霜止出苗 Shimo yamite nae izuru :
Last frost, rice seedlings grow.

Japanese gardens tend to be characterized by an evergreen palette of plants in which bright colors or scents are not foregrounded. Even the frothy pink confection that is the wonder of the cherry blossom in April is typically white or the palest pink. Late April which signals the end of Spring in the lunar calendar is punctuated by flowering plants that exhibit unashamedly vivid colors. Chief among these are plants commonly known as azaleas and rhododendrons.

Kirishima azalea.

Originally thought to come from Mount Kirishima on the southern island of Kyushu, the plants are slow growing. Flowers completely cover the whole shrub with colors ranging from red, dark red and peach to white. Has relatively small flowers and leaves and thus lends itself to pruning into balled shapes. I remember being amazed when I first heard that Japanese gardeners tend not to like the ostentatious display that a bush covered in flowers would make and preferred the subtlety of just a few flowers, perhaps as much as a third of the bush to be covered at any one time. In order to maintain this desired blooming habit, they would literally pick off the errant blooms.

Satsuki azalea.

The next variety of azalea to bloom is Rhododendron indicum commonly known as the Satsuki azalea. Very common in gardens since ancient times, it can be trimmed as a single specimen or planted in groups. It’s commonly used for Bonsai as it so easy to grow. Since the Edo period (1600-1868), the Satsuki azalea has also been used as an important karikomi plant in Japanese gardens. Karikomi is particular type of clipped hedge form that becomes quite sculptural not unlike topiary. The most common pruning style creates round hummocks which almost look like green rocks.

Ōmurasaki: Rhododendron pulchrum

Slightly later on, a large variety of azalea known as ōmurasaki (Rhododendron pulchrum) blooms. It is very popular in parks and private gardens, under street trees and in mass plantings with colors mixed. Colors range from white to magenta pink.

Tsukushi shakunage: Native Japanese rhododendron

On mountain sides and shaded woodlands, the taller native Japanese rhododendron Tsukushi shakunage also blooms at this time. Its leaves are very different from the smaller azaleas and are leathery, shiny with both ends acute in shape. Flowers are pink to light red and shrubs grow up to 4 meters tall.

Although all of these plants in the azalea/rhododendron family have a long history in Japanese gardens, despite their gorgeous colors, they retain an unpretentious air and are almost overlooked especially in art and literature. While not displayed in tea ceremony flower arrangements on account of their bright colors; there is a process to burn branches of the azalea and coat them with lime to make shiro-zumi “white charcoal” which is used in tea ceremony. Azaleas have not always been a fixture in Imperial waka poetry either.

For most of Japanese history, the cultivation of flowers was part of the aristocratic, elite culture. However, from the early Edo period (1600-1868) onwards, flower gardening also became popular among urban commoners and samurai. In fact, the azalea really started to become popular at that time as a low-bush flower and it seemed ideal for gardening. Many new cultivars appeared at that time. It seems that in recent times that most Japanese take azaleas for granted. There are a few exceptional temples or public venues where the sheer scale of massed azaleas blooming at once become a tourist draw card. Mimuroto-ji in Uji and Nagaoka Tenmangu shrine in Nagaoka-kyo are particularly famous.

The description for the seventeenth micro-season refers to the fact that frost has stopped forming at this late point in Spring and therefore farmers are busy getting ready to plant the emerging rice seedlings in their paddies soon.

虹始見 Ashi hajimete shōzu :
First reeds sprout.

The king of climbing plants in Japanese gardens is the wisteria fuji. During late April through early May, wild wisteria blooms profusely in mountains across Japan. In temples and residential gardens, wisterias are trained on large wooden frames fuji-dana . Even in tiny gardens, it is not unusual to see wisteria gracefully hanging over the entrance gate or as a cultivated bonsai specimen in a pot. Some wisterias live to a ripe old age. This week I had the privilege of enjoying a magnificent 200 year old specimen at the UNESCO World Heritage listed Byodo-in temple in Uji. The display of the meter long cascades of lavender colored flowers is mesmerisingly feminine. So it comes as no surprise that the famous Heian period courtier Sei Shonagon, author of “The Pillow Book” loved wisteria. Among her list of “splendid things”, she praised “Long flowering branches of beautifully colored wisteria entwined about a pine tree”. As an aristocratic woman of the period, Sei Shonagon would of course been highly sensitive to wearing the correct layer kasane of her multi-layered kimono at the appropriate time and occasion. For the middle period of Spring, it was de rigeur to wear a wisteria fuji layer that featured a light lavender colored surface matched to a dark green interior.

Wisteria also has a noble association with one of Japan’s most famous literary works “The Tale of Genji”. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Imperial court in the late Heian period (794-1185), the work is also known as “The Story of Purple” due to many references to wisteria flowers and other purple elements throughout the story. Purple “murasaki” in Japanese, is one of the shigoku-iro colors that the Heian high court officials had to wear on formal occasions. The color has long been a symbol of nobility.

Long hanging racemes of wisteria flowers.

In the medieval Muromachi period (1393-1568), plants such as wisteria became personified in Noh plays. The numerous spirits of nature in these plays represent the continuation of a long tradition of waka poetry, in which nature is also personified or treated as a companion. There is a very famous Noh play that dramatizes a legend about wisteria derived from its status in a waka poem. In “Fuji”, a traveller visits a place made famous for wisteria by the Heian period poet Ōtomo no Yakamochi (718-78?). When the traveller recites a poem on wisteria, a local woman is critical of the poem and recites two other poems about the famous wisteria that she deems superior. In the second half of the play, the woman appears as the spirit of the wisteria and praises both the Lotus Sutra and the wisteria. Thus, “Fuji” pays homage to the rich cultural history of wisteria, drawing on its classical associations such as its relation to the pine and the significance of the color lavender.

The other day when I was at Byodo-in during the late afternoon, I was also fortunate to see the wisteria’s long flower clusters swaying in the breeze. This effect is heightened when the wisteria is trained on horizontal trellises. Fuji-nami which literally means “wisteria waves” is a metaphorical phrase likening the swaying motion to the undulations of ocean waves. Although people still use the term today, fuji-nami has a literary history that spans over 1000 years , dating back to the Heian period anthology Man’ yō shu and before. Even in the world of the tea ceremony, the term fuji-nami, also translated as “billowing wisteria” is used as a poetic name for tea containers. Heavily laden with images and associations, Japanese people have used the word fuji-nami with its rich nuances since ancient times. As I stood at Byodo-in, the flowers gently swaying in the breeze, really did strike a lofty, noble air. From a poem in the Shin Kokinshū anthology of Imperial waka poetry compiled in the medieval period:

“kakute koso/mimaku-hoshikere/yorozu-yo o/kakete shinoberu/fuji-nami no hana”

“I hope to see the scene of gorgeous blooming wisteria just as it has been for generations”.

Not only was I lucky to see fuji-nami in action at the temple that day but I was also informed that the meter long “racemes or inflorescences (as they are technically know) were due to be cut the following day. The long growths would be shortened to 15cm from the main framework. This is the first of two prunings a year, that are needed to manage a wisteria and most importantly encourage flowering in the following year.

Wooden framework for a wisteria arbor.

Of course the quintessential image of wisteria flowers are a rich lavender purple in color, but I do see from time to time a white flowered variety. They are a much more recent addition to Japanese horticulture having first been cultivated as recently as about 100 years ago, but are notable for their large petals and rich fragrance.

White wisteria

The sixteenth micro-season also ushers in the next of the twenty four seasonal points known as kokū. This seasonal point marks the fact that rain helps to breed hundreds of kinds of grain, acknowledging that April sees a lot of rain. To show the progress of Spring, even waterside plants like reeds are beginning to show buds and shoots, hence the description: “the first reeds grow”.

虹始見 Niji hajimete arawaru :
First rainbows.

Now that we are advancing into the middle of Spring, the air is becoming progressively more humid and thus rain punctuates the clear air days. In the Japanese language, there are some fine shades of nuance when it comes to describing the feeling of different types of rain. It often depends on “how” the rain is experienced. What feelings are engendered by the falling rain. For example: “rain in Spring” translates as “haru no ame”. This can describe any kind of rain that falls in this season including cold, unpleasant rain. On the other hand, “harusame” or “Spring rain” is welcome and soft. It carries a delicate sentiment and has long been a theme for poems and songs. It refreshes nature and the human spirit. Since the Heian period (794-1185), there has been a trend to attach certain atmospheric conditions to emotions. Therefore harusame came to be associated with a romantic or joyful feeling in Spring.

“Green spring rain gives its color to the willows lining the banks of Hirosawa pond”

Fūga-shū

In the 17th century, haiku poetry became popular as a literary and cultural genre. It required the use of seasonal words kigo and, by implication the knowledge of seasonal topics kidai. By the end of the 17th century, the seasonal words in haiku formed a vast pyramid whose apex was capped by the most familiar topics of classical waka poetry from the Heian period. Harusame became one of the kigo for Spring. From the most famous of all haiku poets Matsuo Basho we hear:

“Spring rain- two leaves sprout from the eggplant seedling”

A famous linguist in Japan was known to have remarked on the particularity of “Spring rain”:

“Harusame falls only in Kyoto. It is rain that comes from below the ground. This rain is nothing like the stiff, hard rain that falls in Tokyo”.

Haruhiko Kindaichi

Until living in Kyoto, it had never occurred to me to consider rain as anything other than an irksome nuisance.It is also the case that after harusame, we can usually see a soft rainbow and since ancient times this observation led to the description of the fifteenth micro-season as “first rainbows”.

Fresh green leaves of the maple tree.

The steady drizzle of harusame also nourishes the fresh green leaves of the maple momiji tree in this season. There is a particular word that poetically describes the emerging maple leaf color. It is called moegi. The leaves signal an important seasonal transition as this color is short lived. The green of the leaves darkens as they grow larger in summer.

Invigorating moegi color at famous sightseeing spot for maples in Kyoto: Tofukuji temple.

It’s interesting that in the last decade, public appreciation of the fresh green has started to be commercialized by temples and sightseeing spots in Kyoto, using advertising campaigns to draw visitors to places that were previously draw cards only for the autumnal tints in late November. The buzzword used to lure tourists is aomomiji or “green maples”. People are appreciating more and more the invigorating and rejuvenating effects that fresh green leaves can bring.

鴻雁北 Kōgan kaeru :
Wild Geese Fly North.

What is it about yellow flowers that always inspires feelings of happiness and warmth? Perhaps it is hardly surprising given the associative relationship with the sun. The brightest of the chromatic colors, yellow suggests cheerful hope and clarity of spirit. Certainly I always feel this way when I come across displays of the yellow kerria rose (Kerria japonica) yamabuki at this time of the year. The literal translation of yamabuki is “mountain wind” which derives from the way the slender flower-laden branches sway in the wind. In nature it tends to grow on riverbanks and in valleys. Nowadays it is also cultivated. I tend to see it near my house on the banks of the Sosui canal that runs along the Philosopher’s Path in north eastern Kyoto. Green stalks grow in clusters reaching a height of almost 1.5 meters. In the single variety, yellow five-petalled flowers grow among new leaves. The fuller double variety seems to be more popular in residential gardens these days. Yamabuki has been celebrated in Japan since the 8th century when it appeared in the Man’ yō shu anthology with seventeen poems. Often the flower is depicted on the banks of a river accompanied by croaking frogs.

“The yellow kerria is probably blooming now, its reflection in the Kamanubi River where the frogs cry”.

