The colorful blooming plant that I have been enjoying in my neighborhood recently is the Japanese quince boke (Chaenomeles lagenaria). Like its cousin plum blossom, it is also a deciduous tree in the Rose family. The flowers also resemble plum blossom albeit larger in size and even more dramatic in color. The most common varieties are either white or scarlet red and some have mixed shades of pink and white on a single flower. Although the branches are rather spectacularly thorny and need to be handled with care, there is an almost quirky dynamism to the angular shape of the branches, that has made boke a favorite for ikebana for centuries.
Coming around March 20th or 21st depending on the precise astronomical measurement of the year, shunbun is one of the twenty four seasonal points in the ancient calendar. It is also known as “vernal equinox day”. Equinox literally means “equal night”. This is because it arrives around the middle of the lunar month and so day and night are of equal length. It has always been a national holiday in Japan. Previously it was called shunki kōreisai “All Imperial Ancestors’ Day” and was connected to Shintoism. From 1948 with a new constitution that was careful to separate religion and state, the equinox holiday became a non-religious celebration that effectively observed yet another marker of the arrival of Spring.
For the Japanese, it is also part of a seven day celebratory period known as haru no higan where higan means “another world”. As most Japanese profess to be Buddhist, there is often a Buddhist service performed during the equinoctial week and traditionally it is a time to pay tribute to the spirits of the family ancestors. There are two higan seasons in Japan with the second one corresponding to the autumn equinox. The observances of the two seasons are very similar and revolve around trips to the family graves. For this important short period in the calendar, the traditional Japanese sweet is known as bota mochi which is named for the peony flower that would have been blooming during this period in the old calendar. The original function of the sweet was as an offering to the ancestors, as a means to avoid misfortune and to pray for a good harvest. Consisting of sticky, pounded, steamed rice mochi filled with sweet red adzuki beans “an”. The symbolic meaning of the rice corresponded to the rice harvest or the spirits of the dead and the adzuki beans in the center were thought to dispel misfortune. The historical origins of these sweets reveal the importance of talismanic functions of food in annual observances.
For my afternoon tea treat this week, I decided to buy some bota mochi from my local sweet shop just down the road. Hiroyuki’s variation on the basic composition sprinkles delicious kinako (roasted soy bean flour) all over the sweet. With a cup of matcha tea I enjoyed the exquisitely soft texture of the bota mochi and also thought of my deceased father. Coincidentally the anniversary of his death is not so removed as it falls on March 17th (St Patrick’s Day) in the West. Coming from a very nuclear family of mixed ancestry that includes Slovak, English, Irish and French forbears, I have always been very puzzled and somewhat fascinated by ancestor veneration in Japan. My own heritage never observed any rituals with regard to loved ones who had passed on from earthly life. In fact, after my own father’s cremation and funeral some 38 years ago when I was a teenager, I am ashamed to say that I have seldom visited his grave in my hometown of Perth. I almost “envy” the way Japanese venerate their ancestors with such a degree of concreteness. To become an ancestor in Japan is thought to take fifty years. It is not enough just to be dead a long time. During this period, great care is taken to treat the “potential ancestor” with various rites and offerings of fruit, scriptures and incense so that the status of ancestor can be conferred. The key point is the collaboration between the deceased and the living descendants to create tangible links that keep the past connected to the present.
The phrase describing micro-season 10 refers to the domestic sparrows’ nest building activities. Traditionally living in populated areas and alongside fields, Japanese have always been familiar with these small birds. Now there are fewer and fewer chances to see sparrows in urban settings, so it is likely that they will also become part of the nostalgic landscape of Japanese poetic memory.