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THE MORNING GLORY
"ASAGAO blooms and fades so quickly, only to prepare for the morrow's glory," such is the theme of one of the oldest songs on the asagao or morning glory, written by the Chinese priest at the temple of Obaku near Uji, who is said to have been the first person to introduce the flower to Japan.
It was but a primitive weed when it first came from China; it is only in the land of its adoption that it has evolved its thousand varying forms and developed into the floral wonder of to-day. It was still a semi-barbarous beauty, and had not advanced to its present plane, when Kaga no Chiyo wrote her well-known morning glory poem, better known to us from Sir Edwin Arnold's version —
The Morning Glory,
Her leaves and bells have bound
My bucket handle round;
I could not break the bands
Of those soft hands.
The bucket and the well to her I left;
"Lend me some water, for I come bereft."
For centuries the asagao in Japan remained the same trifling little Chinese flower, only the wild morning glory of the bamboo fences in the back gardens; but even then the bright poetesses of the Kyoto Court admired it, and the Nara poets sang its praises. As they delighted to write of the fleeting condition of our human lives, they found a congenial subject in the morning glory, for it is true that no flower has a briefer life and beauty, and the buds of yesterday are flowers to-day, but only for a few short hours, and then nothing will be left but ruin and decay; though how quickly fresh buds will appear and fresh flowers open to be the morrow's "morning glory."
It was not until the eighteenth century that the asagao became fashionable among the Daimyos and hatamoto, who worked wonders in its cultivation in the rival Yashiki or noblemen's gardens at Yedo. Their blossoms developed in size, depth, and variety of colour, until suddenly at the close of the eighteenth century a spell of cold weather during their season of flowering, dwarfed the blossoms and ruined all the seeds in Yedo. So the asagao culture was dropped until the Tempo period (1880). Then a revival of interest culminated in the mad craze at the time of Commodore Parry's visit, when princes, priests and potentates, nobles, hatamoto, and gardeners all vied with each other in the culture of this flower. Fancy prices were put on plants and seeds, as much as fourteen or eighteen yen (2s.) being given for one seed of some new favourite. Naritaya of Yedo and Tonomura of Osaka were rival gardeners, and the latter sent his precious flowers to the Yedo show by means of relays of coolies, to compete with those grown at Yedo.
The restoration and complete change of social conditions were unfavourable to the culture of the morning glory, as it again went out of fashion and only languished, until its recent revival about fifteen years ago, when an asagao club was formed and many prominent persons became members.
To-day the craze has spread among all classes, and there is hardly a house — more especially in Tokyo, but almost throughout the country — where there are not a few pots of this favourite flower, it being within the reach of the poorest in the land; for a few sen the seeds may be procured to raise the plants which are so often grown upon the house-top.
Iriya (an attractive name meaning "Within the Valley"), beyond Uyeno Park, is the most famous place in Japan for the morning glory; here thousands of carefully trained plants of every shade and variety of colour, fancy flowers less than half an inch in size, in clusters, and shaped like a butterfly orchid, and other strange varieties may be seen; some trained in pots over light bamboo frameworks representing rustic structures and other quaintly designed frames. The gardens are visited by hundreds of visitors in the early morning, for it is at four o'clock in the morning of a scorching July or August day that the plants will look their best: the buds will just be opening, the faded flowers of yesterday will have fallen, and all will be fresh and make you forget the heat of the day that is dawning. One of the asagao experts remarked to me —
We don't call him an asagao man, however large his garden be, however good the other preparations; the rarest asagao, one which makes our mouths water, as we say, comes frequently from the hands of a Hachiko or Kamako, and is often raised upon the roofs in Nihonbashi or Kyobashi, where the ground is too dear for any garden, where we say "one handful of ground means one handful of gold." And there's almost no expense in asagao cultivation. What's needed for it is only a little time to spare — the little time which you can spare from the resting hours or nap-time in the midsummer days. And any common sort of pot which you can buy for two or three sen will do just as well. And since it is the glory of early morning you have not to prepare anything, even when you invite your Mends; a cup of tea will be sufficient. We hear quite often of cases of chrysanthemum parties which were the cause of poverty; but the asagao is not such a vulgar thing at all. And, on the other hand, it will make you forget the summer heat. It is the nature of the flower to love the intense heat; in the hot weather you have them more beautiful. The asagao man is simply glad to have the hottest days: "Surely to-morrow morning's display will be a splendour," he will say. He will not lose his time in taking a nap, but busy himself arranging the flower vines; and his brain will not suffer from the heat if he wear a large hat — on the contrary it will feel better. I have seen many cases of asagao cultivation curing brain illness. And it represents the true spirit of Japanese democracy; it is such an aristocratic flower, like the chrysanthemum. A peer and a heimin will equally enjoy it: at the Himpivokwai (asagao show) people of every station have equal freedom and enjoyment.