Micro-season 7

蟄虫啓戸 Sugimori mushito o hiraku :
Hibernating insects surface.

啓蟄 Keichitsu (Insects awaken): March 6-10

Recently I was reminded yet again that magic happens surprisingly often in Kyoto, not on demand but when the conditions are right. I had been wanting to see the fabled plum blossom grove at the venerable Jonangu Shrine for years but have always been out of the country on a return trip to Australia when they bloomed. This year I was determined to make the pilgrimage and so last Thursday I had a “carpe diem” moment with my friend Susan. Upon arrival we were greeted with a clear azure sky and the most graceful sweep of cascading blossom, colors ranging from white through baby pink and finally crimson. In typical early Spring weather, there had also been both rain and wind contributing to a carpet of delicate petals strewn on the gently undulating mossy hillocks. The effect was dramatic and only intensified the fairy tale quality of the landscape.

Plum blossom petals strewn on the moss.

“Spring Mountain” is one of five distinct gardens that was designed by respected landscape designer Kinsaku Nakane in the 1960’s to be a part of the greater Rakusuien garden at Jonangu Shrine. This manmade series of rolling hills was created to conjure some of the romance of the Jonan Rikyu which was the retired Emperor Shirakawa’s villa in the Heian period (794-1185). Nakane’s concept was to depict the evolution of Japanese gardens over 1000 years of history. “Spring Mountain” exudes the nuanced atmosphere of the aristocratic age. In Spring it is resplendent with 150 weeping plum blossom trees shidare ume and many varieties of Camellia japonica tsubaki. I’m a great fan of massed plantings for the sheer impact of repeated form and the weeping plums have their definitive moment of glory now. Not to be outdone, spent camellia blooms also make a striking image lying on the moss in a way that seems so perfect that it could not be natural.

Fallen camellia blooms on the moss.

To stroll at leisure through the meandering pathways is to travel back to a time of imperial elegance and to be completely immersed in landscaped “miyabi” (a Japanese aesthetic term that describes courtly refinement). Of course, such delicate composure works up quite an appetite and both Susan and I were eager to partake of some whipped matcha tea and Japanese traditional wagashi sweets to replenish our inner aristocrat. However, we seemed to be thwarted at every turn. COVID restrictions have forbidden serving tea in the garden since last year and so we figured that we would have to settle for some bottled green beverage from a nearby vending machine. Feeling somewhat defeated we asked one of the young shrine “maidens” miko-san if there were any alternatives to our last resort of mass produced Cha. Suddenly Konoka-san’s eyes lit up and she insisted we find our way to the traditional “sekimochi” shop, a 10 minute walk from the Shrine gates. Excited by the prospect of a repast commensurate with our aesthetic endeavors, we set forth but quickly crashed into 21st century Japanese urban reality. The Shrine is located in a tangle of ugly factories, “love-hotels” and a spaghetti of freeway off ramps. The promised confectionery store could be seen some 100 meters away, but what separated us and our goal was six lanes of “industrial strength” traffic. Undeterred and with stomachs rumbling, we jaywalked over the semi-empty set of lanes while a red light momentarily held the traffic.

The proprietor of the 400 year old sweet shop: Imamura-san

Upon entry to the 400 year old shop eponymously named “Sekimochi”, we were greeted by the more than sprightly octogenarian owner Imamura-san. He proudly told us that his family had been selling this unique traditional sweet for countless generations and it had always been popular as a souvenir omiyage especially given the store’s location on a major transport route into and out of the city of Kyoto for centuries. Imamura-san was happy to supply us with a neat package of six sweets in a box but disappointed us by saying that the store no longer served tea because of the pandemic. Of course we completely understood the situation and even our chat together had been very enjoyable. So following a good ten minutes of spirited communication and the requisite exchange of business cards, we made ready to leave in search of a reliable vending machine to quench our parched throats. Just as we turned towards the exit, Imamura-san ushered us over to a cordoned off part of the store, invited us to sit down and a series of store personnel started to deliver plates of freshly made yomogi-sekimochi sweets and bowls of frothy green tea just as we had first desired some thirty minutes before.

Traditional wagashi sweet and bowl of whipped matcha.

This completely unexpected gift from Imamura-san who grinned widely during the whole encounter was the essence of omotenashi hospitality. When Japanese are feeling in the mood, they have an unparalleled ability to make a “guest” feel spoilt and so deeply welcomed in the most gracious and refined way. We lucky beneficiaries of this largesse have another term for it too….”miyabi magic”.

The specialty of Imamura-san’s family store: yomogi-sekimochi (mugwort-redbean ricecake).

The traditional phrase for micro-season 7 suggests yet again that Spring is awakening. As the ground becomes increasingly warmer once the ice has melted, dormant creatures such as worms and insects start to surface from the earth. In East Asia, the life cycles of insects were also subjects for poetry and the third seasonal point in the traditional calendar was known as “Keichitsu” which referred to insects awakening.