桐始結花 kiri hajimete hana o musubu :
paulownia trees produce seeds.

I have always been curious about the Kiri Paulownia or Princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa). I had been living in Kyoto for at least a decade before I ever got my first glimpse of a real one, and even that was accidentally whilst on a neighborhood walk through a pharmaceutical botanical garden. It is one of the fastest growing trees in the world and can reach a height of up to 30 meters. Its leaves are huge and heart shaped and late to come in on the tree. The white/mauve flower which resembles a foxglove, often precedes the deciduous leaf. Actually, it was not surprising that I had not come across a live specimen given that such a tree is rather out of scale for a regular Japanese urban garden.

Elephantine, heart shaped Paulownia leaf.
Lavender-white flowers of the Paulownia resembling foxglove flowers.

The Paulownia flower pattern go-shichi-no-kiri is the official symbol of the Prime Minister’s office in Japan. It also serves as the Government of Japan’s seal for official documents, so my first encounter with kiri was as the gold crest emblazoned on the “Gaijin/Foreign Resident’s” card that I was required to carry at all times whilst living in Japan. The pattern became very familiar without even consciously noticing it, as it is also printed on the obverse side of the 500 yen coin as part of the Japanese currency.

Go-shichi-no-kiri pattern on the Japanese currency.

Paulownia also has a long history in Japanese folklore. Traditionally, when a new daughter was born into a Japanese family, they would plant a “Princess” tree to commemorate her birth. By the time that the daughter was ready to marry, the tree would be cut down to make a dowry wooden chest and other items used for wedding gifts. From China, the Japanese also adopted the ancient myth that if a Paulownia tree was planted near the house, the legendary Phoenix would come across their land bringing wisdom and prosperity. Additionally, the timber produced from Paulownia is light and at the same time exceptionally strong. It is water resistant and has wonderful resonance which makes it highly valued for making traditional wooden instruments like the koto. The name for the 34th micro-season refers to the production of an oval shaped fruit, borne after the white-lavender colored Paulownia flower has bloomed.

Unagi kabayaki: Grilled freshwater eel eaten at the height of summer.

The period of midsummer also marks one of the 24 seasonal points known as Taisho which translates as “Greater Heat”. It’s considered to be the hottest time of the year which stretches for about 18 days from July 20th. These are truly the “dog days” of summer and are known as doyō. Conserving energy and health is an important consideration for Kyoto citizens at this time of the year and even in modern times, it is common wisdom that one should eat unagi freshwater eel to preserve one’s strength. Eel is easy to digest and is full of protein. In Kyoto it is grilled so that it becomes chewy and served in a sweet savoury sauce. It is not an everyday dish and in recent times has become almost prohibitively expensive due to overfishing. It takes considerable skill to prepare eel in the kabayaki style which is highly prized, and so it is almost always bought from a store rather than cooked at home. Kabayaki style involves the eel being filleted, skewered and grilled whilst being basted with a thick sauce. Like so much traditional Japanese cuisine, the preparation while seeming relatively simple requires a lot of practice. There’s even a saying in Japanese that: “it takes three years to learn how to skewer, eight years for filleting and a lifetime for grilling”. This year it was a great pleasure to indulge myself for this “once a year treat”. The unagi was indeed delicious with a smoky barbecue flavor. It energized both my body and soul and was especially good washed down with an ice cold beer.

鷹乃学習Taka sunawachi waza o narau :
Hawks learn to fly

For Kyoto’s citizens, July 17th is always eagerly awaited for two reasons. First, there is a lively street procession of the Gion Festival (which is the oldest continuously running urban festival in the world). Secondly, the occasion of this parade traditionally marks the end of Kyoto’s rainy season “tsuyu“. Even though temperatures are steadily climbing, it is a great relief that grey skies and constant rain might abate for a little while. I look forward every year to participating as a curious spectator in this grand month long event that has such an extraordinary 1150 year history. Originally started by the Emperor in 869 as a ritual to appease angry spirits believed to have caused a deadly plague at the height of summer, the festival has been held almost every year for over a millennium. Even today, the Gion Festival maintains its relevance as an example of sustainable community building in traditional neighborhoods, as well as a symbol of potent resilience and hope during the current COVID pandemic.

Chochin: traditional lanterns provide atmosphere for the Gion Festival

Above all else, the festival is a massive, month long purification ritual. There are usually many opportunities for the public to attend events in historic, downtown Kyoto locations. Although the crowd pleasing climax of the festival is the spectacular procession of 33 traditional yamaboko floats, I confess that I am more attracted to the intimate atmosphere provided by visiting the traditional neighborhoods where the floats are constructed and housed, to have the opportunity to see many historical decorative treasures that are only displayed for a short period prior to the procession.

