Daikan is one of the twenty four seasonal points and is traditionally thought to be the coldest time of the year. It is a period that is particularly challenging for this long term foreign resident born and raised on the sunny west coast of Australia that is blessed with a Mediterranean climate. But it is not only for this 21st century denizen, the depths of winter may also have been the most severe season for the ancient Japanese due to the climatic challenges of frost and snow and particularly in Kyoto, a bone chilling cold that is known as sokobie 底冷え.
The harsh conditions are probably why winter was of little poetic and aesthetic importance in the 8th century anthology Man’yō shū. Even in the Kokinshu (Imperial anthology of waka style poetry in the Heian period), winter is regarded as cold and lonely.
“As for the mountain village, the loneliness grows in winter, especially when one realizes that visitors and grasses fade away”.
Of course, the dying of the grasses coincides with the fading of human activity. During this coldest period of the extended winter, I gain much psychological sustenance from the presence of resilient plants. In the early part of the New Year, an aesthetic motif that appears frequently is known as sho-chiku-bai (Pine-bamboo-plum). This triplet arrangement has long held a strong resonance in many East Asian cultures. Known as the “Three Friends of Winter” Genkan no San’yu, they are grouped together as symbols of hope. They represent: steadfastness, perseverance and resilience. In a 16th century poem by Korean poet Kim Yuki:
“Peach and plum of springtime, don’t flaunt your pretty blossoms; consider rather the old pine and green bamboo at year’s end. What can change these noble stems and their flourishing evergreen?”
Even before I ever knew about this ancient association of three species, I have always had the greatest admiration for each of these plants respectively.
Pine trees are among the most important of all Japanese garden plants. The Black pine (Pinus thunbergii) kuromatsu is the most esteemed of the Japanese pines. The Japanese Red pine (Pinus densiflora) akamatsu also is a key player. They are symbolic of male and female energies respectively and also represent sea and mountain landscapes. The evergreen pine symbolizes: longevity, steadfastness and self discipline, endurance and even immortality. As images from nature form central tropes in all the Japanese arts, it is not surprising that pine trees figure in the traditional poetic form waka.
Pine matsu is a great example of a “pivot word” rhetorical device . This trope uses the phonetic reading of the Chinese character kanji matsu to suggest several interpretations. At first, on the most literal level 松 matsu means pine tree, then on a secondary homophonic level, 待つ matsu means “to wait”. Creating multiple meanings inherent in a single word allows poets a very rich palette of expression with a reduced syllable count. In Japanese aesthetics, brevity is highly prized where meaning can be maximized through the most economical expression. One of the most famous examples of this “double” use of matsu is from the 9th century Heian period poet Ariwara no Yukihira whose poem appears in the classical anthology Hyakunin isshu.
“Tachi-wakare Inaba no yama no mine ni ōru matsu to shi kikaba ima kaeri kon”
which translates as:
“Though we are parted, if on Mount Inaba’s peak I should hear the sound of the pine trees growing there I’ll come back to you.”
One of my great discoveries and constant delights within the Japanese arts is the way Nature is central to the rich cross fertilization of poetic and visual images.
The second material in the triumvirate sho-chiku-bai is bamboo. Renowned for millennia as a highly resilient material because of its hollow center, it is nevertheless straight, yet can yield without breaking. To the classical Chinese mind which highly influenced Japanese aesthetics, this characteristic corresponds with the ideals of the Confucian scholar: strong yet modest and flexible. As a symbol of resilience and renewal, freshly cut green bamboo is often used to annually replace existing structures within and surrounding a traditional Japanese home, whether that be in pouring vessels for New Year’s sake or fence and garden ornaments.
Prunus mume (Japanese Apricot), otherwise known as plum blossom ume is the third “Friend of Winter”. I have a particular soft spot for ume as they are in fact the very first flowers to appear in the transition between winter to spring. Just at the time when the long winter threatens to continue unabated, plum blossom symbolizes hope and courage. It represents the vitality and vigor of Nature.
From time immemorial, the Japanese people have eagerly anticipated the blossoming of the Japanese plum. For centuries it has featured prominently in poetry and art. Of the the approximately 4500 poems in the 8th century Man’yō shū, 1500 mention plants-some 160 species in total. Of that number 118 poems feature the plum tree, a number that is second only to the Japanese Bush clover hagi which features in 140 poems.
Thus, the “Three Friends of Winter” are potent psychological supports for me in that they do not wither during the “major cold”. Together they symbolize unwavering friendship and remarkable perseverance; qualities I am only too happy to avail myself of at this challenging end of winter season.