In the Kokinshū waka poetry anthology of the Heian period (794-1185), the yamabuki continues to appear on the edge of the water where its flowers are reflected, as in the poem by Ki no Tsuruyaki.

“On the banks of the Yoshino River, the yellow kerria, blown by the wind, have scattered even on the water bottom.”

Ki no Tsuruyaki

Even in 19th century Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, we can see images by the famous Utagawa Hiroshige that combine yellow kerria, clear river water and croaking frogs. This has been an associative Spring cluster since the 8th century. In the ancient texts, the middle phase of a season is generally signaled traditionally by the appearance of insects, animals and then plants. In the middle phase of Spring, croaking frogs and returning wild geese are followed by yellow kerria.

Yamabuki was even represented in the way Heian aristocratic women wore their multi-layered kimonos. Traditionally there were twelve layers referred to as jūni-hitoe and each layer kasane of the robe had a specific color combination appropriate for each season. For the middle of Spring, the layer kasane influenced by the blooming of yamabuki had a light tan surface matched to a yellow interior.

ki-mokko bara: Yellow Banksian rose.

The other yellow flower that I suddenly see in great profusion around the Kyoto environs at this time is not as classically historical in Japan. Originally from western and central China but introduced to Japan in 1720, the Yellow Banksian rose ki-mokko bara is an evergreen climbing shrub with delicate, usually thornless branches. The flowers are slightly fragrant and small, appearing in great clusters. In a country where all gardens are clipped within an inch of their lives, (I have been chastised in the past by my neighbors for my “jungle” like overgrown garden): what is so refreshing about the Yellow Banksian rose is that it is allowed to clamber all over entrances to apartment buildings and houses, sometimes reaching as high as the second or third storey. Perhaps this exuberant growth habit is permitted because it is delicate and easily pruned after flowering but its two weeks of blooming is truly glorious and really refreshes my spirit.

The description of the fourteenth micro-season refers to the migratory habits of wild geese and has been a seasonal marker of spring for more than a thousand years. Having arrived from Siberia in the autumn and stayed in Japan for the winter, the geese return to northern climes for the summer at this time. There is even a poetic phrase to connote their departure north: “kari no wakare”.

玄鳥至 Tsubame kitaru :
Swallows return.

Now that the cherry blossoms have well and truly passed, a cavalcade of flowering plants start to flourish. What I am noticing in larger scale gardens like the Imperial Palace and the Kyoto Botanical Gardens are two varieties of tall, deciduous Magnolia with exquisitely large lily shaped flowers. The deep pink variety mokuren blooms before the foliage appears and the effect is akin to a tree full of butterflies. Surprisingly, it has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for more than 2000 years. It yields a pungent, warming sedative herb used to lower blood pressure, relieve pain and for its anti-fungal effect. Each flower typically has six petals. There is also a white variety haku mokuren which is also fragrant and is even more visually stunning enmasse with the tree appearing to be full of flickering white candles. Both the pink and white varieties are somewhat fragrant and so are not thought to be suitable as decorations for a small tearoom.

Mokuren: Purple Magnolia

In many smaller scale residential gardens, I have also seen an evergreen shrub/small tree which is known as “lily-of-the-valley bush” or Japanese pieris asebi. The flowers are either white or dark pink and are elegantly gathered together in panicles up to 15cm long, looking like tiny brandy glasses. When established, the wood is used to make charcoal and selected branches are used as alcove posts tokobashira in traditional tearooms. The plant is poisonous and has a long history as it is mentioned in the 8th century poetry anthology Man’yō shu.

Asebi: White Japanese pieris
Asebi: Pink Japanese pieris

Also seen here and there particularly along small canals and alongside the Kamo river in Kyoto are the fresh green leaves of the Weeping Willow tree yanagi. In the Heian period (794-1185), in the Kokinshū (First Imperial waka poetry anthology, spring is heralded by the buds of the green willow and these buds aoyanagi which turn into flowers in the Spring symbolize new life. A waka poem from the Edo period (1600-1868) reads:

“Is it the color of the wind that comes with the Spring- the threads of the green willow are dyed greener with each passing day.”

Thus we can see that the fresh green Willow with its thin new branches bending in the wind, has long evoked the coming of Spring.

Aoyanagi: Fresh green Willow

The beginning of April from around the 5th announces another of the 24 seasonal points known as Seimei. It is said that the air has become clear and pure and the sky is bright at this time. The association for the thirteenth micro-season is when the swallows tsubame return. As one of approximately 350 species of wild bird in Japan, swallows have always featured as characters in medieval popular tales but tend to be absent in Imperial waka poetry anthologies. Therefore swallows are categorized as “commoner or popular” rather than “classical” birds. In fact, swallows tsubame are associated with familial love. Making its nest on house eaves and roof ridges, it was known for its ability to reproduce quickly (it mates twice and sometimes even three times in the summer). The swallow was also thought to be faithful to its mate (spending each year with the same partner) and to take care of its young. Thus it became a symbol of marital and familial harmony.

雷乃発声 Kaminari Sunawachi Koe o Hassu :
Thunder Raises its Voice

Remarkably, Camellias tsubaki are still blooming at the beginning of April. Their long flowering season begins in November and over the long Winter to early Spring period (when very little else is blooming), Camellias are usually the primary focus of chabana “tea ceremony flower arrangement”. They are usually accompanied by a branch with buds or tender new leaves as harbingers of Spring. Incredibly, there are over 500 varieties of tsubaki in Japan. From the Edo period (1600-1868) onwards in Japan, cultivars of this plant group began to be identified and named, often very poetically. Camellias are differentiated by paying close attention to details including: the shape of the buds, the style or “scenery” of the petals, the form of the interior stamens as well as the curve and shape of the leaves. These poetic names usually refer to the visual qualities of the plant or their time of blooming. Alerting the mind and eye to the beauty of each Camellia is a way of increasing the pleasure one receives from the flower and becomes a vocabulary with which to express appreciation of tsubaki. This is yet again another example of the “deep seeing” and attention to nuance that traditional Japanese aesthetics foster.

Tsubaki buds are highly prized in tea ceremony flower arrangements.

It was through observing the way that Camellia buds were prized in chabana tea ceremony flower arrangement, that opened my eyes to the beauty of the “process” of blooming. Japanese flower arrangement ikebana in general, celebrates all stages of blooming. In particular, the “promise”of a bud’s opening has great value in Japanese aesthetics. Partially, it has to do with the pleasure of anticipation and also like so many Japanese arts, it invites an appreciation of modesty. This extra level of appreciation is very different from my childhood training to look at the flower only when it is in full bloom in my parents’ garden in Australia. Living in Japan and studying ikebana expanded my experience of viewing beauty. This appreciation of the very process of blooming elevates ikebana also to the status of “performance” art in a manner not unlike kabuki theater.

The modest “petal scenery” of the wabisuke cultivar of Camellia.

Tsubaki are held with deep affection by both Ikebana masters and tea ceremony experts. In tea ceremony in particular, Camellias are appreciated as the “Queen of chabana“. Historically the samurai were less enamored of the Camellia because of a very distinctive characteristic of the plant. After blooming, whole flowers drop at once rather than scattering petals individually. Therefore, this is too reminiscent of beheading as a casualty of the battle field and thus seen as very inauspicious within a samurai garden. For this reason, it is still taboo to give Camellias as a gift to a person who is ill.

Whole flower drops rather than just a scattering of petals.

Even the Japanese word for Camellia is mimetically poetic. The ancient Japanese came up with the name tsubaki from its tsuru tsuru smooth texture. Tsuru as in tsuru tsuru is a mimetic word that basically means “as smooth as a baby’s bottom”. Actually, the word tsubaki is derived from two words: (tsuru “smooth” and ki “tree”), as a tree with a perfectly smooth tsuru tsuru surface. Additionally, its thick evergreen leaves have incredible sheen tsuya. Even its trunk is smooth and hard. Its hard fruit too, is plump giving its surface a polished tsuru tsuru effect. Thus we can see that the word for the Camellia tree tsubaki is a celebration of the Camellia’s tsuru tsuru qualities. Since ancient times, Japanese have been captivated by the smooth and glossy qualities of the Camellia. In Book 20 of the 8th century poetry anthology Man’ yō shu, the poet Ōtomo no Yakumochi writes to his lover that he wishes he could gaze long and deep (tsura tsura to) upon their perfectly smooth body as smooth as the tsubaki. The adverb tsura tsura is used to express the tsubaki’s glossy sheen and also carries the meaning of “sufficiently or thoroughly”. These two words appear in quick succession serving as “pivot words” kakekotoba. Kakekotoba is a kind of literary pun based on using a single word twice for different meanings. As Japanese poetry had very strict limits on the number of syllables used, various tropes like pivot words were used to “stretch” nuance expressively. Ultimately the poem stands out for its use of tsuru tsuru as a kakekotoba and the way it amplifies the Camellia’s visual beauty with emotion. It’s unusual to have a plant name that contains such a keen awareness of the plant’s beauty.

An additional celebration of the Camellia at this time of the year is eating the traditional Japanese wagashi sweet called tsubakimochi which dates back to the Heian period (794-1185). It consists of adzuki bean paste inside domyoji mochi sandwiched between Camellia leaves. Domyoji meal is made by drying glutinous rice that has been soaked in water and steamed, then coarsely grinding it before pounding it into a mochi rice cake. It has a fantastic consistency that is absolutely delicious.

tsubakimochi traditional Japanese wagashi sweet.

The ancient words that describe micro-season 12 refer to the sound of thunder that can arise even when cherry blossoms are past their prime. Spring time thunder arise after a hiatus in winter because of the passage of cold fronts and in extreme cases, it can even bring hail or snow. It is another marker of the changeable weather that occurs at the beginning of Spring.

櫻始開 Sakura hajimete saku :
First cherry blossoms.

“Cherry blossoms, oh cherry blossoms

Across the spring skies

As far as the eyes can see

Fragrant in the air

Come now, come now

Let’s go and see them…”

So say the lyrics of the traditional Japanese folksong often sung in international settings as the unofficial national anthem. Every year Japan waits with feverish anticipation the first flushes of cherry blossom sakura. The Japanese Bureau of Metereology and the public religiously trace the “cherry blossom front” sakura zensen as it moves up the archipelago with the increasingly warm weather that heralds Spring. This year it was reported that the cherry blossoms were the earliest they had ever been in over a thousand years of recorded history!

Any casual foreign observer can appreciate that cherry blossoms are pretty but why does the whole nation go ga-ga for these pink bits of floral candy floss? Since ancient times, the Japanese have created rituals that sought to renew life through contact with nature, which also evolved into communal entertainment and social release. Although the custom of partying under the plum blossoms is thought to have originated as an aristocratic pastime in the Nara period (710-794), by the Heian period (794-1185), a broad shift away from a Sino-centric view of culture allowed the indigenous cherry blossom Prunus serrulata, to take the front seat in the local imagination. The ritual was then adopted in samurai society in the medieval period before it filtered down to everyday citizens in the Edo period (1600-1857).

Yaezakura (double style cherry blossoms).

Cherry blossoms have thus been celebrated in Japanese literature, poetry and art for centuries. They are symbols for phenomena as varied as: fallen soldiers, friendships and new beginnings. They even appear on the reverse side of the 100 yen coin. The meaning of the cherry blossom is multi-layered. In particular, Japanese classical poetry which has always displayed extreme sensitivity to the transience of nature and the passing of the seasons, has foregrounded the flower as the absolute harbinger of Spring. One of the main reasons for this acute observance is that natural change came to act as a metaphor for the transience of life and the uncertainties of this world; a view that was reinforced by the Buddhist belief in the evanescence of all things. The short enigmatic emergence of cherry blossoms in Spring is therefore seen as more than just a chance to admire some pretty petals; it is a meditation on life, death, renewal and the ephemeral nature of being.