Replicas of medieval tapestries owned by kimono merchants adorn the floats.

I have been visiting the festival for three decades, but still feel like I am just scratching the surface of its multi-layered history. Even though many of the larger public events were cancelled for the second year in a row due to COVID, I was incredibly grateful that on a much smaller scale, some of the traditional neighborhoods rallied to display their historical legacies. I was also told by some of the Festival elders, that the traditional medieval techniques to build the ancient floats (by hand using only rope and without nails), need to be continually practiced lest the knowledge should become lost. Witnessing the building of the floats which takes about two days is like stepping back into time.

Two day construction of traditional floats using only rope and without nails.
Each of the 33 floats has its own unique design and is built by volunteers who live within the traditional neighborhood.

Not only float construction, but also the traditional music of the festival involves skills that must be kept alive by assiduous practice. One of my friends Yoshii-san is very involved as the leader of the music for the Ofuneboko float. It is always a privilege to go and hear the hypnotic, almost trance inducing notes of the festival’s music.

Metal percussion is largely responsible for the hypnotic rhythms of Gionbayashi music known by locals as kon-chiki-chin

This year, I was on a particular fact finding mission to find out more about the floral emblem of the Gion festival. Since ancient times, a perennial herbaceous flower known in Japanese as hi-ogi (Blackberry lily) Iris domestica, has been displayed in Kyoto during this month long summer period. The Japanese name hi-ogi refers to sword shaped , iris-like, medium green leaves which are thought to resemble a formal, medieval Heian period court lady’s fan made from cypress. Although the red-spotted orange flowers on stalks look like lilies, the plant actually belongs to the Iris family. It is also commonly known as Blackberry lily in English because the flowers develop into pear shaped seed pods which split open at the end of summer revealing a “blackberry-like” seed cluster.

Hi-ogi: Blackberry lily (Iris domestica): floral emblem of the Gion Festival for over a thousand years.

Insatiably curious, I have always wanted to know why the Blackberry lily was chosen as the potent symbol of this medieval festival. I decided that in order to find out the real history of the flower, I should speak directly to some of the festival elders in the traditional neighborhoods. Little did I know that my enquiries were to be greeted with raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders. Everyone knew at least that the flower was supposed to ward off evil, but like so many rituals that have continued for time immemorial, no one knew much more than that and had never thought to ask. My “investigative journalist” streak started to emerge after hours of asking questions to various people in the enervating heat. I plucked up the courage to go directly to the most prestigious traditional florist in the city of Kyoto. I have their beautiful book entitled: “The Art of Hanamasa- Purveyors of Fine Flowers in Kyoto for 160 years”.

Beautifully illustrated Ikebana text from one of the oldest florists in Kyoto: Hanamasa.

Actually, I had a very illuminating chat with the elderly owner of the store Fujita-san. She told me that like so many flowering plants that were originally imported into Japan from China centuries ago, the plant had been valued more for its medicinal qualities than for its decorative value. It was understood that the cluster of “blackberry-looking” seeds had traditionally been used in Chinese herbal medicine, as a potent ingredient in decoctions specifically aimed at improving digestion and giving energy in the challenging summer months. It was incredibly satisfying to learn this information from a brand new “sensei” (teacher). Even though it had taken half a day and a brush with heatstroke to find this out, it had been completely worth it!

Decoration of hi-ogi Blackberry lily in a traditional machiya house in the Gion Festival neighborhood.

The name of this micro-season depicts the image of “Hawks learn to fly”. In Kyoto, there are two best places for “hawk viewing”. Firstly, on the Kamo river that runs through the city, (those having picnics are advised to discreetly eat sandwiches here lest they become the hawks’ dinner). Alternatively, whenever I climb Mt Daimonji adjacent to where I live, hawks can be seen gracefully circling the peak.

Lucky wallet talisman given to me this year by one of the Gion Festival elders.

温風至 hasu hajimete hiraku :
First lotus blooms

I have been besotted with the lotus ever since I encountered it in Bali over thirty years ago. It is not an exaggeration to say that every stage in the life cycle of this plant is miraculous. Is it any wonder that it has been revered by both the Hindu and Buddhist spiritual traditions? It has been used in religious iconography for millennia. Many temples all over Asia and beyond, feature sculptures and paintings of Buddha enthroned on a seat of lotus in full bloom. The esoteric prayer the “lotus sutra” has been recited and pondered for aeons.

Nelumbo nucifera: Sacred lotus in full bloom.

