand wisteria trees. There was a sense of wisdom and strength told in the way they stooped down with the breadth and abundance they carried. They commanded attention the way soft-spoken mentors draw your interest. You listen to every word they say.

Stephanie Puyod is an alumna of the BA Communication Arts program of the University of the Philippines-Mindanao.

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