Two main highways leading north from Edo -- the Nakasendo and the Nikko Kaido -- divide just as they leave the busy residential suburbs where most of Edo's wealthiest families have their manors. The countryside beyond is dotted with hundreds of small farms and occasional clusters of homes. As you make your way along the Nakasendo and into the countryside, the spring landscape unfolds in beautiful colors. There are flowering trees and bushes everywhere you look. The delicate pink blossoms of cherry trees dot the roadside, and many of the hills are covered with a multicolored blanket of shrubbery -- especially azaleas and rhododendrons.
This is the Somei area -- a general name given to a cluster of small towns and villages that specialize in growing ornamental plants and trees to plant in the gardens of all the wealthy daimyo in Edo. The two main towns in this area are Komagome and Sugamo, but most people in Edo know the area as "Somei" and the farmers who live in the region are known as the Somei uekiya (the landscape gardeners of Somei). They get their reputation from their great skill in raising thousands of different types of ornamental plants. The farms in the Somei area produce most of the ornamental plants that the daimyo plant in their gardens, and many flower markets are held in the small towns along the Nakasendo, where common people can also buy flowers, trees and shrubs. In fact, even the beautiful gardens inside Edo Castle are landscaped and tended by gardeners from Somei.
Gardening is one of the most common and most universal hobbies in Edo. Although the daimyo spend lots of money to build large and extensive gardens, even the poorest city dweller can raise flowers and small shrubs along the roadside or on their balcony, because all it takes is a pot, some dirt and a few seeds or cuttings. Since poor city dwellers have only a limited amount of land for growing plants, one popular hobby of lower-class people is bonsai . A bonsai tree is planted in a small pot and carefully trimmed to keep it from growing too big. If the grower does a good job of tending the tree, in ten years or so he will have a miniature bonsai tree, that looks exactly like a full-sized tree, but is only about a foot tall! Although Edo is a very crowded city, it is quite beautiful. In even the most crowded downtown neighborhoods, you can always see beautiful and well-tended flowers, shrubs and bonsai trees in almost everyone's front yard or doorstep. However, nothing can quite compare to the sight of Somei, with its endless acres of bushes, flowers and trees of every type imaginable.
Somei is the home of one of the most famous gardeners in Edo: Ihei Masatake. Masatake is the son of perhaps the greatest landscape gardener ever -- Ihei Sannojo, and many believe that Masatake is as good at actual gardening as his famous father. The Ihei family first got into the landscaping business back in the early days after Edo was founded. Masatake's grandfather was a simple farmer in the northern suburbs of Edo. Back then, most of the farms in the area grew only rice and vegetables for sale in the city, though a lot of farmers supplemented their income by working part time as gardeners and handymen at the estates of daimyo who lived nearby.
Ihei Masatake's grandfather was named Hotsukimaru. Since he was just a poor farmer, he did not have a last name. In Edo, most of the low-class people do not have a surname, because surnames are a sign of respect, and only fairly important people are allowed to have one. Hotsukimaru got a job working as a gardener and handyman at the estate of the Todo family, who were the rulers of Tsu province, in southern Japan. When Hotsukimaru was still a young man one member of the family, Todo Ihei, brought back some azalea bushes from his home in Tsu province and asked Hotsukimaru to plant them in the garden. The azaleas from southern Japan were more colorful than any Hotsukimaru had ever seen before, so he took cuttings home to his farm and carefully raised the bushes around his house. He soon discovered that if he carefully bred different plants together, the colors of the flowers were slightly different. After carefully tending the azaleas for about ten years, he had bred some beautiful varieties of different azalea, including purple, red, and even white varieties. After several years, when the new bushes had grown big enough, he brought these new varieties back to the Todo family estate and planted some in the gardens. When he saw them, Todo Ihei was amazed! He thought the bushes were so beautiful that he immediately appointed Hotsukimaru the head of all gardeners on the estate, and urged him to continue working to try to develop new varieties.
To show how pleased he was with the new types of azaleas, Todo Ihei asked the Shogun to let Hotsukimaru use a family name. When the Shogun saw the beautiful flowers, he agreed, as long as Hotsukimaru promised to grow some azaleas to plant in the gardens at Edo Castle. Hotsukimaru felt deep gratitude for his master. Once he got a last name, he would no longer be just a poor farmer -- he would be somebody important. To show his gratitude, he asked if he could take the name Ihei as his family name (so he would be named after his master). Todo Ihei agreed, and from that day on, everyone in the area knew of the gardener Ihei Hotsukimaru.
Ihei Hotsukimaru's son, Sannojo grew up on the Todo estate, and worked with his father in the gardens. More and more daimyo in the area started planting large and elaborate gardens ,so they could show off to their neighbors. As the demand for gardeners increased, Hotsukimaru and Sannojo set up a family landscaping business. Although many other farmers in the area also began doing landscape work at the daimyos' estates, the Ihei family was the most famous. All the daimyo wanted to have their landscaping done by the Ihei ueki-ya (the Ihei landcaping company).
Sannojo learned all about azaleas from his father, but he could see that there was a strong demand for all sorts of flowering trees and bushes. He started to study every type of flowering tree and bush he could find, and planted many different varieties on his farm in Komagome. By the time Sannojo was thirty, he had developed several new varieties of ume (plum trees) and sakura (cherry trees). Since the new types were more colorful and had more flowers, all the daimyo wanted to buy them for their gardens, so they could show off to their friends. Sannojo became very wealthy selling the new types of cherry trees, plum trees, azaleas and other flowering bushes. When they saw how succesful the Ihei family had become, most of the other farmers in the area stopped growing rice and began raising ornamental plants instead.
By the time Masatake was born, Somei was the center of a huge landscaping business. From the time he was a little boy, every hour of the day he spent doing landscape work for rich daimyos, or trying to breed new varieties of flowers. The demand for trees and shrubs to plant in the elaborate gardens of Edo provides work for hundreds of farmers, and the convenient location of the Somei area -- on the main road leading into the suburbs where all the daimyo live -- makes it the "flower and garden center" of the entire country.
Naturally, every daimyo wants to have the most unique plants in their garden, so they can show off to the other daimyo . Therefore, the Somei uekiya (landscape gardeners of Somei) search far and wide for new varieties of plants. Not only do they try to breed new varieties of popular flowers; they also search in the forests for new species that might make good ornamental plants. They even import seeds and cuttings from countries far, far away. In 1695, Ihei Sannojo published a best-selling book on gardening that gave information on over 2000 different types of plants, including varieties from as far away as Africa and South America.