Clouds of Sakura blossom.

The act of observing and appreciating cherry blossom in season is called hanami which in English simply translates as “flower viewing”. Therefore cherry blossom is denoted as the quintessential “flower” generically by Japanese. It is a massively sociable affair which takes place across the whole country with friends, families and colleagues equipped with picnic boxes and blankets, gathering together under the unfurling blossoms to eat, drink and be merry. That has been the 1000 year old custom that has continued unabated until last year when the pandemic struck Japan. Now there are huge signs warning the public that it is forbidden to gather together in groups and partake of an activity that is almost genetically encoded. The Japanese for the most part are very pragmatic and are highly conscious of maintaining social harmony at all costs so there has not been the now feared parties of drunken revelers along highly conspicuous sites like the Kamo river in Kyoto. Nevertheless the new rules have not stopped people from stepping out to admire this important symbol of pink resilience all over the city. For everyone including me, this inevitable marker of brighter times has had a deep, extra resonance in 2021.

Sasuga hana chiru/ni miren wa nakari keri

When cherry blossoms scatter…

No regrets

Issa (1763-1828)

Sakura at dusk.

雀始巣 Suzume hajimete sūku :
Sparrows start to nest.

The colorful blooming plant that I have been enjoying in my neighborhood recently is the Japanese quince boke (Chaenomeles lagenaria). Like its cousin plum blossom, it is also a deciduous tree in the Rose family. The flowers also resemble plum blossom albeit larger in size and even more dramatic in color. The most common varieties are either white or scarlet red and some have mixed shades of pink and white on a single flower. Although the branches are rather spectacularly thorny and need to be handled with care, there is an almost quirky dynamism to the angular shape of the branches, that has made boke a favorite for ikebana for centuries.

Coming around March 20th or 21st depending on the precise astronomical measurement of the year, shunbun is one of the twenty four seasonal points in the ancient calendar. It is also known as “vernal equinox day”. Equinox literally means “equal night”. This is because it arrives around the middle of the lunar month and so day and night are of equal length. It has always been a national holiday in Japan. Previously it was called shunki kōreisai “All Imperial Ancestors’ Day” and was connected to Shintoism. From 1948 with a new constitution that was careful to separate religion and state, the equinox holiday became a non-religious celebration that effectively observed yet another marker of the arrival of Spring.

For the Japanese, it is also part of a seven day celebratory period known as haru no higan where higan means “another world”. As most Japanese profess to be Buddhist, there is often a Buddhist service performed during the equinoctial week and traditionally it is a time to pay tribute to the spirits of the family ancestors. There are two higan seasons in Japan with the second one corresponding to the autumn equinox. The observances of the two seasons are very similar and revolve around trips to the family graves. For this important short period in the calendar, the traditional Japanese sweet is known as bota mochi which is named for the peony flower that would have been blooming during this period in the old calendar. The original function of the sweet was as an offering to the ancestors, as a means to avoid misfortune and to pray for a good harvest. Consisting of sticky, pounded, steamed rice mochi filled with sweet red adzuki beans “an”. The symbolic meaning of the rice corresponded to the rice harvest or the spirits of the dead and the adzuki beans in the center were thought to dispel misfortune. The historical origins of these sweets reveal the importance of talismanic functions of food in annual observances.

Bota mochi covered in kinako roasted soy bean flour.

For my afternoon tea treat this week, I decided to buy some bota mochi from my local sweet shop just down the road. Hiroyuki’s variation on the basic composition sprinkles delicious kinako (roasted soy bean flour) all over the sweet. With a cup of matcha tea I enjoyed the exquisitely soft texture of the bota mochi and also thought of my deceased father. Coincidentally the anniversary of his death is not so removed as it falls on March 17th (St Patrick’s Day) in the West. Coming from a very nuclear family of mixed ancestry that includes Slovak, English, Irish and French forbears, I have always been very puzzled and somewhat fascinated by ancestor veneration in Japan. My own heritage never observed any rituals with regard to loved ones who had passed on from earthly life. In fact, after my own father’s cremation and funeral some 38 years ago when I was a teenager, I am ashamed to say that I have seldom visited his grave in my hometown of Perth. I almost “envy” the way Japanese venerate their ancestors with such a degree of concreteness. To become an ancestor in Japan is thought to take fifty years. It is not enough just to be dead a long time. During this period, great care is taken to treat the “potential ancestor” with various rites and offerings of fruit, scriptures and incense so that the status of ancestor can be conferred. The key point is the collaboration between the deceased and the living descendants to create tangible links that keep the past connected to the present.

Cut bota mochi displaying pounded rice mochi with a center of red adzuki beans an.

The phrase describing micro-season 10 refers to the domestic sparrows’ nest building activities. Traditionally living in populated areas and alongside fields, Japanese have always been familiar with these small birds. Now there are fewer and fewer chances to see sparrows in urban settings, so it is likely that they will also become part of the nostalgic landscape of Japanese poetic memory.

菜虫化蝶 Namushi chō to naru :
Caterpillars become butterflies.

As a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis so does Spring come out of Winter. In the Japanese aesthetic world, “butterfly” is a word synonymous with Spring and it appears in innumerable paintings and waka poetry. This week I enjoyed partaking of a traditional sweet wagashi with the name hanabiyori meaning “perfect day for flowers”. The main image carved into the confectionery was a delicate yellow butterfly chō.

“Second helping of butterfly” at my favorite tea salon Karyō in Kyoto. The name of the sweet was haru no yume.

This week has been rather indulgent as I was able to have a “second helping of butterfly”. I arranged to meet my good friend Ela at our favorite tea salon and catch up after a long hiatus due to COVID restrictions. Even though I am incredibly grateful for the communication afforded by video conferencing during this challenging time in the world situation, nothing can replace the visceral pleasure of getting together face-to-face. I am reminded of a phrase that is often used to describe the preciousness of each and every meeting with others: “ichigo ichie” which roughly translates as “cherish each meeting as if it is both the first and the last time”. Giggling and swapping stories over frothy matcha green tea we each enjoyed a seasonal wagashi confectionery. I chose haru no yume “Spring dream” which upon inquiry referenced a very famous story recounted by the 3rd century Chinese philosopher Master Chuang. The famous lines from the story refer to a dream that he once had in Spring:

Once upon a time I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly enjoying life to the full. Suddenly I awoke and was myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

Master Chuang (c.369 BC- c. 286 BC)

Ela enjoying matcha tea and wagashi sweets holding a reference to the ancient butterfly story of my sweet.

Later in the week there was another sighting of yellow at my nearest local temple Shinnyodo where huge drifts of Forsythia rengyō were in full bloom near the main entrance gate. This deciduous shrub of the magnolia family has a generous flowering with a profusion of yellow clusters. Its cheerful form and color are also seen as a harbinger of Spring.

Rengyō ya/ki horo no shū no/yashiki-machi

In this samurai town, rengyō easily conjure up the image of people in yellow hoods.

Taigi

Originally from China, it had already reached Japan by the 10th century as it appears in the classic text: Procedures of the Engi. When I went for my regular acupuncture treatment this week, I had the great serendipity to meet a well known kampo “traditional Chinese medicine” practitioner Nakano sensei who I hadn’t seen for some twenty years. As we were catching up, I happened to mention my passionate research into Japanese gardens from the perspectives of spirituality and beauty. Nakano sensei reminded me of a paradigm that I knew but had not considered deeply. So many of the plants that we commonly see in Kyoto temple gardens in particular, arrived from China as medicinal plants for the monks to use. Who knew for example that Forsythia seeds could be used therapeutically after being steamed and then dried in the sun. They are thought to be effective as a febrifuge (to reduce fever), an anti-inflammatory, a diuretic, and as an analgesic in treating skin diseases and tumors. The seeds also contain compounds that create a powerful anti-bacterial effect. I have always thought that yellow flowers (of all the flower colors) are the most cheerful and having just learned all the medicinal qualities of rengyō, I can say with conviction that Forsythia dispenses “good cheer” on multiple levels.

Forsythia: rengyō

桃始笑 Momo hajimete saku :
First peach blossoms.

Even though my one hundred year old wooden house has no insulation or heating, as spring continues to emerge, I find myself emboldened to spend a greater amount of time on the engawa verandah sipping my morning coffee as the sun radiates through the sliding glass doors. I feel very much kindred with the famous 19th century novelist Natsume Sōseki who wrote:

“In this sunny spot, leaning against the balustrade, my hand supporting my cheek, motionless, I let my mind wander freely……Having remained seated behind the window pane day by day, I had thought it was still Winter, but Spring began to touch my heart.”

One of the beautiful flowering plants of this season that I have an extra special affinity for is Daphne odora known in Japanese as jinchōge. When I was a child growing up on the sunny dry coast of Western Australia, I designed a “native plant” garden from scratch for my parent’s newly built house in suburban Perth in the mid 1970s. It was at the time when Australians first became conscious of using drought resistant indigenous species that replicated the natural flora of the continent rather than to continue the colonial practice of trying to replicate a “European style temperate garden” in an inhospitable dry hot climate. My parents were completely onboard with this trend as it also promised less maintenance.

For two or three months, our family spent every weekend going out to the “Wildflower Nursery” which specialized in “waterwise” species that could be found in the surrounding bushland in nature. When the main garden was completed, my mother insisted on making a special trip to a small boutique nursery that specialized in smaller more delicate temperate plants. This went against the grain of the whole raison d’etre of our plantings to date so as a fledgling plantsman I was very curious about this mission. Its purpose was to remind Mum of her childhood growing up in the more temperate climate of Melbourne on the south east coast of Australia. Finally we found a tiny 15cm specimen, that out of flowering season looked incredibly modest and somewhat unprepossessing, especially for the inflated price that was being asked. Undeterred, my mother bought the baby plant and chose a spot so very carefully in the backyard under generous shade. Somewhat skeptical, I was willing to give my mother the benefit of the doubt and when after two coddled years of establishing the plant it finally bloomed, I became a convert.

Daphne odora: jinchoge

The pungent sweet fragrance was unlike anything I had ever smelled before. On the now 20cm high shrub that we had nursed to maturity, just a few small clusters of whitish/pink star shaped flowers yielded a perfume that was almost overwhelming. In Korea it is known as the “thousand mile scent” and indeed, one of the pleasures of taking a walk in my neighborhood at the moment is that one often comes across a waft of this distinctive scent well in advance of every seeing the plant itself. Being compact and relatively unassuming, it’s quite a popular plant in Japanese residential gardens and early to mid March is its definitive moment of glory.

White Daphne odora: shirobana jinchōge.

When I reminisce about how much care was lavished on Mum’s specimen over 40 years ago, with a somewhat modest reward in growth and blooms, it always seemed quite a miracle that this delicate thing even stayed alive from year to year given the harsh dryness of the Perth climate. Therefore when I first encountered the same species here in Kyoto some decades ago with common suburban specimens reaching 60 cm in height and with a mass of blooms, I was really intoxicated as I inhaled the heady fragrance. It was almost like walking into a perfume shop where a huge bottle of fragrance had spilled onto the floor by accident. This is exactly the kind of flower that is forbidden to be used in the tea ceremony as a decoration precisely because of its lack of subtlety. To be completely honest, sometimes strong unapologetic expressions of beauty are very welcome for this foreigner living in a culture that favors indirect and subtle nuance in almost any kind of communication.