There are two extant species of lotus plant in the world: Nelumbo nucifera (Sacred/Indian lotus) and Nelumbo lutea (American lotus). Sacred lotus has an extraordinary distribution from Iran to various parts of Asia including Russia and even as far as Australia. This is a plant that rewards even a modicum of study as it is so unique on many levels. In Japan, there is a traditional practice of lotus viewing called “kanren” which typically happens in the early morning hours as lotuses often close by the afternoon. I was lucky enough this past weekend to attend a “kanrenkai” (lotus meeting) at the Kyoto Botanical Garden. A former director of the garden proved to be a lively and informed guide on all matters pertaining to Nelumbo nucifera. He started his lecture by demonstrating how various South East Asian countries create Buddhist flower offerings. It was a little disconcerting to be honest, when he repeatedly peeled down petals from a full bud and proceeded to fold them “origami style” into a stylized shape. I couldn’t help but wince (after all wasn’t the lotus flower sacred and not to be manhandled), and secretly wish that the bud be allowed to bloom of its own accord.

Folding the lotus bud petals “origami style” to make a Buddhist offering.

He then demonstrated the ancient practice of how lotus leaves had been used as special occasion vessels for drinking Japanese sake. One of the monikers for a leaf used in this practice is “elephant nose cup”, which derives from the resemblance to an elephant sucking water through its trunk. While the sake passes through the stem of the leaf, a faint lotus scent and a slightly bitter natural liquid are mixed with the sake to give the drinker a refreshing feeling.

Demonstrating how to drink sake from the “elephant nose cup” created by using a lotus leaf as a vessel.

The erstwhile director then informed us of the ancient history, etymology and biology of the lotus plant. Apparently a fossil of a lotus leaf from about 70 million years ago was excavated in Japan. The Japanese name for lotus is “hasu” which comes from the observation that the lotus fruit formed after flowering resembles a bee hive.

Hasu is the Japanese name for lotus as the fruit resembles a bee hive.

The flowering season for the lotus is from mid-July to mid-August. One flower repeats a cycle of opening and closing for about four days before dispersing its petals. Flower color ranges from dark red/purple through pink and white. There are also mottled colors including white to yellow and in recent years even green ones have appeared as hybrids. How the flowers bloom varies according to type, whether they are single or double flowers and weather conditions in a typical four day cycle.

Day Two in the lotus blooming cycle around 8AM.

Day Two is considered to be one of the most attractive stages of the blooming cycle. Flower petals loosen from 2AM and fully open around 7-8 AM. This is when the flower volume becomes its most graceful and the spicy, peppery fragrance becomes strong. It starts closing from around 8AM and returns to its original state of storage in a bud shape at around noon.

Day Two in the lotus blooming cycle at around noon midday.

I have also been long fascinated by the leaves of the lotus. When you touch the surface of the leaves, there are some that are rough, some that are slippery and some that are in between. Younger leaves tend to be smoother. The leaves are water carrying and have a peculiar surface texture. There is wax on the surface which repels water so that when it rains or water touches the leaves, it runs off without being absorbed. The effect is not unlike the convex movement of mercury or as it used to be called so graphically “quicksilver”.

Convex water droplet on waxy lotus leaf.

Since the lotus is an insect borne flower, it is not surprising that some kind of scent will be emitted. I remember the first time I smelled the fragrance I had not been expecting it and found it intoxicating. The fragrance could be described as having a phenolic component that is slightly medicinal in its sweetness and yet mysteriously regal. I had long been curious about this scent and some quick research confirmed that lotus has been used a component of perfumes for centuries.

Young lotus leaves are used also in Japanese cuisine.

This is a plant that continues to amaze me the more I know about it. The lotus also has a distinct place in Japanese cuisine. Many parts of the plant can be eaten including the young seed pods, the young leaves but in particular the crunchy rhizome roots known as “renkon”. A friend of mine makes a “to die for” deep fried lotus root stuffed with spicy pork mince and served with a hot mustard.

Enough of such physical and earthly concerns. After all the lotus represents purity of body, speech and mind as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. According to Buddhist legend, Gautama Buddha was born with the ability to walk as a new born and everywhere he stepped a lotus flower bloomed.

温風至 Atsukaze itaru :
Warm winds blow.

“Fumizuki ya/ muika mo tsune no/ yo niwa nizu”

“On the night before the lovers meet there is the electricity of anticipation in the air” 1


As the long grey days of incessant rain continue during rainy season, the colorful and romantic festival called Tanabata (Star Festival) makes for a particularly enjoyable diversion. According to the ancient legend, every July 7th, the weaver star Vega/Orihime and her lover the cowherd star Altair/Higoboshi, travel across the Milky Way to be reunited just once a year.

