Peonies were bought to Japan from China and their cultivation become widespread during the Edo period (1603 to 1868). A symbol of fertility and nobility, ordinarily, peonies flower in April and May.
However, in Japan, there is an interesting variety called Kan-botan (寒牡丹) or Fuyu-botan (冬牡丹) meaning “winter peonies.” The winter peonies are artificially cultivated. During spring and summer, by placing the plants in cold environments, its growth is inhibited and it is provided nourishment in temperature-controlled settings.
To protect the winter peonies from frost, they are covered with straw shade. This is an especially beautiful spectacle when it snows. The light pink of peonies sheltered from the dusting of snow is a truly unique sight.
Since this type of cultivation is quite tedious, you do not see these in all gardens in Japan.
Where to see winter peonies in Japan
Here are some of the popular peony gardens that are easily accessible.
Ueno Toshogu (上野東照宮), Tokyo
In the precincts of the massive Ueno Park, you can visit the Botan-en of Ueno Toshogu Shrine (Google MAP). Best time to visit is from early January to February during the Peony Festival.
Sekkoji (石光寺), Nara
Dating back to the 7th century, Sekkoji (Google MAP) is well known as “Peony Temple” and you can see pretty peonies till the end of January.
Shin-en Botan-en (神苑ぼたん庭園), Kamakura
Kamakura is a well-known destination for day trips from Tokyo. Within the precincts of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is the Shin-en Peony Garden (神苑ぼたん庭園), which is open from January to February. (Google MAP)
These dainty flowers add a touch of color during the dull, gray winter months. The winter peonies represent nature’s spirit to survive through harsh winters. Pray for snow if you’re visiting Japan in winter and check our feature on what happens when it snows in Tokyo.