“In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too as the fireflies flit to and fro….how beautiful it is”.
Sei Shonagon (966-1025)
I am just back from a “firefly viewing” excursion “hotarugari” at the rice fields on the northern outskirts of Kyoto. Such a lovely thing to do on a warm Saturday night in early summer! The surroundings were dark and conducive amidst newly planted plots and gradually as it got darker after 8PM, flitting here and there along fast running streams appeared…..”a bunch”……”a swarm”….(actually after googling collective nouns for fireflies I discovered the official words are: “light posse” or “sparkle”). To be honest, I prefer my wordsmith friend Ken’s monikers as various as: “an efflorescence”, “a pulsation”, or my favorite (with an almost circus like appeal), ” a spectacularity” of fireflies: hotaru. As the nights are becoming warmer and more humid, there is something refreshing and indeed magical about seeing these beetles emit their cool, pale green light enmasse. On the night I was there, various groups of people had gathered (as has been the practice for centuries): from families with kids, to young and older couples. Everyone was excited to see them but there was also a subdued hush and almost an air of reverence. To view these ephemeral creatures “dancing”, certainly brings out the childlike wonder about the marvels of nature. I witnessed children trying to catch them and unexpectedly (yet delightedly) found myself close a hand around a bug that had alighted on my arm. It sat gently and created a beautiful pulsing glow in the “lantern” my curled fingers provided, before taking off in search of a potential female mate.
The mesmerizing firefly “dance” has inspired artists and writers for centuries. Hotaru have been beloved by Japanese – as a metaphor for passionate love, ever since they appeared in the 8th century poetry anthology Man’ yōshu. Even contemporary novelist Haruki Murakami, adapted his short story “Hotaru” into the first part of his best selling novel “Norwegian Wood”. The firefly is not only a symbol of love but also connotes a supernatural meaning. As cultural commentator Namiko Abe writes: “their eerie lights are also thought to be the altered forms of the souls of soldiers who have died in the war”. This would explain the title of the popular Studio Ghibli animation “Hotaru no Haka” (Grave of the Fireflies), which is a very poignant story of WWII life in Japan.
Just as the number of hotaru are diminishing in urban areas due to pollution, so too is the popularity of a charming perennial called Spotted Bellflower (Campanula punctuata): hotaru-bukuro that grows wild in fields and mountains. The flowers are either white or mauve/red with small purple “dotlike” spots. Traditionally children used to catch hotaru in the flower and keep them in the “bag” “fukuro” it provided, hence the name.
The other flower I have seen recently in my neighborhood temple is Bodai-ju no hana: Miquel’s linden. Tilia miqueliana has delicate five petalled yellow flowers that hang from stalks on this tall deciduous tree with heart shaped leaves. Miquel’s linden has long been cultivated around Buddhist temples in Japan because its leaves resemble those of the Bodhi tree (sacred to Buddhists in India). Ficus religiosa (Bodhi tree) is the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened after meditating under it for forty nine consecutive days. Certainly when I passed under the Japanese version of this sacred tree in full bloom the other day, I was very aware of a subtly sweet “fragrance of enlightenment” too.
The description for the 26th micro-season refers to the appearance of fireflies emerging from wet stream beds of grass.
“kusa no ha o/ otsuru yori tobu/ hotaru kana”
“The firefly disappears from the clumps of grass to immediately appear in the distance”