Children’s depiction of the Tanabata lovers displayed at a local shopping arcade.

The lovers are celebrated in Japan with bright decorations and messages written on long, narrow strips of colored paper called “tanzaku”. In the lead up to the festival, many handmade ornaments are hung from bamboo branches and can be seen in all manner of public and private spaces: from shopping malls to family homes. Before the tanzaku are attached to the bamboo, personal hopes and wishes are written on them. Personally, I am always moved by this display of public petition. Exposing one’s dreams for anyone to see has a poignant quality of intimacy about it in a society where there is such a clear divide between the public and private persona. Not surprisingly this year, I witnessed a large number of messages praying for the abatement of the COVID-19 pandemic amidst earnest hopes to grow up as a professional soccer player.

Prayers for the abatement of the COVID-19 pandemic were popular this year.

What I also love about this festival is the playful sense of community engagement at all levels. In the last few days I’ve enjoyed seeing mothers riding bicycles on their way home from kindergartens, their children in tow brandishing small bamboo branches with origami paper decorations fluttering in the breeze. Young lovers also embrace this festival and even more pragmatic elderly folk have a soft spot for this tale of love triumphing (if only once a year) over adversity.

The princess weaver Vega/Orihime and the cowherder Altair/Higobashi are united just once a year.

According to the legend, the Emperor of Heaven, Tentei had a daughter Vega/Orihime who lived on the east bank of the Milky Way “river” (Amanogawa) and was particularly devoted to her craft of silk weaving. At a certain point, her father became concerned for her welfare and so married her off to Altair/Higoboshi (a cowherder) who lived on the west bank of the river. However, Vega/Orihime started to neglect her work after marriage and her father became so incensed that he forced her to return to the east bank of the river. Being exiled to opposite ends of the Milky Way caused such sadness that the Emperor took pity on the lovers, granting them just one yearly rendezvous on the seventh day of the seventh month. However, should there be rain on the evening of the seventh, Vega/Orihime would not be able to cross the swollen river. In that case, magpies spread their wings to make a bridge for her. The lovers are permitted to meet annually so long as they diligently fulfill their work duties the other 364 days of the year. The underlying moral does strike me as being somewhat “Confucian” in its emphasis on reward for hard work.

Origami paper crane decorations symbolize longevity.

Based on the legend, there was a custom to worship these two stars on July 7th in China and this observance came to Japan in the Nara period (710-794). When the Tanabata festival first arrived in Japan, aristocrats in the Imperial court would compose poetry while gazing up at the night sky. At that time it became one of the five traditional seasonal festivals known as gosekku that originated in China and began to be observed by the Japanese Imperial court some 1200 years ago. Tanabata became an observance for the broader population in the Edo period (1603-1868). It was at this time that the tradition of writing hopes and dreams on tanzaku and hanging them on bamboo branches first appeared.

Long, tall bamboo branches bear tanzaku wishes in a local shopping arcade.

Bamboo is thought to have been incorporated in the Tanabata tradition because it tends to grow tall and straight, therefore bearing wishes to heaven as it sways in the breeze. On a more practical note, bamboo is also believed to deter insects and has a history of being displayed to protect the emerging crops.

Natsu Kantou (limited summer edition) traditional Japanese sweet from Oimatsu store.

This year I particularly enjoyed the Tanabata decorations at my local shopping arcade called the “Demachi Shotengai” as well as the grand shrine Kitano Tenmangu. Visiting the shrine on the west side of town allowed me to visit the famous traditional Japanese sweet shop Oimatsu, where luckily I was still in time to order the seasonal sweet “Natsu Kantou”. I’ve had my eyes on this confection for some years and it is an extravagantly priced specialty of this old Kyoto shop. Until July 20th Natsu Kantou is available. It is made from a whole Japanese citrus fruit known as “natsu mikan” which is characterized by a sweetness tempered by a slight bitter astringency. The flesh of the whole fruit is scooped out and reconstituted as a refreshing jelly, a perfect treat for these sultry days in the rainy season.

Delicious sweet/bitter taste of Natsu mikan jelly encased by the real peel of the seasonal fruit.

The 31st micro-season marks the transition into another of the 24 seasonal points known as Shōsho. It is the fifteenth day from the Summer Solstice, usually around July 7th. It’s the time that temperatures really start to rise. It’s not uncommon to have maximum temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius accompanied by minimums of over 20 degrees. Everyone in Kyoto realizes that now is the real beginning of the long hot summer.


  1. Sasaki, Sanmi. Chado: The Way of Tea. Translated by Shaun Mc Cabe and Iwasaki Satoko, Tuttle Publishing, 2002

半夏生 Hange shōzu :
Crow-dipper sprouts.

