May: Satsuki

May is also known as “Satsuki“. It is the month in which rice sprouts sanae are planted and also the season of samidare or “early summer rain”. Both Sanae-zuki and Samidare-zuki can be abbreviated to Satsuki.

After the fanfare of cherry blossom (sakura) in April, the beginning of May is much quieter, although the shobu or Sweet-flag makes an appearance at the Boy’s Day Festival on May 5th. Shobu no sekku or Boy’s Day is one of five seasonal festivals, closely following Hina Matsuri for girls. The power of shobu originates from a Chinese legend. It’s leaves are used in traditional decorations and were known to ward off evil spirits and avert fires. At this time of the year, leaves are bundled and placed in the bath shobu-yu.

Speaking of iris, one of my favourite flowers of this month is katkitsubata or Rabbit-ear iris, which is usually grown in waterside areas or ponds. The leaves are sword shaped and grow in clusters. From a long stalk , flowers bloom, the most beautiful are deep blue/purple. They look magnificent enmasse and can be appreciated in various shrine gardens around Kyoto. As the flower looks like a flying swallow,, the Chinese characters meaning: “young-of-a-swallow-flower” are used to depict the name in Japanese.

Wisteria fuji is also an emblematic flower at this time. It can be seen in many places: high up in the Kyoto hills, aggressively wrapped around tall conifers as well as meticulously trimmed specimens, trained carefully over arbors in both domestic and temple gardens. Mauve is the most common colour for the Japanese Wisteria floribunda although the larger white flowered variety can also be seen.

Continuing the purple theme so prevalent this month is the delicately flowering “miyako-wasure“. It is a form of summer chrysanthemum. On each 15-20cm stalk, there grows only one flower, usually dark purple in colour. Legend has it that a high ranking exile gazed intensely at the flower which enabled hime to forget about “miyako” (the capital) and so it is called “miyako-wasure“.

However, May is not a month for melancholy. The colour green is now in abundance. Fresh green leaves seem to be bursting out everywhere and many Japanese enjoy going to visit the mountains and gardens to appreciate the beauty of the new growth. The term “shin-ryoku” is a well known seasonal word (kigo) and conjures up the vibrancy of early summer (shoka). Young Maple leaves (ao-momiji) in particular are prized for their delicate new greenery and many tourist spots have begun extolling the virtues of “ao-momiji” as a drawcard in a season that is seen as having reliably pleasant weather.

Kage hitasu/ mizu sae iro zo / midori naru /
yo-mo no ko-zue no / onaji waka-ba ni

With fresh greenery at all points of the compass, it is no wonder that the water with the reflection of the treetops is also green.

— Teika