Morning glories (asagao) were originally imported from China for their medicinal purposes. In Japan the blossoms open before dawn, and fade by mid morning. This flower was immortalized by Lady Murasaki in The Tale of Genji when her dashing hero courts Princess Asagao. The lady rejects Geni’s advances, inspiring him to write a poem suggesting she, too, was past her bloom. Later in the novel Genji approaches Princess Asagao again, wondering if she had perhaps bloomed again.
In Elizabeth Kiritani’s wonderful 1995 book, Vanishing Japan: Traditions Crafts and Cultures, which is unfortunately now out of print, she writes about the Iriya Market, a three-day market held in early July near Ueno Park that officially marked the beginning of summer for Tokyo residents during the Meiji (1868-1912) era. The market featured morning glories in every possible color, including colors such as “shrimp-tea” (ebi cha) that I have never seen in morning glories. According to the Internet, the market is still held, and in fact is referred to as Iriya Asagao Matsuri, or Morning Glory Festival. Last year the market featured 100 stalls and 120 flower producers.