This beautiful Spring flowering shrub was brought to Japan from China during the Muromachi period (1333-1600). It was introduced to Europe from China in 1771.

The traditional phrase that describes micro-season 8 suggests yet again that Spring is emerging. Like a showy younger sibling to the more responsible, early blooming plum blossom ume, the brighter colored (especially pink) blooms of peach blossom momo are indispensable as a display for Girl’s Festival in ikebana arrangements. Almost always depicted on the dais for Dolls Festival hina matsuri, they are a strong representation of femininity in Japan.

蟄虫啓戸 Sugimori mushito o hiraku :
Hibernating insects surface.

Recently I was reminded yet again that magic happens surprisingly often in Kyoto, not on demand but when the conditions are right. I had been wanting to see the fabled plum blossom grove at the venerable Jonangu Shrine for years but have always been out of the country on a return trip to Australia when they bloomed. This year I was determined to make the pilgrimage and so last Thursday I had a “carpe diem” moment with my friend Susan. Upon arrival we were greeted with a clear azure sky and the most graceful sweep of cascading blossom, colors ranging from white through baby pink and finally crimson. In typical early Spring weather, there had also been both rain and wind contributing to a carpet of delicate petals strewn on the gently undulating mossy hillocks. The effect was dramatic and only intensified the fairy tale quality of the landscape.

Plum blossom petals strewn on the moss.

“Spring Mountain” is one of five distinct gardens that was designed by respected landscape designer Kinsaku Nakane in the 1960’s to be a part of the greater Rakusuien garden at Jonangu Shrine. This manmade series of rolling hills was created to conjure some of the romance of the Jonan Rikyu which was the retired Emperor Shirakawa’s villa in the Heian period (794-1185). Nakane’s concept was to depict the evolution of Japanese gardens over 1000 years of history. “Spring Mountain” exudes the nuanced atmosphere of the aristocratic age. In Spring it is resplendent with 150 weeping plum blossom trees shidare ume and many varieties of Camellia japonica tsubaki. I’m a great fan of massed plantings for the sheer impact of repeated form and the weeping plums have their definitive moment of glory now. Not to be outdone, spent camellia blooms also make a striking image lying on the moss in a way that seems so perfect that it could not be natural.

Fallen camellia blooms on the moss.

To stroll at leisure through the meandering pathways is to travel back to a time of imperial elegance and to be completely immersed in landscaped “miyabi” (a Japanese aesthetic term that describes courtly refinement). Of course, such delicate composure works up quite an appetite and both Susan and I were eager to partake of some whipped matcha tea and Japanese traditional wagashi sweets to replenish our inner aristocrat. However, we seemed to be thwarted at every turn. COVID restrictions have forbidden serving tea in the garden since last year and so we figured that we would have to settle for some bottled green beverage from a nearby vending machine. Feeling somewhat defeated we asked one of the young shrine “maidens” miko-san if there were any alternatives to our last resort of mass produced Cha. Suddenly Konoka-san’s eyes lit up and she insisted we find our way to the traditional “sekimochi” shop, a 10 minute walk from the Shrine gates. Excited by the prospect of a repast commensurate with our aesthetic endeavors, we set forth but quickly crashed into 21st century Japanese urban reality. The Shrine is located in a tangle of ugly factories, “love-hotels” and a spaghetti of freeway off ramps. The promised confectionery store could be seen some 100 meters away, but what separated us and our goal was six lanes of “industrial strength” traffic. Undeterred and with stomachs rumbling, we jaywalked over the semi-empty set of lanes while a red light momentarily held the traffic.

The proprietor of the 400 year old sweet shop: Imamura-san

Upon entry to the 400 year old shop eponymously named “Sekimochi”, we were greeted by the more than sprightly octogenarian owner Imamura-san. He proudly told us that his family had been selling this unique traditional sweet for countless generations and it had always been popular as a souvenir omiyage especially given the store’s location on a major transport route into and out of the city of Kyoto for centuries. Imamura-san was happy to supply us with a neat package of six sweets in a box but disappointed us by saying that the store no longer served tea because of the pandemic. Of course we completely understood the situation and even our chat together had been very enjoyable. So following a good ten minutes of spirited communication and the requisite exchange of business cards, we made ready to leave in search of a reliable vending machine to quench our parched throats. Just as we turned towards the exit, Imamura-san ushered us over to a cordoned off part of the store, invited us to sit down and a series of store personnel started to deliver plates of freshly made yomogi-sekimochi sweets and bowls of frothy green tea just as we had first desired some thirty minutes before.

Traditional wagashi sweet and bowl of whipped matcha.

This completely unexpected gift from Imamura-san who grinned widely during the whole encounter was the essence of omotenashi hospitality. When Japanese are feeling in the mood, they have an unparalleled ability to make a “guest” feel spoilt and so deeply welcomed in the most gracious and refined way. We lucky beneficiaries of this largesse have another term for it too….”miyabi magic”.

The specialty of Imamura-san’s family store: yomogi-sekimochi (mugwort-redbean ricecake).

The traditional phrase for micro-season 7 suggests yet again that Spring is awakening. As the ground becomes increasingly warmer once the ice has melted, dormant creatures such as worms and insects start to surface from the earth. In East Asia, the life cycles of insects were also subjects for poetry and the third seasonal point in the traditional calendar was known as “Keichitsu” which referred to insects awakening.

草木萌動 Sōmoku mebae izuru :
Grass sprouts, trees bud.

With the arrival of March, the changing of the seasons becomes more and more visceral. Harumeku meaning “becoming very Spring-like” is evidenced on new leaf budding for Willow trees along the Kamo River in Kyoto, or from grass putting forth new shoots in fields. Another very seasonal image is na no hana or the cruciferous Rapeseed blossom. Found commonly along river banks, its bright yellow flowers with luxuriant green leaves symbolize fresh new energy.

Na no hana ya/ Yodo mo Katsura mo/ wasure mizu

The impact of na-no-hana everywhere obscures the Yodo and Katsura rivers.

Gonsui

Another major seasonal observance this month is Hina Matsuri also called Girl’s Day. Celebrated each year in Japan on March 3rd for the happiness and good health of girls, it is also known as Momo-no-sekku or Peach Festival. It is one of the five sacred festivals originating in China and adopted by the Japanese in the Heian period (794-1185). This observance evolved into a ritual during the middle ages in which “pollution/impurity” kegare was transferred from a person’s body to a surrogate paper doll which was then thrown into a river or the sea to remove the defilements.

Paper dolls displayed on Girl’s Day March 3rd.

The custom of playing with lavishly dressed dolls emerged from this ritual and particularly featured depiction of the aristocratic court with dolls representing the Empress and the Emperor and their various attendants. Since the Edo period (100-1868), there has been a tradition of displaying these hina dolls at home and it still continues today. Traditionally, parents or grandparents purchased a set of hina dolls following the birth of a girl child. To display a full set of dolls is something of a status symbol given the cost and space required to display them and often sets are handed down from the older generation as family heirlooms. The arrangement is a replica of the Heian period court structure and requires an elaborate 4 tiered step dais covered with a red felt carpet. On the top tier are the two main dolls said to represent the Emperor and Empress and on successive tiers can be found attendants in various forms including: ladies in waiting, musicians and government ministers.

Gary and Junko’s home display of dolls for their five year old daughter.

To bring this festival to life even more, I had the good fortune this year to spend the day with my very good friends Gary and Junko and their beautiful five year old daughter. It was a privilege to visit their home and see their display of newly acquired Kyo Bina dolls made by a traditional workshop in Kyoto decades ago. The Emperor doll holds a ritual baton and the Empress a fan. When Junko was setting up the display a few days ago she discovered that the Emperor’s ritual baton was indeed missing. After consulting a Doll shop in their traditional Kyoto neighborhood, they were invited to bring the Emperor doll directly into the shop to see if they could find a replacement that matched the vintage and size of the doll. Not surprisingly, there are many aspects to the “correct” setting up of the dolls for display. Junko of course took great care with each of the various steps only to find out from a local neighbor that how the Emperor and Empress dolls are positioned differs regionally. As Junko is an Edo-ko or Tokyo person, she immediately had the Emperor doll sitting to the right of the Empress as you look at the dolls. This is most definitely the atarimae “normal” way of seeing them and is common image on TV and on the packaging for the sweets found in supermarkets that are used as decorations. In a not so subtle nod to how things are done traditionally in the older aristocratic capital of Kyoto, of course the doll positions are reversed. Having realized her “faus pax”, Junko bowed deeply in apology to the Emperor vowing to get it right next year.

Supermarket display for Girl’s Day on March 3rd.

I love how the tradition trickles down to the 21st century and is reflected even in seasonal supermarket displays. For about a week, the color pink was featured heavily for decorations, candy and the ingredients in seasonal dishes that should be auspiciously eaten on March 3rd.

Decoration candy for Girl’s Day.

My favorite amongst these dishes which I could eat all year round is “Scattered Sushi” chirashizushi. It consists of vinegared sushi rice topped with a mixture of raw and cooked fish along with a melange of other ingredients including: shredded egg roll and pickled ginger. Traditionally this large variety of sushi toppings was supposed to symbolize that girls would eat well throughout their lives and never face starvation. I also like this dish as it is tasty, relatively easy to make and always makes for an impressive party dish when I bring it along to potluck meals. Luckily for me, it is popular throughout the year not just for Girl’s Day.

It’s really touching to think that even in 2021, this symbolic tradition is being handed down to the next generation. I felt honored this year to celebrate all the different facets of femininity with such a delightful girl as Gary and Junko’s daughter.

Emperor and Empress dolls made from origami paper and displayed in a Kyoto shop window.
Heian period style Japanese sweets that decorate a traditional Hina Doll dais.
Incredible craftmanship to make sake cups for the Emperor and Empress to drink from.

霞始靆 Kasumi hajimete tanabiku:
Mists start to linger.

What a fantastic afternoon it turned out to be visiting my friend Richard’s garden in Northern Kyoto recently. The garden is a jewel box of traditional design which despite its modest dimensions is lavish with magnificent stone features, an ornamental pond and three statuesque 70 year old black pine trees kuromatsu. Winter is one of the best times to do some pruning of pine trees and I had effected an introduction to my very good friend Kensaku Yamaguchi who is an independent professional gardener in Kyoto. Yamaguchi-san’s reputation as a garden craftsman has been on a mercurial rise since he started his business as a solo operator after an 8 year apprenticeship at one of the top traditional garden companies in Kyoto. I had the good fortune to collaborate with him on the execution of my first professional garden design commission in Kyoto for a colleague’s residence six months ago. With his well established contacts in the garden supplies world, it was an absolute delight to “go shopping” for such extravagances as a 6 meter high Japanese maple Acer palmatum as well as visiting stone quarries to select garden stones.

Yamaguchi-san pruning a black pine tree: kuromatsu

Today’s assignment at Richard’s garden was the very labor intensive and exacting work of pruning just one black pine tree. As there are three pine trees the entire job will take three days. For professional Japanese gardeners, pruning pine trees is the pinnacle of their craft. In a typically “feudal” long apprenticeship, the “Master” gardener or “parent” oyakata would only allow the most senior apprentice anywhere near cutting a pine, such is the esteem given to it as the most important plant specimen in any Japanese garden. It is a pleasure to watch Yamaguchi-san at work with his almost alchemical skill. The difference between the “just pruned” tree and the “about to be pruned” tree is patently obvious and yet having spent an entire day on shaping a 3 meter high specimen, the result is uncannily natural.

