December: Shi-wasu

December is traditionally known as “shi-wasu”. The end of the year is a time when people asked priests (shi) to come to their homes to recite sutras. Demand necessitated running from place to place (wasu). December 13th marks “koto-hajime” (the start of preparations for the new year) in Kyoto. Everyone becomes busy finalizing business affairs and attending innumerable “bonenkai” (forgetting-the-year) parties.

In the garden, a sense of quiet descends after the fanfare of November’s brilliant colours. Stripped of their leaves, persimmon trees (kaki) become more sculptural with fruit and branches clearly silhouetted against the pale winter sky. Here and there in my neighbourhood, cheerful clusters of red berries belonging to the sacred bamboo (nanten) emerge. Used in “kadomatsu”, a New year’s decoration in which branches of japanese black pine (kuromatsu) and sacred bamboo are placed in front of a stout bamboo (take) approximately 1.5 metres high, with its top cut sharply at an angle to reveal the inner structure of the bamboo. Placed outside entrance-ways to buildings and homes, the “kadomatsu” serves as a temporary dwelling place welcoming the god of fortune.

(A few branches of sacred bamboo also make a great Christmas tree substitute and my tokonoma alcove is currently resplendent with an oversized ikebana arrangement of it).

Now is also a wonderful time to notice an exotic variety of ripening citrus fruits (many of which we never see in western gardens). My favourite amongst these is the knobbly skinned “yuzu”. A somewhat unprepossessing appearance belies the delicate fragrance that imparts a distinctive accent to all manner of things ranging from soups to cosmetics.
Winter solstice (Toji) falls around the 22nd of this month. On this day, it is customary to put “yuzu’ in the bathtub. My local public bath (sento) still observes this tradition.

Towards the end of December, I am also excited by the gentle flowering of the wintersweet (ro-bai). Originally from China, it is also known as “kara-ume” or “nankin-ume”. Waxy yellow flowers on a bare branch emit an elegant fragrance not unlike narcissus (suisen). Its characteristic shape makes it a favourite for tea ceremony.

Ro-bai ni / tsuki no tare min / misoka-goro

Ro-bai looks like the sliver of moon around the 30th.

— Kanka