After a gloriously balmy weekend of 20 degrees celsius it was quite a shock to return to -2 degrees this morning. When I ventured outside I was met by the slightest drift of snowflakes. Although it is “officially” spring and there is some evidence of budding in plants, it still feels like a “tug-o-war” between the seasons. One of the seasonal phrases is yokan (lingering cold) that refers to the coldness that remains after the first day of spring. Realizing that this pattern of weather has been relatively consistent since ancient times somehow makes the cold seem less “personal”and gives me a modicum of relief understanding that patience is still required as Kyoto emerges out of hibernation.
Given that the weather at the start of spring is thus very cold and resembles winter, clear symbolic signifiers become very important to aid our psychological adjustment. The indispensable Japanese image for the coming of spring is the modest bird the uguisu bush warbler. After the long winter, it descends to the city from the surrounding hills and valleys. As the ancient poem notes, the voice of the bush warbler was to signal the arrival of spring:
Without the voice of the warbler that comes out of the valley, how would we know the arrival of spring?
Ōe no Chisato
The overwhelming focus in Heian (794-1185) period waka poetry is on the bush warbler’s song or voice. Particularly the “first cry” was used to confirm the identity of spring. To “see” the bush warbler was less important, especially as its appearance was unremarkable. It is a small sparrow-like bird with a white belly and feathers an uguisu color (a mix of green, brown and black). Thus the bush warbler’s presence had rather the opposite value given to Victorian era children who were preferred to be “seen and not heard”. The bush warbler also featured in love poems, functioning as a metaphor for desire, yearning and loneliness. The 8th century Man’yōshū anthology contains 51 poems on the bush warbler.
In the Heian and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods, waka (classical poetry) reached its zenith. It had a huge impact on visual and material culture in aristocratic society. The seasonal and natural associations developed by waka poems were used in myriad art forms including: the design for women’s kimonos, ceramics, lacquer ware, furniture, flower arrangement and tea ceremony utensils to mention just a few. In the Heian period, aristocrats not only “wore” the seasons on their kimonos but were surrounded by waka-based seasonal references inside their residences. Since aristocratic women of that period rarely went out into “primary” nature, “secondary” nature as depicted in screen paintings and gardens became surrogates for nature. Thus, these women often composed poems not of the bush warbler that they heard in the garden, but on the uguisu they saw on a screen painting.
In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), new forms of seasonal painting emerged. One of the most popular subjects for this new format presented one flower poem and one bird poem for each of the twelve months. This seasonal specificity and imagistic association were passed down through the centuries. In the Edo (1600-1868) period, famous woodblock painters such as Utagawa Hiroshige depicted bush warblers and the red plum blossom together. Even today (albeit diluted), poem and image, tree and bird have been closely integrated as seasonal topics since the ancient period.
It’s fascinating how poetry and seasonal imagery have also trickled down from the heyday of the aristocratic culture some 1000 years ago, into the naming of everyday foodstuffs such as vegetables. Since komatsuna Japanese Mustard Spinach comes into season “shun” around the time that the bush warbler begins to cry it is called uguisuna. This versatile vegetable rich in nutrients has a soft leaf without a strong flavor and is used in a variety of cooked dishes. Commonly it is boiled and dressed with sesame and soy sauce. Personally I like my uguisuna in a delicious freshly pressed juice that I make from an equal mix with red apples.
One can also experience the new spring through seasonal confectionary wagashi such as uguisumochi. One of the best known sweets of early February, uguisumochi consists of rice cakes filled with red adzuki bean paste “an” and coated in soy flour made from green soybeans that are shaped into uguisu bush warbler shapes by pinching both ends to create points. Uguisumochi is then dusted with a light green soyflour that has been colored with a bit of yomogi mugwort to resemble the green feathers on the bush warbler’s wings. Interestingly enough, when I went to my neighborhood wagashi Japanese confectionery store this afternoon, the old lady presiding insisted that she wrap the uguisumochi with a decorative paper wrapping that featured the red plum blossom with a poem. The soft sweet was delicious with a cup of matcha this afternoon and in the notable absence of the real bush warbler’s cry, served as a timely reminder to this “post-aristocratic” Kyoto resident that spring has indeed arrived.