As a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis so does Spring come out of Winter. In the Japanese aesthetic world, “butterfly” is a word synonymous with Spring and it appears in innumerable paintings and waka poetry. This week I enjoyed partaking of a traditional sweet wagashi with the name hanabiyori meaning “perfect day for flowers”. The main image carved into the confectionery was a delicate yellow butterfly chō.
This week has been rather indulgent as I was able to have a “second helping of butterfly”. I arranged to meet my good friend Ela at our favorite tea salon and catch up after a long hiatus due to COVID restrictions. Even though I am incredibly grateful for the communication afforded by video conferencing during this challenging time in the world situation, nothing can replace the visceral pleasure of getting together face-to-face. I am reminded of a phrase that is often used to describe the preciousness of each and every meeting with others: “ichigo ichie” which roughly translates as “cherish each meeting as if it is both the first and the last time”. Giggling and swapping stories over frothy matcha green tea we each enjoyed a seasonal wagashi confectionery. I chose haru no yume “Spring dream” which upon inquiry referenced a very famous story recounted by the 3rd century Chinese philosopher Master Chuang. The famous lines from the story refer to a dream that he once had in Spring:
Once upon a time I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly enjoying life to the full. Suddenly I awoke and was myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.
Master Chuang (c.369 BC- c. 286 BC)
Later in the week there was another sighting of yellow at my nearest local temple Shinnyodo where huge drifts of Forsythia rengyō were in full bloom near the main entrance gate. This deciduous shrub of the magnolia family has a generous flowering with a profusion of yellow clusters. Its cheerful form and color are also seen as a harbinger of Spring.
Rengyō ya/ki horo no shū no/yashiki-machi
In this samurai town, rengyō easily conjure up the image of people in yellow hoods.
Originally from China, it had already reached Japan by the 10th century as it appears in the classic text: Procedures of the Engi. When I went for my regular acupuncture treatment this week, I had the great serendipity to meet a well known kampo “traditional Chinese medicine” practitioner Nakano sensei who I hadn’t seen for some twenty years. As we were catching up, I happened to mention my passionate research into Japanese gardens from the perspectives of spirituality and beauty. Nakano sensei reminded me of a paradigm that I knew but had not considered deeply. So many of the plants that we commonly see in Kyoto temple gardens in particular, arrived from China as medicinal plants for the monks to use. Who knew for example that Forsythia seeds could be used therapeutically after being steamed and then dried in the sun. They are thought to be effective as a febrifuge (to reduce fever), an anti-inflammatory, a diuretic, and as an analgesic in treating skin diseases and tumors. The seeds also contain compounds that create a powerful anti-bacterial effect. I have always thought that yellow flowers (of all the flower colors) are the most cheerful and having just learned all the medicinal qualities of rengyō, I can say with conviction that Forsythia dispenses “good cheer” on multiple levels.