July: Fumi-zuki

Fumi-zuki comes from “fumi-hiroge-zuki” which means to “open fumi (writings)” based on the idea that Japanese people used to write on the occasion of Tanabata on the seventh day of the month. Tanabata originated from a Chinese folk legend concerning two stars- the weaver star (Vega) and the cowherd star (Altair) said to be lovers who could only meet once a year on the seventh night, of the seventh month, providing it didn’t rain and flood the Milky Way. In Japan, Tanabata was merged with Buddhist and Shinto Festivals becoming what may be described as “consoling the spirits of the Kami and the Buddha”. The festival was also co-opted by the third Shogun of the Muromachi period, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. In 1399, he held a flower arranging contest in his newly built Golden Pavilion, using many vases from his magnificent collection of Chinese porcelain marking an important event in the enjoyment of flower arranging as an art form.

In modern times, the Japanese custom for Tanabata, is to decorate the branches of freshly cut bamboo with long narrow strips of coloured paper on which romantic aspirations and wishes are written. The branch is then set up outside the family home and turned towards the lovers in heaven.

As for flowers: many people associate July with the cheerful Morning Glory (asagao). The Japanese name directly translates as “morning face”. Neighbourhood gardeners often construct elaborate bamboo and twine trellises to train the tendrils of this delicate looking creeper on fences. The funnel shaped flower is seen in a multitude of colours ranging from white through to pink,red, blue and purple. It blooms in the morning and wilts before noon. It has been fashionable to cultivate and hybridise Morning Glories since the Edo period.

In the Japanese tea world, there is a marvellous story about the Tea Master Sen no Rikyu’s use of the Morning Glory. In the sixteenth century, the Morning Glory was still somewhat rare in the Japanese garden. Rikyu had an entire garden planted with it which he lovingly tended. The garden became quite famous and the most powerful military leader of the time Hideyoshi Toyotomi, demanded that Rikyu invite him to see it. However on the appointed day, when Hideyoshi arrived not a single Morning Glory was to be seen in the garden. The ground had been levelled and strewn with pebbles and only the stubble of the stalks remained. Greatly angered, the Shogun entered the tearoom and was completely surprised to find a single Morning Glory exquisitely arranged in a vase in the alcove.

In Japanese poetry, the Morning Glory’s flower has been associated with the impermanence of life and thus it’s blooming is a joy to behold.

Asagao ni/ ware wa meshi ku oto kana

I am one who eats his little breakfast gazing at Morning Glories

— Basho