Before and after pruning a black pine tree: kuromatsu

It is often said that a Japanese gardener’s skill lies in bringing out the “essence” of a tree. Therefore one needs to accentuate the particular sculptural qualities that are inherent in the almost “macro-bonsai” style black pines kuromatsu which are considered to be “masculine” in character given their rough textured craggy bark and sharp robust needle leaves. Specimen pines such as those in Richard’s garden ideally should be attended to twice a year. Once during the winter or dormant season for a “haircut” known traditionally as hamashiri or momiage. The main focus of this pruning technique is to remove all the old needles until there is just a handful left on each branch. The work is all done by hand as it is quicker and can be more easily controlled. Exactly the right amount of force must be applied to prevent the whole top of the branch snapping off. I notice that Yamaguchi san wears cotton gloves with the finger tips cut off so that he can maintain the necessary control but also prevent too much pine sap leaking onto his hands. Pruning pine trees always starts from the top of the tree and proceeds downwards. After hamashiri the tree’s bulk will become lighter so that the branches and trunk become sculptural highlights of the tree. Not only aesthetic, this “haircut” also discourages mold and the proliferation of insects, as well as allowing more sunlight to reach the lower branches and leaves of the tree.

Yamaguchi-san wearing cotton gloves with finger tips removed to allow greater control.

While Yamaguchi-san likes the detailed challenge of this particular job, he confessed to me that when designing new “traditional” style gardens, he has a preference for using the black pine’s feminine counterpart the red pine akamatsu. With its softer appearance; smoother red bark and more feathery needle leaves, it is less “bonsai-like” in a sculptural sense and more “natural” looking in its growth habit. It is often thought to symbolize a mountain landscape and as it is slower growing requires less intensive pruning and maintenance.

The more formal gardens that feature black pines tend to be found in institutions like Zen temples. There is a definite recent trend for private home owners commissioning new Japanese gardens, to go for a look that emulates the natural forest hence the increased popularity of the red pine. This is a fascinating discussion about gardening that I am keen to continue without distracting Yamaguchi-san from the concentrated task at hand. I try to make myself useful by picking up all the small branches and leaves that have been judiciously clipped and have fallen onto the blue plastic tarpaulin that he has prepared under the tree. I smile as the scene is reminiscent of a hairdresser’s salon floor after a haircut.

Black pine tree clippings after “haircut”.

After picking up two big garbage bags I am also thrilled to find two or three really interesting small branches that I request to take home for my next Ikebana creation. I have learned a lot this afternoon and as the sun falls in the sky, I don my much needed down jacket and head home.

Black pine clippings get recycled as material for an Ikebana flower arrangement.

The poetic phrase that describes this micro-season alludes to the “haze” or veil of mist kasumi that starts to appear on the mountains in early Spring due to increased moisture in the air. This image is famous amongst poets and even the venerable Bashô wrote a poem about it.

Haru nareya/ na mo naki yama no/ usu-gasumi

Spring has come! The light mist veils even nameless mountains.

Bashô

u It is still very cold and the common expression at the moment is: “san-kan shi-on” or “three cold four hot”. The ancient’s also knew all about this as the phrase was first coined in China. Call me hypersensitive but it still feels extremely cold to me. Maybe the update 2021 version is “five cold two warm’.

土脉潤起 Tsuchi no shō uruoi okoru :
Rain moistens the soil.

Ume ichi-rin/ ichi-rin hodo no/ atatakasa

A plum tree! Just enough warmth for one blossom.

Ransetsu

We are now at the beginning of Usui: “rain water” which is the second seasonal point after Risshun: “beginning of Spring”. Even though it remains cold on many days, it is also acknowledged that the warmer Spring air is finally starting to stir thereby awakening a new cycle of plant growth. The poetic phrase that describes micro-season 4 traditionally refers to the steadily melting snow from the mountains that returns to rivers and lakes and therefore starts to moisten the soil. Make no mistake there is still a very tangible lingering cold and the temperature range at the moment can be severe. A few days ago we had a minimum of -2 degrees celsius while the previous day had boasted a maximum of 20 degrees.

Ume plum blossom.

I visited the plum blossom grove bairin at the Kyoto botanical gardens yesterday for the second time this year. Again I was impressed with the dynamic shapes of the tree trunks and branches in contrast to the delicate and fragrant blossoms. There is often a very sculptural angularity to the branch structure that emphasizes the strength of the tree. It’s no wonder that artists across the centuries have enjoyed depicting it from the ancients in China through to the Edo period (1600-1868) Rimpa artist Ogata Korin and through to Hokusai and then Van Gogh.

The sculptural angularity of ume branches.

Ume plum blossoms have been loved in both China and Japan and the tree was introduced to Japan in the 6th century with its fruit used for medicinal purposes. Of course plum blossom has also been included as a subject for poems in Japan since at least the 8th century Man’yōshū anthology.

“Wa-ga yado no/ume no tachi-e ya mietsuran/omoi no hoka ni/kimi ga kimaseru”

“In my garden the outstretched branch of the plum tree has a blossom. Are you looking for me or it?”

Actually, plum blossom ume is a deciduous tree belonging to the Rose family. As demonstrated by my stroll in the plum grove, there are various kinds. The first to bloom is usually the pinkish/red variety kobai that has been much celebrated as a subject for art. Particularly the contrast between the dark pink flowers and a light snow fall became enshrined as an iconic image of the plucky beauty of the blossom.

Red/pink kobai plum blossom

There are also many varieties of the white plum blossom hakubai. The color adds a certain delicacy to the form and the white five petalled variety is thought to be quintessential and is thus highly prized in the world of the Japanese tea ceremony.

White plum blossom: hakubai

More than anywhere else in Kyoto, plum blossom is associated with the famous shrine Kitano Tenmangu. The 9th century exiled court noble Sugawara no Michizane is enshrined here and one of his best known poems is:

“When the east wind blows, let it carry your fragrance, o’ plum blossoms. In your master’s absence, forget not the Spring”.

The longing for Spring that all people living in temperate zones experience has become much more visceral for me now that I have remained in Japan continuously for the past year. Given a fortuitous work schedule pre-pandemic, I had always traveled back to my summery native Australia at the beginning of February and so being in Kyoto in the third week of the emerging Spring is a brand new experience for me. I so completely understand the yearning for Winter to come to an end. In Kyoto at the moment, notwithstanding the “state of emergency” we are still currently in with the admonition to “stay home”, plum viewing umemi is popular at various places around the city including: Kitano Tenmangu shrine, the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Jonangu Shrine for the weeping plum blossom. People are joyfully welcoming Spring as they have been since ancient times and this year there is extra poignancy.

“Plum blossoms, whether light or dark, and in particular red plum blossoms fill me with happiness”.

Sei Shōnagon (11th century Imperial Court Poet)

Red plum blossoms: kobai

魚上氷 Uo kōri o izuru :
Fish emerge from the ice.

Although the concept of the micro-seasons is both ancient and timeless, I confess to being challenged to remain completely faithful to all the poetic phrases that so eloquently describe each moment in the annual cycle. Especially as an urban dweller in the 21st century, I had to rack my brains as to where I was going to get pictorial representation of “fish emerging from ice”. As temperatures rise, the water in lakes and rivers warms, the ice cracks and the fish start to move more. Yes, we still need constant reminders that spring is just around the corner. I chuckled when I saw a post on social media that spoke more frankly of the up and down nature of the emerging season. In modern reckoning, the three micro-seasons of risshun could be renamed as follows: “1/ Fools Spring, 2/ Second Winter, 3/ Spring of Deception”. Interesting to note that all monikers derive from the standpoint of human comfort.

Early Spring citrus fruit in the neigborhood.

Early Spring in Japan is also a delight for the plethora of citrus fruits that flood the supermarkets here in Kyoto. Every week there seems to be yet another new variety to tempt the consumer. I was surprised that a “reference chart” appeared adjacent to the saleable produce to explain the relative sweet/sourness of the myriad choices. Personally I like both sweet and sour tastes and it might indicate my laziness, but I have a distinct preference for seedless varieties.

On the sweet end of the spectrum: dekopon

On the sweet end of the spectrum, I have a particular soft spot for the euphonically satisfying variety called dekopon. These fruits have a distinctive knobby protuberance where they have been attached to the tree. Easy to peel with thick powdery skin they are incredibly sweet. On the other end of the tartness scale my favorites are hassaku with their slightly bitter quality that also makes for an excellent homemade marmalade jam. Did I mention that not so coincidentally both dekopon and hassaku are seedless!

On the astringently tart end of the scale: hassaku

The choice is a little overwhelming but it is a great pleasure to be eating things as they arrive “just in season” shun from the farmer direct, knowing that unlike so many other imported or “trans-seasonal” fruits, these citrus have been delivered within the last few days or week. This kind of seasonality which our grandparents took for granted in the days before globalized transportation and cold storage has now been rebranded especially to appeal to the more “upmarket” consumer who has the discretionary income to make an informed choice. It has already been a few decades since some trendy chefs in the Bay area of Northern California coined the phrase: “from farm to table”, the meaning of which included this commitment to “authentic” seasonality. I prefer the poetic economy of the word that the Japanese have been using for centuries to denote seasonality of produce: shun or “whats just in season right now”.

What fruit would be shun for you at this moment? Its no wonder that “Farmers Weekend Markets” have proliferated in urban Australian centers in the last few years in a trend that followed California. Interestingly, visiting a market often in an outdoor setting has completely changed the meaning of food and vegetable shopping. What was previously an onerous chore at a suburban mall has become a social activity to catch up with friends and community, often whilst juggling a caffe latte with a recycled box or eco-bag full of the following week’s inspiration for meals. Often there is even some time for casual banter with the stall owner and customers tend to develop loyalties to their favorite producers. It is a distinct contrast to the anonymous electronic “self checkouts” that have come to dominate most up to date supermarkets. What’s more, shoppers can often arrive home with a luscious bunch of leaves attached to the produce they have bought which gives them a sense of the whole plant and the process of growth. Quite the subject for a still life painting never mind for eating! Slowing down key parts of our everyday life is an opportunity for reinvention and gratitude.

黄鶯睍睆 Kōō kenkan su:
Bush warblers start singing.

After a gloriously balmy weekend of 20 degrees celsius it was quite a shock to return to -2 degrees this morning. When I ventured outside I was met by the slightest drift of snowflakes. Although it is “officially” spring and there is some evidence of budding in plants, it still feels like a “tug-o-war” between the seasons. One of the seasonal phrases is yokan (lingering cold) that refers to the coldness that remains after the first day of spring. Realizing that this pattern of weather has been relatively consistent since ancient times somehow makes the cold seem less “personal”and gives me a modicum of relief understanding that patience is still required as Kyoto emerges out of hibernation.

Given that the weather at the start of spring is thus very cold and resembles winter, clear symbolic signifiers become very important to aid our psychological adjustment. The indispensable Japanese image for the coming of spring is the modest bird the uguisu bush warbler. After the long winter, it descends to the city from the surrounding hills and valleys. As the ancient poem notes, the voice of the bush warbler was to signal the arrival of spring:

Without the voice of the warbler that comes out of the valley, how would we know the arrival of spring?

