Late June is really the peak flowering season for various species of hydrangea: ajisai. Everywhere you look in Kyoto, one can see large, globular cluster blooms in colors ranging from white to pink and through to the darkest inky violet-blue. My “relationship”to hydrangeas has been “reframed” thanks to my extended sojourn in Japan. As a child in sunny and extremely dry Perth Australia, I remember my parents fretting about where to position the hydrangeas in the backyard of our suburban plot. These leafy plants were considered to be exotics and to be honest, did not thrive at my family home. I have a distinct memory of visiting a family friend who had successfully produced massive “mop head” (Hydrangea macrophylla) blooms in their shadier, more established garden and being impressed with their knowledge of soil science. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, pink-red flowers emerged when the soil was alkaline and my much preferred blue flowers had a predilection for a more acidic soil. That a gardener could “alchemically” change the color of a flower by manipulating the PH composition of the soil (in this case through the addition of aluminium sulphate), was nothing less than magical to me as a boy. However, to be honest, I was never really a fan of the “mop head” droopy shape nor of the “grandmotherly” color palette of: violet, pale blue or pink. Back in the 1970’s when I was growing up, there was a vogue amongst sprightly female octogenarians for a blue/violet toning to their delicately coiffured hair coining the phrase: “the blue rinse set”. That the “curly” hydrangea petals seemed to be emblematic of this band of formidable women was quite off putting.
Just to make it worse, to cope with the scorching West Australian summers, prized hydrangeas were often protected by repurposed large canvas sun parasols to prevent the almost inevitable sunburn and subsequent wilting. Hydrangeas in the driest continent in the world were a classic example of trying to fit a horticultural “square peg in a round hole”.
However, as some species are native to the Japanese archipelago, hydrangeas are in their element in Kyoto and are extraordinarily easy to grow it would seem. Often the color on a single plant may change as the flowers bloom and fade. I was surprised to discover that the ajisai was often used as a metaphor for a person whose affections change easily. Flighty and fickle in love; these are the personality traits hydrangeas symbolize in Japan. Given the Japanese propensity towards consistency in behaviour, it would seem that the “reputation” of ajisai has been slightly tarnished over the centuries.
In the gloomy grey light that tends to characterize days in the rainy season, hydrangeas provide a strong hit of color that helps to lift the spirits. Additionally, while studying the tea ceremony for some years, I became more closely attuned to the nuances of seasonal color. In an expression of hospitality “omotenashi” for the guest, the host of a tea ceremony conducted in summer should strive to make the guest feel “cool”. This can be summed up in the traditional Japanese phrase “ryo-ichimi” which translates as “an item of coolness”. Given that this concept is centuries old, it suggests that we need not rely on technology such as air conditioners. Rather, “coolness” is a mental construct, an attitude of being that helps keep us fresh during the long summer months; the sound of the breeze catching a delicate wind chime, the image of a waterfall. There are many ways to generate “coolness”. Like so many other aspects of Japanese aesthetics, “ryo-ichimi” depends on the active co-creation of atmosphere by the guest/recipient. Refreshment can be implied and it is up to the perceiver to “accept the invitation”.
For me, one of the best ways to conjure relief in this sticky summer weather is by viewing particularly the blooms of the inky blue hydrangeas. Especially, I enjoy the more delicate blooms of Hydrangea serrata or “yama-ajisai”, with its delicate fertile flowers in the center, surrounded by broad petalled sterile flowers. More than anything else, it is this beautiful color gradation from the deepest violet-blue to an incredibly soft powder blue, that I adopt as my personal “ryo-chimi”. Cycling around town seeing large clumps of hydrangeas glistening in the misty rain helps me to maintain my “cool” as summer unfolds.
This week it was my absolute pleasure to fulfill a long cherished dream of visiting the rather inconveniently located Yoshimine-dera temple in south-west Kyoto to view the hydrangeas. Some of the best information about the local “hidden spots” comes from elderly taxi drivers in Kyoto. I remembered that ten years ago, I had been given a “hot” tip that this largely overlooked temple had hillsides resplendent with hydrangeas during rainy season. For one reason or another, I had never managed to get there at this particular time of the year, so I was determined to check it out. I was not disappointed. The temple boasts an extraordinary siting on steep hills in the far west of the ancient capital.
As promised, hydrangeas of various hues filled every available space from top to bottom and provided a unique “frame” to view the whole of the Kyoto basin from the west side. Particularly as I live on the far east side of the city, I am used to the opposite view. This was yet another “reframing” of the familiar that surprised and delighted me. I felt as though I had received a double dose of “ryo-ichimi” and returned home from my late afternoon excursion triumphant and refreshed.
The reference to the twenty eighth micro-season is connected to the cycle of plant growth. The perennial known as Self-heal (Prunella spike): utsubogusa usually first appears around the time of the winter solstice in December and starts to die off around the time of the summer solstice which is known as Geshi in Japanese. The summer solstice is characterized by having the longest daytime and the shortest night-time of the year and is thought to occur around June 22nd. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this plant itself (in fact I cannot consciously recall ever having seen it), what is interesting is how the ancients used the life cycle of plants to measure the progress of time throughout the year.