Micro-season 29

菖蒲華 Ayame hana saku :
Irises bloom

夏至 Geshi (Summer Solstice): June 27-July 1

Here in Kyoto we are well into the “Summer Solstice” period. This is the time when the days are longest in the year. Rainy season “tsuyu” helps to keep the temperatures down so that the full brunt of Summer is not yet felt. It’s hard to believe that we have passed the half way mark in the year’s cycle and the amount of sunlight actually gets progressively shorter now. We have turned a corner and are moving ever so gradually towards winter. I find it satisfying to take this opportunity to take stock of how the year has been going and to appreciate the cycle of regeneration that nature constantly provides. Many of my friends and family are in the southern hemisphere where they have been experiencing the cold and darkness that characterizes winter.

Chinowa: Large Woven Grass Ring for Summer Purification at Okazaki Shrine.

At my neighborhood Okazaki Shrine, I came across a large woven grass/reed wreath called a “chinowa” that is made from fresh Miscanthus reeds. People are invited to pass through this “purification circle” three times in a manner that traces a “figure eight” pattern. Traditionally observed on the last day of the sixth month, Nagoshi no Harae (“the purification ritual of Summer’s passing”), allows people to cleanse themselves of misdeeds committed in the first half of the year and to pray for the latter half yet to come. It’s not a coincidence that since ancient times during the rainy season tsuyu, six months after the New Year, the inhabitants of Kyoto often became ill because of the relentless dampness, sudden rain and fluctuating temperatures.

A refreshing grassy fragrance emits from the newly woven Chinowa: Purification Wreath

One explanation for the origin of this exorcism ritual comes from a Japanese legend that tells the story of the powerful god Susano’o no Mikoto. A lowly peasant Somin Shōrai, despite his impoverished status, offered great hospitality to the disguised god who was traveling at the time. In return, Susano’o gave Somin a wreath woven from reeds and instructed him to wear it. This allowed Somin and his family to escape plague and illness. Therefore, passing through the large chinowa circle is believed to ward off misfortune and disaster. Nagoshi no harae observances have become even more pertinent this year given the fragile state of the environment and the deep seated desire to be rid of the “COVID plague). I witnessed a steady stream of “masked” pilgrims performing this exorcism ritual this year at various shrines around the city and needless to say, I also prioritized the observance this week. Today I also went to the grand Kitano Tenmangu Shrine which boasts the largest chinowa standing at 5 meters high at the main gate.

One of the largest Chinowa in Kyoto at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine.
Beautifully constructed Chinowa incorporating bamboo as structural support and ritual decoration.

Recently, when I go to hang out my laundry in the backyard, I have been noticing the carefully tied, brown paper bags that have been covering the ripening fruit on my neighbors Loquat tree : biwa. Loquats are a early/mid Summer fruit and are really expensive when they come into the supermarket for their relatively short season. It’s not unusual to expect to pay the equivalent of ten dollars for just six of the globose, yellow acidic fruits. I have always been largely unimpressed whenever I “treated” myself with the shop bought variety which tasted bland and watery to me. This time last year, imagine my delight when my neighbor gifted me with a precious brown bag of perfectly formed, fleshy loquats picked freshly from her tree. The sweetness was perfectly balanced with a natural astringency and I finally came to appreciate all the fuss.

Biwa: Loquats still ripening on neighborhood trees.

Alas, I was not a recipient of my neighbor’s delectable specimens this year. However, luckily for me, a smaller version of a Loquat tree has grown from seed in my back garden over the last ten years, and while it has never fruited, its branches of glossy dark green leaves have made a very satisfying contribution to some of my Ikebana flower arrangement creations.

An Ikebana creation of Loquat branches paired with Japanese Thistle flowers.

The description for the 29th micro-season highlights the blooming of the Ayame Iris. Since the Edo period some three hundred years ago, Ayame has been synonymous with the Siberian Iris (Iris sanguinea) which has flowers of a deep blue-violet color tinged with yellow. It prefers moisture retentive soil in full sun. Ayame can often be mistaken for Kakitsubata: Rabbit-eared Iris (Iris laevigata), to the point that the Japanese have a saying when two things resemble one another that it’s like “trying to distinguish between ayame and kakitsubata“.

Ayame: Siberian Iris (Iris sanguinea)