In my last blog on Japan I wrote about the enchanting Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu, in the water-district a short distance from Tokyo and Narita airport.
Another town in this area is Itako, on the Maekawa River. For hundreds of years Itako has changed its appearance depending on the season. The cooler months become the spectacle of blossoming cherry trees, cosmos, chrysanthemums and maples, but during summer, the iris holds centre stage.
Beside the Mae River, the Ayame Matsuri, the Iris Festival, is in full bloom. From May to late June, over a million Monet-hued irises brocade the stone-walled river. Wooden bridges arching over mauve fields become viewing platforms for visitors, and cycleways for the local women going about their daily lives.
As the breeze picks up, the irises dance. And a summer tradition that dates back to the 1600s, unfolds. A bride processes along the wooden path through the gardens. She is dressed in a white wedding kimono. Her black lacquered hair is woven through her white tsunokakushi, the silk headdress designed to hide (at least for her wedding day) her horns of jealousy. Traditional music is piped through hidden speakers as her parents escort her to the river where they board a sappa-bune, a bamboo-leaf shaped boat laden with roped casks of sake for her husband-to-be.
As the boat glides downstream to the wedding ceremony, hundreds of women in iris-inspired kimonos dance in formation through the gardens. Their hand movements mirror the essence of Itako: its water, irises and the mountains of Fuji and Tsukuba.
With thousands of visitors there are vast stalls selling fast-food Itako style. Children from neighbouring schools join in the celebrations.
I take my own sappa-bune ride on the 12-bidge tour. Megumi, our cheery boat woman propels us through the water.
We all wear sedge leaf hats and hear stories of the river. We glide past pagoda-style houses and ancient stone monuments used as trade route guides when Itako was on the old trade root from Edo (ancient Tokyo). Peering into backyards abutting the river we see stands of camellias, willows, persimmon trees and the exotic cloud-pruned plum trees.
At the end of the iris gardens I follow a path to the Choshoji temple. Tani Genmyo, the Shinto priest in residence tells me that the path has prepared me for prayer, ‘like the prologue of a play.’ Shaded by ancient ginkgoes this 12th century temple was constructed by Minamoto Yoritomo, the warrior who became the first Shogun of Japan and who set in motion the rise and domination of the samurai that would last until the mid 19th century.