One of my seminal memories of the early days in Kyoto, occurred on a Thursday morning in mid May some thirty years ago. I had been visiting my landlady Yamauchi-san for a cup of tea when a kindly, older Japanese gentleman (widely reputed to be the octogenarian’s boyfriend), paid a visit. Unbenownst to me he was coming to pick her up for their annual visit to see the Rabbit Ear Irises kakitsubata at Ota Jinja shrine in northern Kyoto. Rather spontaneously I was invited to come along and so we all bundled into his tiny Daihatsu car for the fifteen minute trip north. Ota Jinja shrine is nestled in the foothills of the Kitayama mountain range and Ota pond/marsh in the shrine’s precincts, has been famous for its kakitsubata since the Heian period (794-1185).
“Sacred mountains and the irises of Ota marsh-the depth of our prayers can be seen in their color”.
Fujiwara no Toshinari (1114-1204)
Ota Jinja shrine has now been designated as a national site of scenic beauty, but thirty years ago only the cognoscenti knew about it. Still I don’t mind paying 300 yen into the honor box now that it has become more famous, as the sea of violet Irises among the freshest green maple leaves creates an indelible impression.
Among the many varieties of Iris, the kakitsubata (Iris laevigata) seems to be particularly beloved by the Japanese. Perhaps one of the reasons is the way Japanese poetry and painting have long been inextricably connected. One of the most iconic paintings in Japanese art history is the national treasure Kakitsubata-zu: Korin Ogata’s (1658-1716) depiction of Irises spreading across two golden screens. Although Kakitsubata-zu has been reproduced countless times in various advertising campaigns and has been splashed on all manner of merchandise from T-shirts to mugs, it has an incredible presence due largely to its use of vibrant colors and the almost abstract simplicity of its calligraphic design. This 18th century work is completely unlike the intricate floral compositions of the period with its composition almost a reductio ad ulitimum of just the basic elements: the vibrant azurite blue hues of the Iris blooms and the vivid malachite green of the leaves, swimming against the simplest background of gold leaf on paper. This is truly an extraordinary work and a few years ago, it was the greatest joy to see this masterpiece as it was displayed in early May at the Nezu museum in Tokyo, at the very same time that the kakitsubata were blooming in the museum’s garden. No matter how many times one sees an artwork as a reproduction, nothing can compare with the impact of seeing the original directly in situ.
Another layer that helps to explain the Japanese affinity for kakitsubata is contained in the waka poetry that appeared in the Heian period court literature. In the 10th century classic “The Tales of Ise” a poem recounts how some companions on a long journey stopped to rest at a place called Mikawa, beside a river bank where Irises were blooming. A rustic, old, eight plank wooden bridge nearby reminded the travelers of a spot that had a similar feeling in the old capital Kyoto and so they decided to write verse that generated nostalgia. They even turned it into a poetic game where “kakitsubata” was used as a hidden word in an acrostic poem. (HA and BA sounds were used interchangeably in pre-modern Japanese). The poet was yearning for the wife he had left in Kyoto.
KArakoromo/ KIsutsu nare shi/ TSUma shi areba/ HArubaru kinuru/ TAbi o shi zo omou
Since I have a wife/ familiar to me as the hem/ of a well worn robe/ I think sadly of how far/ I have traveled on this journey. (translated by Newhard and Cook)
Ariwara no Narihira (825-880)
When thinking of the iconic nature of Korin’s screen painting of Irises, I am also reminded of the Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh’s depiction of the same flower. (When I was growing up in Perth, an Australian business man Alan Bond paid a record breaking 53 million dollars to acquire this painting. It was later sold to the Getty Museum in the States). As many people know, Van Gogh was a huge admirer of Japanese art.
“I envy the Japanese, the extreme clearness that everything has in their work, It never is wearisome, and never seems to be done too hurriedly. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few sure strokes with the same ease as if it were as simple as buttoning your coat”.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
His love of Ukiyo-e prints is well documented and there is an equally assured ease evident in his work of the same title.
Thinking about the description for this twentieth micro-season, it is evident that early summer provides greater impetus for hibernating creatures to surface. Although insects were thought to have awakened some two months ago by the lunar calendar’s reckoning (in the seventh micro-season of the new year), perhaps the earthworms are “late risers”.