Here in Kyoto, we are currently reveling in some of the best weather of the year. For centuries, the end of May is reliably warm during the days and crisply cool at night. Ritual neighborhood greetings repeat endlessly how perfect the days are, but there is often a rejoinder that comes with a sigh : “if only it would stay like this all summer”. Kyoto residents know only too well that early June will bring ramped up humidity and temperatures to announce the start of the unofficial “fifth season” which is called tsuyu or rainy season. In the meantime, we are enjoying clear blue skies and fresh breeze. Before the heavy humidity sets in, the quality of fresh breeze is highly appreciated. It is said that there are more than two thousand words for the different types of wind in Japanese. This attention to the many nuances of wind has been developed since ancient times. It is another way the actual seasons in Japan undergo finely graded series of changes. Aesthetically, these subtle changes are most often sensed visually; the shift in the color of the surrounding mountains, the succession of blooming flowers. We also start to “hear” various aspects of nature whether it be the singing of the frogs or the first cries of the cuckoo. Seasonal change is largely celebrated poetically by sights and sounds but also traditionally by movements of the wind. On these fine days from May till the beginning of June, the soft wind that blows gently, the balmy breeze is known as kumpū. The literary term for this in English is “zephyr”. From the Chinese poet Su Dongpo:
” Kumpū minami yori kitari, denkakaku biryō o shōzu”.
“The balmy summer breezes come from the South. It becomes cooler at the Palace”.
So it was with utter delight and great abandon that I threw open the glass doors to my garden (still no mosquitoes yet), and celebrated the perfectly balmy weather by eating a traditional Japanese sweet wagashi that is named after “the pleasant breeze that carries the fragrance of flowers”: kumpū.
Along the streets of my neighborhood and lining the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River, I am seeing a lot of mass planted St John’s Wort: Kinshibai (Hypericum patalum). Yellow five petalled flowers grow at the end of stems with long oval shaped leaves. The flower stamens look like “kinshi” (golden threads) and the shape of the flower resembles “bai” (plum blossom). Originally from Southern China, it has been cultivated in Japan since 1760. It tends to be used in parks and for flower arrangements and I love the cheerful yellow color.
Similarly used in mass plantings in public spaces, is another form of the popular Spiraea genus: Shimotsuke (named after the feudal moniker for Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo) where this plant was first discovered. In English it is known as Japanese spiraea (Spiraea japonica). Flowers are born in attractive corymbs, on new season’s wood, each only 5mm in diameter, pinkish red in color. A sprig of Japanese spiraea is always welcome in chabana tea ceremony flower arrangements in this season.
The name for the twenty third micro-season comes from the appearance of safflowers in bloom. Traditionally, the orange flowers emerging before turning a deeper red color is a symbol of early summer. Safflower is grown for its culinary use as an oil but is also important for its use as a red dye in Japanese textiles.