See the trailing purple flowers and breathe in the irresistible perfume of Nishiarai Daishi’s sprawling wisterias.
The yearly Flower Festival at Nishiarai Daishi Temple begins with the flowering of cherry blossoms towards the end of March, but things really start to heat up just as the weather does, well into April. Because at that point, the wisterias in front of the temple’s main hall come into bloom, while the peony garden simultaneously morphs bit by bit into a full rainbow of flowers. Nishiarai Daishi isn’t famous enough to draw huge crowds like Kameido Tenjin Shrine, but those in the know will tell you that the quiet atmosphere is just part of what makes this temple one of the best places to enjoy wisteria season in Tokyo.
Despite being commonly known as Nishiarai Daishi, this temple is more formally known as Gochisan Henjoin Sojiji, and its history is said to stretch as far back as the year 826! It was then that Kobodaishi, the founder of Japan’s Shingon Buddhist sect, came to the region to save the local villagers from a terrible plague. Carving images of himself and the goddess Kannon, Kobodaishi placed his works in a dried-up well and prayed for three full weeks while burning offerings. All of this praying apparently bore fruit, because at the end of it all, fresh water bubbled up from the old well and cured the locals of their ills. The well is what inspired the name of the temple – Nishiarai literally means “new western well”!
Kobodaishi’s fire-offering prayer ritual is still performed at Nishiarai Daishi, where it’s called “goma” (護摩) (although it’s sometimes referred to as “homa” in English). You can still donate to the temple and ask the monks to perform the ritual on your behalf!
Nishiarai Daishi’s wisteria tree is not only beautiful, it’s almost as old as the temple itself, with local legend placing it somewhere around 700 years old. The long branches are supported by a sturdy pergola, and they reach way out from the trunk, with a younger tree planted a few meters away to create an even larger canopy. Together, the trees create heavy curtains of little purple-and-white flowers, with the many delicate tendrils combining to fill the space overhead. The trees are planted between the temple’s broad courtyard and a small koi pond, creating a quiet little oasis, and visitors often perch on the low fences around the trees to relax and enjoy the scenery.
One of the most magical aspects of the wisterias is their strong perfume. First-time visitors to Japan are sometimes a little bit disappointed to find that Japanese cherry blossoms, though pretty, are generally scentless. Wisterias can vary pretty wildly in scent depending on the variety, but the trees planted at Nishiarai Daishi smell like heaven on Earth.
Flower lovers visiting the temple won’t want to miss the peony garden, which blooms around the same time as the wisterias. Not only does Nishiarai Daishi have a small patch of the flowers on the other side of the koi pond, but across the street there’s a whole peony garden devoted to the big, bold flowers, which come in a whole range of shades and colors.
Nishiarai Daishi might be a little out of the way for most tourists visiting Tokyo, but between the fragrant wisterias and the brilliant peonies, it’s a must-see for late April and early May!
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