The Chusonji Lotus is a truly epic flower.

The following tweet was posted recently sparking a lot of interest from people in Japan and generating nearly 30,000 likes as of this writing. The pretty photo taken from the Hiraizumi Cultural Treasure Center, and the caption ought to be enough to pique one’s curiosity but doesn’t do the full history of this flower justice.

▼ “This flowering lotus is a type found in a container with Fujiwara Yasuhira’s head.”

Let’s take a look at the full story, starting with Minamoto Yoshitsune, a legendary warrior from 12th century Japan. Much has been written about him and I encourage you to read all about his exploits, but for now I’m going to start at the end of his life, so brace yourselves for some spoilers… although to be fair you’ve already had a good 800 or so years to learn about him.

▼ At the tender age of 15,
Yoshitsune bested the bandit leader Kumasaka Chohan

Wikipedia/Utagawa Kuniyoshi

● The Fall of Yoshitsune

Yoshitsune was a skilled fighter who eventually fought on the side of the Japanese emperor with his brother Yoritomo. Yoshitsune was highly decorated for his deeds, much to the chagrin of Yoritomo who felt the glory was not fairly distributed.

The animosity between Yoshitsune and Yoritomo grew until Yoshitsune had to flee Kyoto in 1185 and went to the kingdom of the Northern Fujiwara clan in the Tohoku area of Japan. Northern Fujiwara and Kyoto had an uneasy truce held in place by Fujiwara’s formidable forces.

Many years earlier, the head of the Northern Fujiwara clan, Hidehira had taken in Yoshitsune when he feld Kyoto as a child and now once again took up his vow to protect him. Because of this Yoshitsune was able to find a brief peace there surrounded by the lovely pink lotuses that could be found in the region.

Wikipedia/Prenn

However, in 1187 Hidehara passed away, leaving Northern Fujiwara in the hands of his son Yasuhira. The new ruler promised to uphold his father’s protection of Yoshitsune, but by 1189 Yoritomo was putting considerable pressure on Northern Fujiwara to give him up.

So Yasuhisa turned on Yoshitsune, forcing him to commit seppuku. By the way, there is an intriguing but ultimately far-fetched theory that Yoshitsune did not die but secretly escaped, making his way to mainland Asia and becoming the figure we all know as Genghis Khan.

Anyway, even though Yasuhira complied, Yoritomo was still pissed that he had waited for so long and attacked him. Also, now Yasuhira no longer had arguably Japan’s greatest warrior, it was an ideal time to finally crush Northern Fujiwara.

Yorimoto’s forces razed the entire land, once a bustling center of culture and the arts, and burned all buildings and artworks to the ground. When Yasuhira was captured, they beat him and then beheaded him. As proof of the end of Northern Fujiwara, Yasuhira’s head was placed on a stake and displayed for all to see.

● All that remains

After the point was made, the severed head of Fujiwara Yasuhira was entombed alongside the bodies of the other three previous leaders of the clan in the golden Konjiki-do of Chuson Temple. There it would sit for centuries undisturbed.

▼ Konjiki-do

Wikipedia/NY066

500 years after the fall of Fujiwara, celebrated master of haiku poetry Matsuo Basho set off on what would be his final journey culminating in what is considered his greatest work, Oku no Hosomichi or The Narrow Road to the Deep North. His destination on this journey was Hiraizumi which was once the center of the Northern Fujiwara kingdom.

When he arrived, Basho noticed that all of the greatness of Northern Fujiwara had vanished leaving only faint traces of ruins among overgrown grass. The fleetingness of man’s military ambitions inspired Basho to write his famous haiku Summer Grasses, seen here as translated by R.H. Blyth.

Ah! Summer Grasses!
All that remains
Of warriors’ dreams

It’s an incredibly poignant handful of syllables echoing the inevitable futility of what warlords and imperialists seek to achieve: that no matter how great or accomplished a society they create, given enough time, it will always be reduced to ruins and the grass from where it came.

● Birth of the Chusonji Lotus

In 1950, it was decided that the mummified remains in Chuson Temple be examined to confirm their identity and match with historical records. All of the bodies and Yasuhira’s head were fairly well preserved, but it is unclear exactly why.

There are compelling arguments on both sides that they were either intentionally mummified or just happened to be that way naturally. The examination failed to yield a clear answer in that regard, but one interesting discovery was 100 lotus seeds inside the container which also held Yasuhira’s head.

The seeds were transferred to one of Japan’s top lotus experts Ichiro Oga, because what else are you going to do with scores of 800-year-old lotus seeds except plant them? However, Oga failed to germinate those seeds during his lifetime. It wasn’t until decades later in 1995 that one of Oga’s pupils, Toshiko Nagashima, successfully germinated the seeds of what was to be called Chusonji Hasu or Chusonji Lotus.

▼ A pond containing Chusonji Lotuses

Wikipedia/Usiwakamaru

The first Chusonji Lotus flower bloomed in the year 2000, 811 years after the fall of Northern Fujiwara.  They can be seen in various locations around Tohoku that have some historical connection to the Fujiwara clan. Of course they can also be found outside Chuson Temple, blooming for a month around August every year — literally all that still lives on of Fujiwara Yasuhira’s dreams.

Sources: Twitter/@k_iiiich, Anthropology Recommendation, Yokote City, Helen Lowe, Mummies of the Four Generations of Fujiwara
Featured image: Twitter/@k_iiiich