Early summer rain samidare falls on Kyoto at this time. Rain adds a special mood that is remarkably suited to the ambiance of the ancient capital. The high humidity in Kyoto fostered a poetic culture that focused heavily on atmospheric conditions and the long rains of the monsoon period were a major feature of Japanese summer. The monsoon tsuyu season begins around June 10th and lasts to the middle of July. So distinct is this rainy season in Japan that climatologists argue that the nation has indeed five seasons and so it is not surprising that the monsoon also influenced artistic expression traditionally.
Esteemed Japanologist Haruo Shirane writes that in the medieval Heian period (794-1094), the most important cultural vehicle was waka poetry. This 31 syllable Japanese classical poem functioned as a form of social communication amongst the aristocratic class. Its seasonal associations influenced all manner of art in Japan. Such was the “currency” of waka poetry that the atmospheric conditions of the four seasons became heavily encoded; for example, monsoon rain: samidare became associated with tedious melancholy. There is also a homophonic association between samidare and midare (troubled) in the Japanese language that started to link summer rains with depression and even “tangled” midare hair. Given that Heian court women wore their hair long, reaching below their waist, it’s not surprising that “tangled” hair could act as a metaphor for discombobulated states.
Actually, my first monsoon tsuyu in Kyoto some thirty years ago was more than a little depressing. Relentless heavy rain, mouldy shoes and leather jackets and not seeing the sun for thirty consecutive days proved rather “tangling” for me notwithstanding my relatively short hair. It was quite a shock for this Australian who was raised in one of the world’s sunniest and dry capital cities (Perth). While it is not always fun to be soggy (even now), especially when it is accompanied by a cloying stickiness, Kyoto herself taught me to appreciate the hitherto undiscovered beauty of dampness!
Kyoto’s humidity is exacerbated by its location in a geographic basin, meaning the air tends to stay trapped leaving greater moisture in the air. Although humans like to complain about this situation, it turns out the ancient bryophytes “the mosses” relish these damp conditions. In Japan there are around 3000 native moss species. Mosses may be the smallest plants in Japanese gardens, but a well maintained moss garden contains an extraordinarily tranquil and “timeless” space. Kyoto is blessed with a plethora of these perfectly “natural” looking gardens, though to keep such “naturalness” a great day of physical care is required. Moss is quite “fussy” in fact. It likes dappled shade such as that cast by Japanese maples as well as a humid atmosphere. Constant maintenance is necessary to sweep away fallen leaf litter which is acidic and destroys the moss. It is a common sight in Kyoto gardens to see a veritable “army” of workers crouched over manicuring the moss for days on end. Mosses have neither leaves nor roots and exist somewhat precariously on various substrates such as rock and clay based soils. They don’t take kindly to trampling feet either. One of the most famous temples in Kyoto aptly named the “Moss Temple” Kokedera closed its doors for some years after the rampant hordes of tourists more or less destroyed the delicate carpet like moss.
It’s when I started to spend more and more time in these mossy Kyoto gardens, that I was able to transform my relationship to rain during the monsoon season. The way the vivid green “pops” against a grey sky was a revelation for someone who always predicated beautiful weather on a clear blue sky. Not only that, but it soon became clear that all the stones and pathways start to “come alive” after a little bit of rain and now I can truly say that the best weather for viewing a Japanese garden in unequivocally “in the rain”.
This week I was fortunate to be able to visit one of my all time favorite “moss” venues Ruriko-in located in northern Kyoto. The name of this temple refers to the “lapis lazuli jewel-like” color the garden takes on after continuous rain has saturated the moss, followed by a sudden burst of sunshine which “illuminates” the green to create a deep blue/purple hue. It was wonderful to be there on exactly such a day and my spirits were lifted by the precious lustre that reflected off the moss.
The description of micro-season 27 refers to the steady ripening of the plum ume(which is actually a form of Japanese apricot Prunus mume). These “plums” are then harvested and traditionally made into important pantry items in the Japanese kitchen. The most common uses are in pickled dry plums umeboshi and a sweet plum liquor umeshu, thought to dispel the summer heat. As the time of ripening coincides with the start of the rainy season, the word for monsoon in Japanese is tsuyu or bai-yu which literally means “plum rain”.
Haruo Shirane. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons (Columbia University Press 2012)