June: Minazuki

In June it is traditionally said that rice sprouts “mina-tsukitaru” (all take root) hence the name Minazuki. In the Japanese calendar, the fifth “unofficial”season is “tsuyu” or the rainy season. Typically it lasts about a month until the big summer festival in Kyoto, the “Gion Matsuri“. Days are characterised by sudden heavy downpours as well as constant rain. Skies are often a deep grey colour. The residents of Kyoto become more aware of the beginning of summer with the onset of steadily increasing heat and humidity. The abundant rain makes everything grow rapidly and there is a rich variety of summer flowers.

One of my favourite flowers this month is the Bell flower (hotaru-bukuro). In Japanese, its name poetically conjures an image of a firefly resting in a pouch. The plant has long hairy leaves coming to a point and the flowers are spotted white or purplish red. Fireflies are a traditional summer image and feature in many haiku. To go “firefly viewing” with friends has long been a favourite summer pastime. Wild thistle (azami) can also be seen in hills and fields in a variety of colours ranging from purple through to red, pink and white. The Day flower (tsuyukusa), although considered a weed by many western gardeners, is accepted in Japan as the plant which heralds the rainy season and brings hope for a good rice harvest.

At the beginning of June, the most prolific of the Japanese irises (hanashobu) is often seen in specialised plantings which bloom enmasse in pond gardens that attract thousands of visitors to places like the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. The iris has been an important horticultural plant since the early part of the Edo period. It is well mentioned in literature and is also a prominent motif in Japanese art.

Recently I found myself very attracted to a famous Tea master’s phrase “Summer should be cool”. This can be summed up in the Japanese “ryo-ichimi” which translates as “an item of coolness”. This does not mean we need to rely on technology such as airconditioners and fans. Rather, “coolness” is a “mental construct”, an attitude of being that helps keep us fresh through the long summer months: the scene of a breeze blowing through a field of fresh green rice shoots, the image of a waterfall. There are many ways to generate “coolness”.

For me, one of the ways to entertain “coolness” in these sticky months is through the inky blue blooms of the Japanese hydrangea (ajisai).There are many varieties and it is popular as both a garden shrub and container plant. I particularly enjoy the more delicate blooms of the Hydrangea serrata or “yama ajisai” with its fertile flower in the centre surrounded by broad petalled sterile flowers. More than almost anything else, it is this beautiful colour gradation from the deepest purple-blue to a lighter watery blue that I adopt as my personal “ryo-ichimi”. Cycling around town seeing large clumps of hydrangea makes me “feel” cool as summer unfolds. In the words of the most famous Heian period arbiter of all that is to be savoured:

Summer is at its best in the evening especially when the moon is out, but even without it, summer is wonderful.
The heart will be warmed when the fireflies flow all around.
It is a wonderful sight to watch a few flies about here and there.
A summer evening is also charming when it rains.

— Sei Shonagon