For the past month or so, my entire feed on Instagram has been overtaken by red spider lilies. Known in Japanese as manjushage or higanbana (the term that I’ll opt to use from here on out), these flowers are synonymous with the arrival of fall in Japan. Generally, they are at their best around the autumn equinox. Though short lived, the higanbana are a great prelude to the coming of the fall foliage later on in mid-autumn. Should you find yourself in Japan during the latter half of September, I highly suggest you add a locale to your itinerary that features these beautiful flowers.
As stunning as the higanbana are, they are deeply wrought with tragedy. You see, this sad flower has long been associated with death in many Asian cultures. Likely a result of their highly poisonous nature, the higanbana has regularly been used in Buddhist lore as a metaphor for death. Additionally, these haunting but alluring red flowers are also known to pop up in and around cemeteries, thereby further cementing their link with death. Despite this dark shadow though, the higanbana is still nonetheless enchanting.
Perhaps my favorite tale linked with the higanbana comes from the all important Lotus Sutra. In this Buddhist text, the flowers are described as flora that grow in the bowels of hell. Here, they serve as helpful guides along the route to reincarnation for the deceased. In other Buddhist legends, the higanbana is said to appear along the path when you are meeting someone for the final time. For this reason, the flower is often used in Buddhist funerals to send off the recently departed into whatever awaits them beyond the veil.
In addition to its use in Buddhism, the higanbana often pops up regularly in pop culture. As can be seen by looking at the comments of my recent Instagram post about these autumn perennial, there’s a lot of references to the higanbana in anime and manga (such as in the hit series Tokyo Ghoul). Seeing as they are inexorably tied with death, the flowers are often used to foreshadow when a character is about to meet their end. Alternatively, since the higanbana can also be used to identify a metaphoric death too in the sense of character development.
Though there’s a lot of locations where you can witness the higanbana across Japan, perhaps there is no better spot than Kinchakuda Manjushage Park in Saitama Prefecture. Here, the curvature of the Koma River gives rise to a green expanse that takes the shape of a kinchakuda (a traditional style Japanese coin purse). The small peninsula is home to over thousands and thousands of higanbana. If my understanding is correct, this is the largest cluster of these death-conjoined flowers in all of Japan.
The History of Kinchakuda Manjushage Park
Now, this part of Japan was originally settled in the early 700s by refugees fleeing from the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo (which is rendered as Koma in Japanese). The current site of Kinchakuda Manjushage Park was then used by the Goguryeo settlers as fertile grounds for cultivating rice but was later abandoned in the modern era. Sometime thereafter in the 1960s though, the rich soil started to bequeath countless higanbana. With some careful cultivation by the locals, Kinchakuda Manjushage Park soon had the grandest collection in all of Japan.
Where all the higanbana came from is basically anyone’s guess. What we can likely surmise is that the seeds were originally sown in the kinchakuda-shaped peninsula’s rice fields as a means of warding off rodents. Remember, the higanbana is highly poisonous so they have long been used in Asian cultures to keep both crops and cemeteries free of pests. Likely, the present-day host of flowers was descended from these ancient protectors that were planted all those centuries prior.
Getting to Kinchakuda Manjushage Park
All things considered, the trek to Kinchakuda Manjushage Park is not all too difficult. In fact, the nearest station, Koma Station, can be easily reached in little over an hour from Ikebukuro. What’s more, if you do a bit of planning in Hyperdia or a similar service, you can actually get on a train that will take you directly there without the need to transit. Otherwise, you might have to get off at Hanno Station and then make a quick transfer. Either way, it’s pretty simple all things considered.
Anyway, once you’re at Koma Station, you’ll need to walk for about 10 minutes to where Kinchakuda Manjushage Park is located. Luckily, it’s not a arduous hike or anything so just refer to this Google Map for details. You’ll know you’re getting close to Kinchakuda Manjushage Park when you cross a traditionally styled bridge. Thereafter, you’ll encounter a vegan restaurant called Alishan Cafe. The entrance to Kinchakuda Manjushage Park is just beyond this.
Note that while the best time to visit Kinchakuda Manjushage Park is around the autumn equinox. That said, the caretakers have planned the higanbana bloomings such that there will be some that crop up both before and after main window. Even if you’re abysmal with seasonal timings like I am, you can still luck out and get to behold the majestic higanbana if you visit sometime towards the end of September or early October.
Attractions Near Kinchakuda Manjushage Park
If you’re coming this far out into western Saitama, it would behoove you to get an early start and make a full day out of it. While you can spend a good several hours wandering about Kinchakuda Manjushage Park, there’s a lot more in this neck of the woods to explore too. The following attractions are some of my suggestions that work logistically well with seeing the higanbana…
- Moominvalley Park
Koma Station is located but a stone’s throw away from Hanno where you’ll find the Moominvalley Park. If you happen to be a fan of writer and illustrator Tove Jansson’s charming Moomin characters, then you absolutely must check out this spot!
- Koma Shrine & Shoden-in
These dual pair of attractions are intrinsically linked to the history of how the area of Koma became a place of refuge for Koreans fleeing Goguryeo. The article linked above does a great job of summarizing the entire history so in the interest of brevity, I’ll just elect to send you there.
- Goguryeo Folk Museum
Found on the easternmost extremes of Kinchakuda Manjushage Park, this facility seems to detail the legacy of Goguryeo and the Koreans that fled from there. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to pop in and therefore can’t really comment.
If you’re willing to overnight, I highly recommend that you check out the nearby area of Chichibu. It’s one of my favorite parts of the Greater Tokyo region and I am always down to take people here. In my opinion, Chichibu is highly underrated and sorely deserving of more notoriety overseas.
Until next time travelers…