Japanese culture is traditionally inflected by twenty four seasonal points and the day after Setsubun (February 3rd or 4th), marks the beginning of Spring, a time known as Risshun.
It is still cold, but here and there emerge signs of the new season.
One of the indicators is “yuki-ma-gusa“. This is a young sprout (gusa) peeping out from under the crust (ma) of snow (yuki).
A famous poem explains the sentiment of this month.
Hana onomi/matsuran hito ni/yama-zato no/yuki-ma no kusa no/haru o misebaya.
To those who lust after only cherry blossoms, I want to point out the mountain hamlet spring grasses breaking through the snow.
Recently, I was reminded of these words after visiting a famous Kyoto tea shop, where I watched a master handcraft a delicious, earth coloured tea sweet (wagashi) that featured delicate green tufts spiking through a light veil of snow coloured confection. Multiple aesthetic references create a deeper resonance. This sensitivity to the nuances of seasonal change is something that is impossible to tire of here in Kyoto.
Actually, more than anything else, it is the blooming of the Japanese plum (ume) that most truly heralds the end of winter and the beginning of Spring. The Japanese have long appreciated the resilience of these blossoms, pushing their delicate buds through the piercing cold and bracing air.
Plum blossoms also resonate for the Chinese and feature prominently in poetry from both cultures.
Itten baika no zui sanzen sekai kambashi
One plum blossom makes the whole world fragrant.
Plum blossom (ume) is typically five petalled and the most common varieties to be seen in Japanese gardens are either: white (shiro/haku) or red (aka/ko). In traditional Japanese paintings, the plum is usually depicted in a pairing with the sweetly voiced bush warbler (uguisu).
This month I have also enjoyed visiting a masterpiece of Japanese landscape design called Joju-in (a subtemple of the famous Kiyomizudera). Like so many wonderful gardens, it is not known clearly who the designer was, although both Soami and Kobori Enshu have been attributed. In addition to the magnificent execution of borrowed scenery (shakkei), using the adjacent Yuya valley, another highlight of this garden is the gracious four hundred year old “Wabisuke Tsubaki” (wabisuke camellia), thought to have been planted by the famous warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The “Wabisuke” camellia is one of many varieties of winter blooming camellias and is particularly prized in the tea ceremony world for its small, single red flowers which never open fully and are therefore seen as appropriately modest and tasteful.
February is indeed an underappreciated month in which to enjoy the pleasures of the Japanese garden and while the lingering cold might prove challenging to stay at length in landscaped space, this is more than compensated for, by the fact of sharing the experience with far fewer people. There is a lot to be said for an “off season” visit.