One of the beloved staples of a Japanese summer is the sight of colorful hydrangeas (ajisai) blooming during the rainy season in June and July. Featuring a wide variety of colors depending on the pH of the soil they are planted in, large hydrangea bushes make a vibrant addition to many gardens, roadsides, and city streets. A species that loves water, hydrangeas are at their best after a light rain, which the rainy season here in Japan is more than ready to supply.
Many shrines and temples that have gardens featuring these flowers hold special openings and events such as Ajisai Matsuri during the peak season where visitors can enjoy the flowers, as well as special foods, ceremonies, and light-ups after dark. Kyoto's most famous hydrangea spots include Mimuroto-ji, Fujinomori Shrine, Sanzen-in, Umenomiya Taisha, and Yoshimine-dera.
Composed of thousands of plants representing over fifty species of hydrangea, the garden at Mimuroto-ji sprawls from the vermilion entrance gate of the temple up towards the stairs that lead to the main hall, walking paths meandering through the colorful blooms. The gardens are breathtakingly gorgeous when covered with flowers ranging from pale blue to vibrant fuchsia, which can be enjoyed by day or occasionally by night. Tall cedars spaced intermittently through the garden add to the mountainous scenery, and against the neighboring foothills are large swathes of azalea. The garden also has a small teahouse café for those who would like to take in the view while sampling some sweets or green tea.
Fujinomori Shrine’s grounds house a lovely hydrangea garden split into two sections in the north and southwest parts of the shrine. Covering an area of 5000 m² and containing 3,500 plants, this garden blooms in June during Japan’s rainy season, and the shrine holds its Hydrangea Festival that month that features various performances and shrine rituals on certain days. Flowers brighten up the view in a variety of colors from pink and white to blue and purple, and you can take a seat in the garden gazebo or enjoy the sight strolling through.
The biggest temple in Ōhara, Sanzen-in boasts several gardens that reflect the seasons and are particularly famous in the summer for hydrangeas and in autumn for the fall colors. The path through the grounds meanders around small halls with ancient histories and through moss gardens dotted with smiling little jizō statues, making for an enjoyable and relaxing walk. With around 1,000 hydrangea plants in a wide variety of species arranged in contrast with tall, slim trees, the Sanzen-in hydrangea garden is best from mid-June.
Umenomiya Taisha in western Kyoto is home to a sprawling garden that is famous for plum, iris, and hydrangea. It's said that this shrine garden contains about 1,300 hydrangea covering 140 different varieties of the summer flower. Because they bloom from late May to early July, you have a few weeks to enjoy the hydrangea in all their splendor. They're most popular in June, however, when they bloom concurrently with the pond garden's colorful irises. Entrance to the gardens costs 550 yen for adults, and you can enjoy a stroll from 9:00 to 17:00 (last entrance 16:30).