To reflect increasingly longer nights, another name for September is Naga-tsuki. The heat of summer continues unabated even though it is officially early Autumn in the solar calendar. This year has been particularly hot. Japanese residents eagerly anticipate the arrival of the Autumn Equinox (Higan) around September 21st, as it is usually accompanied by a sudden drop in temperature.
Autumn is a much vaunted time in Japan. It has long been extolled in the Japanese Arts. The “Man’yoshu”
(“Ten Thousand Leaves”) is perhaps the first anthology of Japanese poetry and song. Written in the mid eighth century of the Nara period, many of the verses celebrate the
“seven grasses of autumn” (aki nanakusa).
in autumn fields-
when I count them on my fingers
they then number seven
The flowers of bush clover,
and morning faces flower.
aki no no ni
sakitaru hana o
nana kusa no hana
hagi ga hana
nadeshiko no hana
asagao no hana
—Yamanoue Okura (C.660-733)
Manyoshu: 8: 1537-8
First mentioned is the bush clover (hagi) which surprisingly appears over 100 times in the “Man’yoshu” making it the most famous of the autumn grasses. A deciduous shrub of the pea family, bush clover can be found growing wild in fields and mountains. Overhanging branches laden with reddish-purple flowers sway gracefully in the breeze. The small and delicate flowers scatter as soon as autumn winds begin. In the most famous work of Japanese literature, “The Tale of Genji”, an early 14th century novel, as Genji’s wife Murasaki lies on her deathbed, she is visited by Genji and his daughter the Empress. Their thoughts move elegaically to the (hagi) as they bid final farewells.
Next mentioned is eulalia (susuki). Closely associated with the autumn moon reputed to be the most beautiful of the whole year, the silvery tops of the eulalia blowing in the wind is an enduring image inextricably linked to the ambiance of the moonlit sky artistically.
Other flowers that count as part of the seven include: arrowroot (kuzu). It is a climbing vine and it’s leaves were particularly admired by poets and painters of the Heian period (784-1185). Fourth mentioned is pink (nadeshiko) with it’s delicately fringed petals resembling those of a carnation. In the Japanese language (nadeshiko) means ” an affectionate touch for a child”. The Man’yoshu treats (nadeshiko) as both a summer and autumn flower.
Next is the patrinia (ominaeshi), a perennial herb that grows in mountainous areas. The tall stems of the (ominaeshi) fan out at the top bearing small five-petalled yellow flowers. Once again in Japanese classical literature, it’s appearance is likened to a beautiful woman.
Sixth is the mistflower (fujibakama) which has tiny white blossoms tinged with purple on the top of long stems. It is similar to the aforementioned (ominaeshi) but as the literal Japanese translation is “purple trousers”, it usually connotes a man rather than a woman.
Although the last of the seven autumn grasses is officially written as (asagao) morning face, it is more likely to refer to (kikyo) chinese bellflower or balloon flower. This is a late summer/early autumn flower characterised by five pointed, blue-purple trumpet shaped blooms.
Autumn grasses also feature in a later Heian period anthology called the “Kokinshu“. Elegant language highlights the subtle nuances of love and life in the aristocratic court society, brilliantly illustrating that nature and flowers powerfully evoke the “seasons” of interior emotion.
It is also well known that the “seven autumn grasses” could evoke deep emotional responses amongst Japanese people in olden days as exemplars of beauty tinged with sadness. They epitomise the particular Japanese aesthetic of “wabi” and “sabi“. Notoriously hard to define, “wabi” connotes elegant austerity while “sabi” amongst other meanings connotes solitary melancholy. Together these Japanese aesthetic principles lead to another Japanese aesthetic concept known as “mono no aware” which describes a sentiment of pathos referring to the fleeting nature of our relative world. It relates to seeing beauty in fragile, impermanent nature, even suggesting that without impermanence, genuine beauty cannot exist.
Another image that conjures up the feeling of “mono no aware” is the plaintive singing of insects in this season.
From another poem in the “Man’yoshu” anthology:
Rain falling on the garden grass
hearing the sound of the night cricket
I know autumn has arrived.
niwagusa ni murasame furite korogi no naka oto
kikeba aki tsuki ni keri
— Unknown (Eighth century)