Remarkably, Camellias tsubaki are still blooming at the beginning of April. Their long flowering season begins in November and over the long Winter to early Spring period (when very little else is blooming), Camellias are usually the primary focus of chabana “tea ceremony flower arrangement”. They are usually accompanied by a branch with buds or tender new leaves as harbingers of Spring. Incredibly, there are over 500 varieties of tsubaki in Japan. From the Edo period (1600-1868) onwards in Japan, cultivars of this plant group began to be identified and named, often very poetically. Camellias are differentiated by paying close attention to details including: the shape of the buds, the style or “scenery” of the petals, the form of the interior stamens as well as the curve and shape of the leaves. These poetic names usually refer to the visual qualities of the plant or their time of blooming. Alerting the mind and eye to the beauty of each Camellia is a way of increasing the pleasure one receives from the flower and becomes a vocabulary with which to express appreciation of tsubaki. This is yet again another example of the “deep seeing” and attention to nuance that traditional Japanese aesthetics foster.
It was through observing the way that Camellia buds were prized in chabana tea ceremony flower arrangement, that opened my eyes to the beauty of the “process” of blooming. Japanese flower arrangement ikebana in general, celebrates all stages of blooming. In particular, the “promise”of a bud’s opening has great value in Japanese aesthetics. Partially, it has to do with the pleasure of anticipation and also like so many Japanese arts, it invites an appreciation of modesty. This extra level of appreciation is very different from my childhood training to look at the flower only when it is in full bloom in my parents’ garden in Australia. Living in Japan and studying ikebana expanded my experience of viewing beauty. This appreciation of the very process of blooming elevates ikebana also to the status of “performance” art in a manner not unlike kabuki theater.
Tsubaki are held with deep affection by both Ikebana masters and tea ceremony experts. In tea ceremony in particular, Camellias are appreciated as the “Queen of chabana“. Historically the samurai were less enamored of the Camellia because of a very distinctive characteristic of the plant. After blooming, whole flowers drop at once rather than scattering petals individually. Therefore, this is too reminiscent of beheading as a casualty of the battle field and thus seen as very inauspicious within a samurai garden. For this reason, it is still taboo to give Camellias as a gift to a person who is ill.
Even the Japanese word for Camellia is mimetically poetic. The ancient Japanese came up with the name tsubaki from its tsuru tsuru smooth texture. Tsuru as in tsuru tsuru is a mimetic word that basically means “as smooth as a baby’s bottom”. Actually, the word tsubaki is derived from two words: (tsuru “smooth” and ki “tree”), as a tree with a perfectly smooth tsuru tsuru surface. Additionally, its thick evergreen leaves have incredible sheen tsuya. Even its trunk is smooth and hard. Its hard fruit too, is plump giving its surface a polished tsuru tsuru effect. Thus we can see that the word for the Camellia tree tsubaki is a celebration of the Camellia’s tsuru tsuru qualities. Since ancient times, Japanese have been captivated by the smooth and glossy qualities of the Camellia. In Book 20 of the 8th century poetry anthology Man’ yō shu, the poet Ōtomo no Yakumochi writes to his lover that he wishes he could gaze long and deep (tsura tsura to) upon their perfectly smooth body as smooth as the tsubaki. The adverb tsura tsura is used to express the tsubaki’s glossy sheen and also carries the meaning of “sufficiently or thoroughly”. These two words appear in quick succession serving as “pivot words” kakekotoba. Kakekotoba is a kind of literary pun based on using a single word twice for different meanings. As Japanese poetry had very strict limits on the number of syllables used, various tropes like pivot words were used to “stretch” nuance expressively. Ultimately the poem stands out for its use of tsuru tsuru as a kakekotoba and the way it amplifies the Camellia’s visual beauty with emotion. It’s unusual to have a plant name that contains such a keen awareness of the plant’s beauty.
An additional celebration of the Camellia at this time of the year is eating the traditional Japanese wagashi sweet called tsubakimochi which dates back to the Heian period (794-1185). It consists of adzuki bean paste inside domyoji mochi sandwiched between Camellia leaves. Domyoji meal is made by drying glutinous rice that has been soaked in water and steamed, then coarsely grinding it before pounding it into a mochi rice cake. It has a fantastic consistency that is absolutely delicious.
The ancient words that describe micro-season 12 refer to the sound of thunder that can arise even when cherry blossoms are past their prime. Spring time thunder arise after a hiatus in winter because of the passage of cold fronts and in extreme cases, it can even bring hail or snow. It is another marker of the changeable weather that occurs at the beginning of Spring.