Ōe no Chisato

The overwhelming focus in Heian (794-1185) period waka poetry is on the bush warbler’s song or voice. Particularly the “first cry” was used to confirm the identity of spring. To “see” the bush warbler was less important, especially as its appearance was unremarkable. It is a small sparrow-like bird with a white belly and feathers an uguisu color (a mix of green, brown and black). Thus the bush warbler’s presence had rather the opposite value given to Victorian era children who were preferred to be “seen and not heard”. The bush warbler also featured in love poems, functioning as a metaphor for desire, yearning and loneliness. The 8th century Man’yōshū anthology contains 51 poems on the bush warbler.

In the Heian and Kamakura (1185-1333) periods, waka (classical poetry) reached its zenith. It had a huge impact on visual and material culture in aristocratic society. The seasonal and natural associations developed by waka poems were used in myriad art forms including: the design for women’s kimonos, ceramics, lacquer ware, furniture, flower arrangement and tea ceremony utensils to mention just a few. In the Heian period, aristocrats not only “wore” the seasons on their kimonos but were surrounded by waka-based seasonal references inside their residences. Since aristocratic women of that period rarely went out into “primary” nature, “secondary” nature as depicted in screen paintings and gardens became surrogates for nature. Thus, these women often composed poems not of the bush warbler that they heard in the garden, but on the uguisu they saw on a screen painting.

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), new forms of seasonal painting emerged. One of the most popular subjects for this new format presented one flower poem and one bird poem for each of the twelve months. This seasonal specificity and imagistic association were passed down through the centuries. In the Edo (1600-1868) period, famous woodblock painters such as Utagawa Hiroshige depicted bush warblers and the red plum blossom together. Even today (albeit diluted), poem and image, tree and bird have been closely integrated as seasonal topics since the ancient period.

Uguisuna: Japanese mustard spinach.

It’s fascinating how poetry and seasonal imagery have also trickled down from the heyday of the aristocratic culture some 1000 years ago, into the naming of everyday foodstuffs such as vegetables. Since komatsuna Japanese Mustard Spinach comes into season “shun” around the time that the bush warbler begins to cry it is called uguisuna. This versatile vegetable rich in nutrients has a soft leaf without a strong flavor and is used in a variety of cooked dishes. Commonly it is boiled and dressed with sesame and soy sauce. Personally I like my uguisuna in a delicious freshly pressed juice that I make from an equal mix with red apples.

One can also experience the new spring through seasonal confectionary wagashi such as uguisumochi. One of the best known sweets of early February, uguisumochi consists of rice cakes filled with red adzuki bean paste “an” and coated in soy flour made from green soybeans that are shaped into uguisu bush warbler shapes by pinching both ends to create points. Uguisumochi is then dusted with a light green soyflour that has been colored with a bit of yomogi mugwort to resemble the green feathers on the bush warbler’s wings. Interestingly enough, when I went to my neighborhood wagashi Japanese confectionery store this afternoon, the old lady presiding insisted that she wrap the uguisumochi with a decorative paper wrapping that featured the red plum blossom with a poem. The soft sweet was delicious with a cup of matcha this afternoon and in the notable absence of the real bush warbler’s cry, served as a timely reminder to this “post-aristocratic” Kyoto resident that spring has indeed arrived.

Decorative wagashi sweet paper wrapping depicting red plum blossoms and poem.

東風解凍 Harukaze kōri o toku:
East wind melts the ice.

Even though it is still cold, today is thought to be the first official day of Spring in the ancient lunar calendar. It marks the beginning of risshun; one of the twenty four seasonal points sekki. Psychologically, the image of a warm wind blowing from the east that starts to gradually melt the ice that formed on lakes and ponds over winter, is a great relief.

When I reflect on my three decades of life in Kyoto, I am keenly aware of how my way of seeing has evolved to be ever more acute. Coming from underpopulated Australia (which at twenty two times the land area of Japan has space to burn), to one of the world’s most densely populated countries has been an unparalleled training for my eye. Climatically speaking too, there was a huge contrast of having grown up in a coastal city where the weather was an endless riff on the theme of summer. In Perth Western Australia, we are blessed with over 300 days of sunshine a year. We can look up to an azure sky in October and be more or less assured that the same view will re-emerge daily on repeat until the beginning of April with the only variable being a temperature gradient. Moving to Kyoto at the tail end of summer 1989, I was constantly surprised at the strong contrasts provided by seasonal change. Indelibly engraved is my first experience of Kyoto’s autumn, where a brocade of colored leaves burnished hillsides before lying in outrageous carpets of red, orange and yellow swirls. All this for someone who was used to a never ending palette of grey-greens furnished by the indigenous landscape of Eucalypt trees. Once the romance of the falling leaves had subsided, nothing prepared me for the rapidly plummeting temperatures where I began to see my frosted breath inside my small room of a shared old Japanese wooden house, fortified only by a dodgy kerosene heater. That first bone chilling Kyoto winter was tough so even the faintest breeze from the easterly direction was more than welcome! So at the beginning of my long sojourn in the imperial capital, the much vaunted beauty of the four seasons was greeted as a mixed blessing. It was only after I started to encounter some of the poetic seasonal ramifications that appeared in my study of the tea ceremony, with its delicious seasonal wagashi traditional Japanese sweets and the changing form and color of the tea bowls that my curiosity was fostered.

Japanese matcha tea and seasonal sweet.

The ubiquity of nature in Japanese culture cannot be ignored even in our twenty first century highly urbanized society. Seasonal references appear not only in the arts but in many aspects of daily life including the fish and vegetables that are most delicious shun in that particular moment even as far as the limited edition beers at the local convenience store.

It has been posited by leading academics such as Haruo Shirane from Columbia University that the oft-mentioned Japanese “harmony” with nature does not actually correlate with a real closeness to primary nature due to climate and topography. Rather, it is a result of close ties to “secondary” nature as constructed as early as the 7th century in aristocratic society. In an attempt to compensate for some of the more severe aspects of winter and summer in the Kyoto area, an idealized “secondary” nature emerged to take many forms and in genres as diverse as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, gardens, painting and poetry to name a few. Particularly important was the waka, the thirty one syllable Japanese classical poem which became a fundamental form of social communication for the urban aristocracy. Due to the widespread use of waka, nature as well as the atmospheric conditions of the four seasons became heavily encoded.

Some of these poetic associations were indigenously Japanese while others derived from ancient Chinese references. From the mid to the late Heian period (10-12th century), waka poets placed increasing emphasis on annual observances, atmospheric conditions and even the time of the day. Seasonal topics formed a complex system of representations providing a rich cultural “vocabulary” to be used for a wide variety of aesthetic purposes. Such details are clearly enumerated in poetic seasonal almanacs called saijiki which also became indispensable for understanding the later popular poetic form haiku. The precision and detail contained in the saijiki which systematically categorized almost every aspect of nature and the majority of human activities was also reflected in the ancient calendar originally derived from China and then adapted for Japan by the Shogun’s astronomer in the 1600s. The existence of these almanacs and of the calendar is direct evidence that the seasons had become one of the fundamental means of organizing the world and life in general.

Ume plum blossom pink buds.

The traditional calendar divides the year into twenty four major divisions sekki based on observations of occurrences in the natural world. It starts with the beginning of spring risshun in early February until the end of winter daikan at the end of January. The 24 divisions are each split again into three for a total of 72 micro-seasons that last around five days each. There is something ineffably charming about the poetic immediacy of seeing a year progress in five day units. Additionally, whilst these divisions may be based on actual observances of nature, the phrases that are used to describe the 72 micro-seasons are also in line with a set of philosophical correspondences that the ancient Chinese saw in the physical world.

In creating a blog that documents my life in Kyoto, I decided to honor the gift of “deep seeing” and “micro-observing” that immersion in Japan has taught me. As we take the time to re-establish a deepening connection with nature, not just the grandeur of spectacular marvels but rather the simple things: the quality of afternoon sunlight shining through maple leaves, the sound of rain…we return to a rhythm more closely attuned to the world that immediately surrounds us. How we partition a year is of course somewhat arbitrary, but the smaller steps afforded by the structure of the “72 micro-seasons” seem to offer a lyrical vehicle to enjoy slowing down and appreciate life as a series of moments. Another of the gifts of Japan has been my growing sense of gratitude with a steady realization of the interdependence of all living things. I invite you the reader to slow down with me and enjoy each moment as unique and impermanent.

New green bamboo structure aodake demarcating garden space

“Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

鶏始乳 Niwatori hajimete toya ni tsuku:
Hens start laying eggs.

When spring is sensed, it is traditionally thought that the chicken will start laying her eggs and so it is only appropriate that this animal is determined to herald the transition between the seasons. The end of hibernation also becomes tangible with the observance of the Setsubun festival in Kyoto. The day before the official first day of Spring (around February 3rd usually in the solar calendar), is the turning point or definitive marker. For a period of two days there are ceremonies at various shrines and temples to drive out oni:devils. This is called oni-yarai and is a kind of exorcism. Traditionally Japanese superstition held that the world was more susceptible to the influence of evil as personified by devils and ogres during the changes of the seasons. A ritual known as tsuina for dispelling evil was thus performed in the Imperial Heian court following a Chinese tradition. The ceremony was restored in modern times and is most famously held at Yoshida Jinja Shrine which coincidentally is just around the corner from where I live in Kyoto.

The ancient ceremony was simplified into various folk customs with people dispersing oni: ogres with the scattering of mame: soybeans and the good humored chanting of “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi” : “Devils, get out! Good fortune, come in!” The modern version of this event at Yoshida Shrine usually involves hundreds of food stalls and crowds of up to 500 000 visitors over the two day period. One of the highlights is a ritual bonfire held at 11PM at night called karosai in which old amulets and New Year decorations that had been used to welcome the Gods are burned with a huge crowd in attendance. This year I had dutifully brought my shimekazari and old amulet to the shrine after January 15th in preparation for this event but alas due to the COVID 19 pandemic, the conflagration and food stalls were cancelled this year.

Shimekazari: New Year decoration and amulet from the past.

Nevertheless, when I visited the shrine, I felt a slightly subdued but lively embrace of ritual blessings and a brisk commerce in the acquisition of ceremonial arrows and amulets for the coming year. In previous years I had wondered whether the increasingly secularized modern Japanese really believed in the content of all the ritualized exorcism. However, this year with the backdrop of a global pandemic plague, I did feel a heightened fervency about the way coins were tossed in the ritual offertory boxes.

Offertory coins and lucky mame:beans.

Even with all our technological advancement “progress”, in 2020/21 we as a global population have still been brought to our collective knees by the forces of an “awesome” (in the original sense of the word) and unpredictable Nature. Therefore is it any wonder that invocations to greater powers have been revitalized?

Yakuzuka: Purification Pillar at Saijosho-Daigengu Shrine.

This year I also made a point of visiting an important subsidiary shrine attached to the main Yoshida Shrine called Saijosho-Daigengu. In this sanctuary, the yaoyorozu no kami (countless number of celestial and terrestial deities) are enshrined. Around the sanctuary, the 3,132 Shinto deities from across Japan are also worshipped. When viewed from above the building is shaped like an octagon. The form is used to symbolize the ideals of Yoshida Shintoism which sought to integrate Esoteric Buddhism, Confucianism, the concept of Yin-Yang and Taoism. Since all the Shinto deities are enshrined here, a visit to this subsidiary shrine is believed to be as effective as visiting all of the Shinto shrines across Japan. When I saw this note on the official signboard, I couldn’t help grinning. There is something very pragmatic about “killing the proverbial deities with one stone/visit”. Usually closed to the public for most of the year, Setsubun is a very popular event and is always crowded with worshippers from all over Japan here.

