Micro-season 23

麦秋至 Mugi no toki itaru :
The Time for the Wheat Harvest.

小満 Shōman (Lesser Ripening): May 31-June 5

Recently while cycling around town, I came across a wonderful display of the Blue Passionflower: tokeiso (Passiflora caerulea) on a neighborhood fence. Originally from South America this plant was introduced to Japan relatively recently. The flowers are so distinctively large and I was immediately reminded of the passionfruit vines of my Australian childhood garden. Although the fruiting variety is another species the flowers are very similar. The “design” of the flower with its incredible symmetry and purple gradation is eye catching. It is thought to resemble the face of a clock hence the name in Japanese. Interestingly enough, they also call it “clock flower” in Egypt!

Minazuki : Seasonal sweet.

It’s hard to believe that June is already upon us. In ancient times, June 1st was significant as a seasonal festival of ice. Back in the days before refrigeration, the ice that occurred naturally in winter was preserved in a purpose built pit dug out in the shadiest areas of mountain recesses. These pits were called “himuro” “icehouse”. Needless to say that this ice was incredibly valuable and was traditionally offered to the Imperial court at this time. Adzuki beans and a sweet syrup made from boiling a certain vine were poured over ice and served to the Emperor as a way of forgetting the summer’s heat. Ordinary folk could not avail themselves of such a luxury so instead concocted a traditional sweet wagashi called minazuki. It is made from a white sheet of uiro (a gelatinous ingredient made of glutinous rice flour), covered with Adzuki beans and cut into triangles. The beans are symbolic of driving out evil spirits while the triangular shape was thought to resemble ice. Traditionally it was believed that to eat a bit of ice at the beginning of June would prevent emaciation in summer. Still battling my COVID kilos, I’m not likely to be emaciated anytime soon, but in an effort to combat the rigors of a Kyoto summer I thought it best to partake of minazuki confection this afternoon.

Ikkyu-ji Temple Kyo-Tanabe.

I have also been taking advantage of the recent fine weather to make some excursions to places I’ve never visited before in Kyoto. I had been curious to visit the famous temple Ikkyu-ji on the outskirts of town for many years and finally got to see it. I was particularly motivated to go at the moment because I wanted to see the massed clipped azaleas which are nearing the end of their blooming period. Ikkyu-ji is named after the iconoclastic Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest Ikkyu-Sojun who lived in the medieval Muromachi period between 1394-1481. Known for his quick wit and irreverent approach to life, he is loved and respected by Japanese people even today. He was immortalized in an animation series that most Japanese children know. Ikkyu-ji is the place he spent most of his retired life whilst still maintaining his position as head abbot of the prestigious and influential Zen complex Daitoku-ji in northern central Kyoto. Perhaps more than any other Zen monk in Japanese history, he embodied the contradictions of human life and had a huge impact on how Zen infused Japanese literature and art.

Ikkyu-ji: North garden.

When I arrived at Ikkyu-ji, I was expecting fanfare of some description given the fame of its former resident. Instead I was met with an incredibly serene atmosphere befitting its location as a remote, rural hermitage. The garden is a masterful design and the accent of color provided by the late blooming azaleas, highlighted the sophistication of forms used. As I sat on the weathered engawa verandah, I felt the back of my calf rubbing up against the ancient cypress planking. The curved smoothness of the time worn edge was an almost electrically visceral reminder of over five centuries of appreciative contemplation. As I ran my hand over this piece of living architectural history, I felt privileged and somehow connected to the visitors from long ago. This tangibility is part of the joyful experience of living in the ancient capital. Being of the 21st century, yet privy to the continuity of human culture from the medieval period.

Engawa: verandah time worn from centuries of visitors

While at the temple, I decided to bask in the peaceful atmosphere by ordering matcha tea that was served with a traditional Japanese wagashi dry sweet featuring fermented Daitokuji natto soybean: ( a salty reminder of Ikkyu’s connection to the sophisticated Zen temple that he presided over in the city). It was blissful to spend a few hours here on a Monday afternoon with next to none other visitors. I am not a great believer in “bucket lists”, but I will say that it was immensely satisfying to fulfill the wish to visit after three decades of yearning.

Dry wagashi sweet featuring fermented natto soybeans.

The name for the 23rd micro-season alludes to the ripening and harvest of the wheat crop here in Japan. With rainy season just around the corner, farmers must work hard to cut the wheat during this short period of dry weather.