January: Mu-tsuki

One of the traditional names for this month is “mu-tsuki” meaning to go visiting friends and acquaintances to greet the New Year. The festive New Year season is incredibly important to Japanese and there are many rituals and aesthetic symbols connoting the turning of the solar calendar.

As part of the seasonal decorations from January 1st to 15th “matsu-no-uchi”, pine (matsu) features heavily.
In addition to being a constituent piece in the “kadomatsu” decorations, pine also features in the traditional triplet arrangement known as “sho-chiku-bai”. (pine-bamboo-plum). This is often seen as a miniature landscape of potted plants carefully arranged in a blue flat bowl, surrounded by tiny white pebbles and stones which symbolize the sea and mountains. It is often displayed at New Year’s, decorated with branches of sacred bamboo (nanten).This triplet of pine/bamboo/plum symbolizes good luck and happiness and is also used for comparisons. Instead of describing something as the greatest, greater or great, the Japanese would refer to it as: “matsu” (greatest), “take” (greater) and “ume” (great).

On January 10th, I was lucky enough to be invited to my tea teacher’s home for the first tea ceremony practice of the year “hatsugama”. This is a big event in the tea world and as one of the preparations for this occasion, we tidied the garden to welcome our three guests. Taking care not to sweep too hard lest I destroy the delicate moss, I relished the opportunity to “manicure” my allotted portion. To remove every fallen leaf and other debris, took much longer than I had anticipated and brought home to me yet again the fundamental importance of maintenance in the upkeep of a meticulous Japanese garden. I found the work to be meditative and my efforts were rewarded with a wonderful feeling of calmness.

This first tea practice “hatsugama” is laden with aesthetic symbolism and I particularly enjoyed the long slender branches of a knotted willow tree “musubi-yanagi” where two or three boughs measuring about three metres had been arranged in a freshly cut, green bamboo vase, hung high in a corner of the sacred alcove (tokonoma). The branches drape to the floor and the shortest of these was made into a loop about 30cm in diameter at a position a little higher than the middle and the rest of the draping branches were passed through the loop. The loop was secured by wrapping the other branches around it a few times. In Japan, to tie things together or to tie a relationship is to make a promise and this is a symbol of happiness. Tea ceremony in general, is a wonderful repository of seasonally inflected Japanese customs.

Yet another symbol of winter decorations is the widely used ornamental kale “ha-botan”. I planted this variety of cabbage in blue terracotta pots, positioned at the entrance to my house. Purple, green and white leaves (ha) like crepes, wind around one another resembling the bloom of a peony (botan). Leaf colour is affected by temperature, the colder the weather, the better the colour. This plant was introduced to Japan by Dutch traders during the latter part of the Edo period (1603-1867).

Now that the month has come to a close, I have realized that January is particularly rich in the symbolic usage of plants and flowers to mark key dates in the Japanese calendar.

Everything changes in this world;
but the flowers are just the same as the Spring of yesteryear.

— Ryokan