Yakuzuka: Purification Pillar

Immediately upon entry to the shrine, I saw a magnificent structure intricately hand made from rice straw which upon inquiry was revealed to be a yakuzuka or purification pillar. The worshippers are invited to touch the central pillar rope in order to remove impurities and defilements which are transferred through the medium of the rice straw to the deities that reside in the shrine. Rice as decoration was ubiquitous in forms as varied as: huge barrels of sake as well as rounded mirror rice cakes kagami mochi. Yet another potent reminder of the deep agricultural basis of Japanese culture and ritual.

Ritual offerings of sake barrels
Ritual offerings of mirror rice cakes: kagami mochi.

There are any number of fantastic rituals observed during these Japanese “rites of Spring” at Setsubun. Some of my favorite include: eating roasted soybeans to the same or one more than the number of your age although it risks indigestion for those of us middle aged or beyond! Heads of the family are supposed to wear oni: devil/ogre masks (supplied for free at any convenience store or supermarket selling roasted soybeans) during the throwing and chanting to dispel the evil spirits from the home.

Oni: Devil/Ogre mask.

It is also customary to eat ehou-maki, a thick sushi roll that should be placed vertically and eaten in silence after turning to the ehou: (lucky direction of the year). The lucky direction of course changes every year and is almost impossible to remember. This is yet another tie to Chinese derived Feng-shui and the almost lost art/science of geomancy. After determining that this year’s auspicious direction was south-southeast, I wolfed down the delicious sushi in short order and having dutifully swallowed an outrageous number of beans I washed it all down with a local beer. Especially in these uncertain times, there was something about following this cultural ritual “religiously” (even if it is not my own), that was immensely comforting and by the time my head touched the pillow that night, I did indeed feel the gremlins had been banished and that spring was arriving.

Ehou-maki: sushi roll and Mame: roasted soybeans for dinner.

水沢腹堅Sawamizu kōri tsumeru:
Ice thickens on streams.

Daikan is one of the twenty four seasonal points and is traditionally thought to be the coldest time of the year. It is a period that is particularly challenging for this long term foreign resident born and raised on the sunny west coast of Australia that is blessed with a Mediterranean climate. But it is not only for this 21st century denizen, the depths of winter may also have been the most severe season for the ancient Japanese due to the climatic challenges of frost and snow and particularly in Kyoto, a bone chilling cold that is known as sokobie 底冷え.

The harsh conditions are probably why winter was of little poetic and aesthetic importance in the 8th century anthology Man’yō shū. Even in the Kokinshu (Imperial anthology of waka style poetry in the Heian period), winter is regarded as cold and lonely.

“As for the mountain village, the loneliness grows in winter, especially when one realizes that visitors and grasses fade away”.

Of course, the dying of the grasses coincides with the fading of human activity. During this coldest period of the extended winter, I gain much psychological sustenance from the presence of resilient plants. In the early part of the New Year, an aesthetic motif that appears frequently is known as sho-chiku-bai (Pine-bamboo-plum). This triplet arrangement has long held a strong resonance in many East Asian cultures. Known as the “Three Friends of Winter” Genkan no San’yu, they are grouped together as symbols of hope. They represent: steadfastness, perseverance and resilience. In a 16th century poem by Korean poet Kim Yuki:

“Peach and plum of springtime, don’t flaunt your pretty blossoms; consider rather the old pine and green bamboo at year’s end. What can change these noble stems and their flourishing evergreen?”

Even before I ever knew about this ancient association of three species, I have always had the greatest admiration for each of these plants respectively.

Black Pine kuromatsu “sho”

Pine trees are among the most important of all Japanese garden plants. The Black pine (Pinus thunbergii) kuromatsu is the most esteemed of the Japanese pines. The Japanese Red pine (Pinus densiflora) akamatsu also is a key player. They are symbolic of male and female energies respectively and also represent sea and mountain landscapes. The evergreen pine symbolizes: longevity, steadfastness and self discipline, endurance and even immortality. As images from nature form central tropes in all the Japanese arts, it is not surprising that pine trees figure in the traditional poetic form waka.

Black pine kuromatsu “sho”

Pine matsu is a great example of a “pivot word” rhetorical device . This trope uses the phonetic reading of the Chinese character kanji matsu to suggest several interpretations. At first, on the most literal level 松 matsu means pine tree, then on a secondary homophonic level, 待つ matsu means “to wait”. Creating multiple meanings inherent in a single word allows poets a very rich palette of expression with a reduced syllable count. In Japanese aesthetics, brevity is highly prized where meaning can be maximized through the most economical expression. One of the most famous examples of this “double” use of matsu is from the 9th century Heian period poet Ariwara no Yukihira whose poem appears in the classical anthology Hyakunin isshu.

“Tachi-wakare Inaba no yama no mine ni ōru matsu to shi kikaba ima kaeri kon”

which translates as:

“Though we are parted, if on Mount Inaba’s peak I should hear the sound of the pine trees growing there I’ll come back to you.”

One of my great discoveries and constant delights within the Japanese arts is the way Nature is central to the rich cross fertilization of poetic and visual images.

Bamboo take “chiku”

The second material in the triumvirate sho-chiku-bai is bamboo. Renowned for millennia as a highly resilient material because of its hollow center, it is nevertheless straight, yet can yield without breaking. To the classical Chinese mind which highly influenced Japanese aesthetics, this characteristic corresponds with the ideals of the Confucian scholar: strong yet modest and flexible. As a symbol of resilience and renewal, freshly cut green bamboo is often used to annually replace existing structures within and surrounding a traditional Japanese home, whether that be in pouring vessels for New Year’s sake or fence and garden ornaments.

Bamboo fence replaced at New Year

Prunus mume (Japanese Apricot), otherwise known as plum blossom ume is the third “Friend of Winter”. I have a particular soft spot for ume as they are in fact the very first flowers to appear in the transition between winter to spring. Just at the time when the long winter threatens to continue unabated, plum blossom symbolizes hope and courage. It represents the vitality and vigor of Nature.

From time immemorial, the Japanese people have eagerly anticipated the blossoming of the Japanese plum. For centuries it has featured prominently in poetry and art. Of the the approximately 4500 poems in the 8th century Man’yō shū, 1500 mention plants-some 160 species in total. Of that number 118 poems feature the plum tree, a number that is second only to the Japanese Bush clover hagi which features in 140 poems.

Thus, the “Three Friends of Winter” are potent psychological supports for me in that they do not wither during the “major cold”. Together they symbolize unwavering friendship and remarkable perseverance; qualities I am only too happy to avail myself of at this challenging end of winter season.

Sho-chiku-bai (Pine-bamboo-plum)

款冬華 Fuki no hana saku:
Butterburs bud

Let me tell you the story of the Butterbur sometimes known as Coltsfoot bud. I first encountered this vegetable thirty years ago at a fancy traditional Japanese restaurant that served them as tempura. Their slightly bitter grassy aroma contrasted well with the lightest oily crunch and were a definite highlight of the meal. However, when seen packaged in my local supermarket they joined the plethora of green leafy items that looked “all too hard” to imagine what to do with them and therefore never made it into my shopping basket.

Fast forward to late January 2020 when I was honored to be invited to provide some Ikebana flower arrangements for a wonderful exhibition of international artists inspired by Kyoto entitled “Kyoen”. Late winter is a challenging period for Ikebana practitioners given the dearth of floral and vegetal material that occur at that time. Realizing my predicament, I enlisted my trusted supplier, septugenarian retired florist Ueno-san for help. Ueno-san owns a mountain in a nearby prefecture and she regularly drives two and half hours from Kyoto to source unusual and natural materials that flourish in each micro-season. I needed a variety of plants given that I was asked to make at least four arrangements. Unlike commercial florists that can conjure all manner of materials because of “hot-house” artificial growing culture, Ueno-san’s treasures can only be taken if the micro-season provides them on the mountain. Although I was furnished with some wonderful large branches that would be perfect for my bigger scale arrangements, Ueno-san was drawing a blank as to what she could offer for my more delicate assignment. Eminently practical with her fifty years or more in the trade, I suddenly saw a flash of inspiration come across her face and before I knew it, she disappeared into an adjacent room and after foraging for a moment emerged with a small scoop. She then lead me to her vacant lot next to her downtown Kyoto shop/traditional home and proceeded to dig into what just looked like a patch of dirt. Very soon emerged a series of what seemed to be dormant tubers with delicate stalks ending in thumb-shaped balls in rounded clusters of the lightest pale green. “Aaaa fuki-no-to” (Butterbur/Coltsfoot bud) she proudly announced smile beaming. It really was a lot of fun to arrange these triffid-like vegetables in an avant-garde tubular metal vase for the exhibition.

Butterbur Ikebana arrangement at Kyoen exhibition

So this year, having developed a fondness for this unusual material, I didn’t hesitate to return to Ueno-san to see if Butterbur could be unearthed in reprise. Alas she had cleared the vacant lot but assured me that she would search in earnest on her next foray to her mountain. In just a few days, she proudly gave me a bucket of Butterbur with mud still attached to the tuberous roots. As I zoomed away on my motorbike with my new treasure sloshing around in a plastic bag in the front basket, I reflected on how wonderful my connection with this Japanese lady was. Over the last few years, we have developed a mutual fondness for each other. We rhapsodize over what is blooming and in season and celebrate the beauty of nature. There is no artificial politeness around her being an elderly Japanese and me being a middle aged foreigner; just a shared sense of humor and a deep love of plants. Upon arriving home, rather than make an Ikebana arrangement this year, I elected to transfer the mass of tuberous buds into a celadon ceramic bowl and for the past week, I have had the pleasure of watching the delicate buds unfurl.

Unfurling Butterbur flowers.

When I asked Ueno-san how I should cook the delicate Butterbur fuki-no-to, her immediate enthusiastic reply was to make tempura. To be honest, I am not adept at deep frying to be able to get the feather light consistency that characterized the delicious tempura I had eaten thirty years ago. Therefore when I asked her for an easier alternative, she suggested chopping the buds into small pieces and after putting into cold water to remove any bitterness, I was instructed to mix them with a good quality miso and eat them as an hors d’oeuvre with my favorite sake. Although this method of preparation seems far less intimidating, I have to say I am enjoying the flowering of the buds a little too much to consider sacrificing them to the chopping board just yet…..Instead I cheated and bought a handmade jar of Butterbur Miso fuki-no-to miso from my favorite Japanese noodle store. Now I just need to pour myself a glass of sake. Buon appetit! Itadakimasu!

Butterbur/Coltsfoot bud Miso hors d’oeuvre

雉始雊 Kiji hajimete naku:
Pheasants Start to Call

The noble pheasant has always been valued for its gorgeous plumage and prized as a source of food. It is also a symbol of masculinity and courage and was adopted as the national bird of Japan in 1947. It has been used to decorate the highest denomination banknote in the Japanese currency, roughly equivalent to one hundred U.S dollars. The pheasant has a very distinctive call and is said to be a harbinger of earthquakes. Not only that, the male will call incessantly to the female in mating rituals and therefore is a symbol marker that Spring is about to start. Speaking of fancy feathers, the second Monday in January is a national holiday called Seijin-no-hi “Coming of Age Day”. At this time most municipalities across the country hold ceremonies to which all the local 20 year olds are invited. Many of these young people especially women, take this occasion as an opportunity to dress in traditional Japanese garments such as furisode which are highly decorative long sleeved kimono. Getting dressed up in a kimono is anything but a casual affair. Copious time and money is shelled out for a professional dressing accompanied by makeup and hair styling along with a swag of studio photos as a commemorative event sometimes months in advance to avoid stress and crowding on the actual day itself. Then the preening will be reproduced on the public holiday again to prepare the debutante “pheasants” for their first official foray into Japanese society. This event is eagerly looked forward to by the nation’s youth as much for the chance to get together with old high school friends as to create an indelible memory, second only in pomp and ceremony to the lavish weddings that tend to characterize Japanese life.

The transition from carefree student life to being a member of society shakkai-jin is a very important rite of passage and a clear demarcation of new attendant responsibilities and expectations for young people. Unlike their Western society counterparts where reaching the age of majority is somewhat of an anti-climax (drinking and driving ages having already been achieved some years earlier), turning 20 in Japan is literally the “key to the door” for Japanese teenagers in more ways than one.

On the second Monday of January, I always make it a point to stroll down to one of the grand shrines of Kyoto to have a gawk and take some photos of the earnest young “adults” in their very photogenic finery.

Showing off at Heian Jingu Shrine

Around the 15th of January is a period traditionally known as koshogatsu “little new year”. Originally an observance in Japanese agricultural society, prayers were offered for a successful rice harvest and it always corresponded with a full moon. Traditional decorations that appear at this time include mochibana “mochi flowers”, which are small balls of glutinous rice cake threaded onto slender branches (typically willow). Red and white is the traditional color combination symbolizing happiness and the mochibana herald the successful ripening of the rice grain in the early/middle autumn of the year. Once again it becomes very clear that ritual observances in traditional Japanese life were almost always focused on the all important rice crop.

Mochibana “Mochi flowers”

水泉動 Shimizu atataka o fukumu:
Springwater Holds Warmth

From an ethnographic point of view, it is significant that the final rituals of the Japanese year involve Buddhist temples throughout Japan ringing out the “old” year on temple bells during the last fifteen minutes before midnight. One can assume that the image and mood transmitted through this ritual is symbolic of “death”. And at the start of the New Year, Japanese similarly experience a ritualized “rebirth” through the image of the Shinto shrine which symbolically represents “growth and productivity”. Thus, the “first” visit to the shrine hatsumode has a close association with the motif of annual renewal for the vast majority of Japanese people.

It has taken me almost three decades of living in Japan to understand the importance of the prefix hatsu 初 which connotes “first”. It is used so robustly during the first few weeks of the Japanese New Year, that for many years it seemed hackneyed to this foreign observer. Actually, the succession of “first” observances of the New Year begins with the “first sunrise” hatsuhinode. According to Japanese legend, the Shinto deity Toshigamisama, appears during the first sunrise of the year and many Japanese people pray for good health and set New Year’s resolutions at that time. Urban dwellers in 21st century Japan have lost the traditional connection to agricultural practice (rice cultivation), which previously provided a mechanism for greeting Toshigamisama. No longer living in the close-knit community of the agricultural village, most modern Japanese still make efforts to maintain their individual selves, their families and their societies. In order to refresh themselves at New Year, they require rituals which can function as opportunities for “rebirth”. Hence the continuing popularity of mass pilgrimage to large urban shrines. On a symbolic level, these ritual visits promise an experience of sacred time and space within the city.

In fact, the prefix hatsu– 初 is assigned to almost any activity done for the first time in the New Year. For instance hatsuyume connotes the “first dream”, while the first laugh is hatsuwarai. This series of “firsts” doesn’t just stop there. Many writers, artists and tea people write the “first kanji of the year” kakizome. The observance of “firsts” continues for the first few weeks of January and is seen to clearly demarcate the New Year with auspicious beginnings. Finally I understand that the “scaffolding” that hatsu provides, leads to a much more solid set of foundations for renewal than the hastily abandoned New Year resolutions that are typically made perfunctorily in Western culture.

kagamimochi: mirror rice cake

Traditionally on January 11th, families will eat the kagami-mochi “mirror rice cake” that has been laid out since New Year as an offering on their domestic shrine or altar, and pray for harmony in the year ahead. This custom is known as kagami-biraki or “opening the mirror”. The “broken” rice cake is typically eaten in traditional dishes known as ozoni, a soup that contains mochi and vegetables. In Kyoto the sweet white miso is used for this delicacy.

tsurara : icicles

This second week of January is severely cold, yet the poetic phrase that describes this micro-season suggests the latent yang warmth emerging deep from within the earth, that will start to “thaw the frozen springs”. In my morning walks I was delighted to discover the presence of icicles tsurara. From ancient times, Japanese people described ice as something “noble”. The aristocratic 11th century courtier Sei Shōnagon describes it as “elegant” in her The Pillow Book. In her inimitable fashion, the pleasures of this season emerge.

In winter, the early morning – if snow is falling, it’s unutterably delightful, but it is perfect too if there’s a pure white frost or even just when it’s very cold….

Sei Shōnagon The Pillow Book (translated by Meredith McKinney)

芹乃栄 Seri sunawachi sakau:
Water Dropwort Flourishes

Water Dropwort/Japanese Parsley seri is a peppery spring herb that grows traditionally near mountain streams. It has a unique scent not dissimilar to watercress. Although references to it can be found in the “Nihon shoki” (the oldest chronicles of Japan), these days the number of producers has decreased significantly. It has become a rare commodity. It is recommended with fried oysters and is said to be particularly good with eggs.

Seri is one of the seven wild spring herbs haru no nanakusa, that are customarily eaten as part of a rice porridge gruel on January 7th. This special day known originally as Jinjitsu (day of the spring herbs), was traditionally observed as one of the five seasonal festive days Go-sekku derived from the ancient Chinese calendar. The other six of the seven traditional herbs include: cudweed, radish, chickweed, turnip, shepherd’s purse and nipplewort. Since ancient times, it was thought to be auspicious to eat the rice gruel porridge to banish evil and prevent illness. These days a seven herb set can be purchased at supermarkets for a limited period prior to January 7th. This year I bought some from my local shop, but instead of making porridge I tossed them into a warm winter salad to accompany a delicious Roast Beef. Washed down with a deep glass of red wine I felt “gremlin-free” after dinner.

Preceding dinner on January 7th, I had indulged for the second time this year in an afternoon bowl of hot whisked matcha tea accompanied by my favorite traditional Japanese sweet hanabira-mochi which is associated with New Year celebrations.

Over a thousand years ago in Kyoto, the Heian court’s annual events included a tooth hardening ritual, in effect a ceremony designed to ensure symbolically long life (given that strong teeth were needed). This ritual involved eating various foodstuffs as varied as: wild boar, giant radish, salted sweetfish and gourd, served on a layer of mochi pounded glutinous rice. Many centuries later, hanabira-mochi (flower petal mochi), served as a symbolic representation of that ancient ritual, with the root vegetable, burdock representing the sweetfish and the miso bean paste jam miso-an the other ingredients, enfolded in a circle of mochi. Plain mochi is repounded to make the consistency even softer, spread thin and round and stuffed with miso-an miso and adzuki bean paste jam, with cooked burdock sticking out a little on both sides, and folded. This traditional sweet was created by a Kyoto confectioner who had supplied the Imperial court since 1503.

Every year I look forward to the appearance of hanabira-mochi with great anticipation. The unlikely combination of both salty and sweet ingredients with a variety of textures makes for a sensational taste experience. At approximately three times the price of regular wagashi traditional Japanese sweets, it is definitely somewhat of a seasonal splurge.

Hanabira-mochi

This year on January 7th, it had also been a cold day similar in temperature and feeling to January 5th, the fifteenth day after the winter solstice marking the beginning of the period of shōkan (Lesser Cold). It is one of the 24 seasonal points sekki in the “Calendar and Daily Life” “koyomi to seikatsu” guidance for traditional living. Although shōkan precedes the next seasonal point of daikan (Greater Cold), it is perhaps felt more acutely by individuals as the body has still not completely acclimatized to the damp cold feeling of mid-winter in Kyoto!

雪下出麦 Yuki watarite mugi nobiru:
Barley sprouts underneath snow

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu: Happy New Year!

The New Year holiday has always been the most important celebration in the Japanese calendar, and is marked by many special customs that lend a sedate dignity to the transition from one year to the next.

This year in particular, I have really enjoyed seeing the ubiquitous sacred straw decorations shimekazari, that grace house entrances in my neighborhood. Shimekazari are similar in function to the shimenawa rope which is hung at the gate of all Shinto shrines to keep evil spirits away.

To celebrate New Year, shimekazari are decorated with some fortuitous elements which have their origin in traditional beliefs. Primarily they are made of a small rope of rice straw to which zigzag paper strips called shide are attached. The zigzag shape resembles lightning bolts which are powerful symbols of keeping misfortune away from the family home. The small bitter orange daidai is considered to be good luck since daidai if written with a different kanji character 代々can be translated as a symbol of posterity. Fern leaves urajiro represent hope and a desire to have a happy family which continues to grow and prosper.

In the few decades that I have now been privileged to call Kyoto home, I have seen a gradual disappearance of the traditional New Year decorations. It used to be that many cars were seen polished and gleaming resplendent with shimekazari attached to their front grilles. It always seemed incongruous from my foreign perspective but of course it was to pray for traffic safety in the coming year. Particularly conspicuous were shimekazari attached to taxis. It is really rare to spot these vehicular ornaments these days so I was really chuffed to find some in my neighborhood this year. I have wondered if the younger generation loses interest with upkeeping these traditions especially as 21st century appears to become more and more secular. It might be my imagination but I feel that because of the global pandemic last year, there was an increased presence of these lucky talismans during this year’s starting period.

Another auspicious decoration that welcomes the Shinto deity Toshigami during New Year is the kadomatsu 門松, literally “gate pine”. Kadomatsu are placed in pairs (male and female) in front of homes and business offices. They consist of a number of plant components each of which has a symbolic meaning. Visually, the most dominant central material are three fresh green bamboo shoots of different lengths, cut either diagonally or horizontally and bound together with straw rope. Bamboo symbolizes renewal as well as prosperity and newly cut bamboo is important in any New Year decoration. Most importantly, branches from pine trees are also used to symbolize longevity. In the Japanese language, the kanji character for “pine” has the same pronunciation as the character for “waiting” so it can be said that the pine branches are “waiting for the Gods”. The third component that is traditionally used in a kadomatsu are plum branches representing steadfastness. To make these decorations even more gorgeous these days, seasonal plants such as ornamental kale and heavenly bamboo are often added to bring extra color.

Both shimekazari and kadomatsu are traditionally thought to be temporary dwelling places yorishiro for the Shinto deity. Following the visit by the rice harvest God Toshigami during this special period, it is common to take down these decorations before January 15th and burn them during a fire ritual at a local shrine. Basically shimekazari and kadomatsu are visual prayers for the happiness of family and friends during the coming year. Taken at the deepest symbolic level, the traditional Japanese New Year observances show a radical break between “death” and “new life”.

Even though I am not Japanese, I find great hope and comfort in the presence of these ritualistic transition markers at New Year in Kyoto. Particularly as 2020 proved to be so challenging and tumultuous in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, this opportunity to slow down, this pausing for breath creates room for reflection, focusing on gratitude and appreciation kansha, amidst the difficulties of the current world situation.

Let us dare to hope for a brighter New Year in 2021…

Ganjitsu ya/ kamiyo no koto mo/ omowaruru

On New Year’s Day everything feels so fresh that even the legends of the past seem not to be so distant.