A few years ago during the beginning of July, I first came across a unique water loving plant with fascinating nomenclature in both English and Japanese. In English known as Chinese Lizard Tail Plant (Saururus chinensis), it has many tiny, fragrant white flowers on a tapering, stalked spike with a drooping tip, hence the name. Equally, if not more interesting, this plant is called “hangesho” in Japanese. Some people say that the name refers to the phenomenon of the heart shaped leaf’s color changing from green to white as if the leaves were wearing half make up/face paint. This moniker seems particularly relevant to the pond that is famous for its hangesho flowers at Ryosoku-in temple, coincidentally located in the famous Gion entertainment district of Kyoto, where Geisha artists have been painting their faces with white make up for centuries. To reinforce the poetic allusions to “make up” (designed to attract clients), I was fascinated to understand the scientific parallel that the Chinese Lizard Tail Plant’s leaves only turn and remain white, for the short period when the plant is trying to attract various “pollinators” for the subtle and delicate white flowers that are blooming at this time. After pollination has been achieved, the leaves return to their all green color.

The leaves of the Chinese Lizard Tail Plant only change temporarily to white during the blooming period.

The other theory for the Japanese naming of “hangesho” has a distinctly seasonal reference, because the name of the 30th micro-season alludes to the 11th day after the Summer Solstice, which was traditionally when the annual planting of the rice crop would come to an end. This was the time that the medicinal herb Crow-dipper plant or hange sprouted and also the time that the Chinese Lizard Tail plant’s leaves turned color. Thus, “hangesho” marked an important stage in traditional farm work practice. Perhaps not surprisingly, at this time of the year when temperatures were rising amidst heavy rain, it was common to rest and fast for five days. Many people would restrict meat and alcohol intake and therefore recover from the intense planting process. Yet another example of nature providing a punctuation mark that helped regulate the rhythm of daily life. On a side note: in the Kansai region of Western Honshu of which Kyoto is a part, there is a tradition to eat octopus “tako” during this micro-season. Not only is octopus considered to be particularly tender and delicious, “just in season”: shun in this period, this custom also has the added symbolic resonance of imagining newly planted crops sending out deep roots like octopus tentacles.

Stream featuring hangesho at Hogon-in Temple Arashiyama Kyoto.

I also discovered that another wonderful place to see hangesho is at Hogon-in sub-temple, which is part of the Tenryu-ji Zen temple complex in the Arashiyama area of western Kyoto. It was a treat to visit this delightfully lush, green garden this week and in addition to a fine stream that contained many Chinese Lizard Tail plants, the garden also features numerous examples of wonderfully designed bamboo fencing that create a unique rustic and rural ambiance. For me, it was another perfect place to take a rest after the “strains of hard labor” (at the computer) this week.

Rustic bamboo brush fence at Hogon-in Temple.
Another example of a rustic bamboo fence at Hogon-in
Bamboo brush fencing at Hogon-in Temple.

菖蒲華 Ayame hana saku :
Irises bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biwa: Loquats still ripening on neighborhood trees.

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

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

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

Ayame: Siberian Iris (Iris sanguinea)

乃東枯 Natsukarekusa karuru :
Self-heal withers.

Late June is really the peak flowering season for various species of hydrangea: ajisai. Everywhere you look in Kyoto, one can see large, globular cluster blooms in colors ranging from white to pink and through to the darkest inky violet-blue. My “relationship”to hydrangeas has been “reframed” thanks to my extended sojourn in Japan. As a child in sunny and extremely dry Perth Australia, I remember my parents fretting about where to position the hydrangeas in the backyard of our suburban plot. These leafy plants were considered to be exotics and to be honest, did not thrive at my family home. I have a distinct memory of visiting a family friend who had successfully produced massive “mop head” (Hydrangea macrophylla) blooms in their shadier, more established garden and being impressed with their knowledge of soil science. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, pink-red flowers emerged when the soil was alkaline and my much preferred blue flowers had a predilection for a more acidic soil. That a gardener could “alchemically” change the color of a flower by manipulating the PH composition of the soil (in this case through the addition of aluminium sulphate), was nothing less than magical to me as a boy. However, to be honest, I was never really a fan of the “mop head” droopy shape nor of the “grandmotherly” color palette of: violet, pale blue or pink. Back in the 1970’s when I was growing up, there was a vogue amongst sprightly female octogenarians for a blue/violet toning to their delicately coiffured hair coining the phrase: “the blue rinse set”. That the “curly” hydrangea petals seemed to be emblematic of this band of formidable women was quite off putting.

Hydrangea macrophylla emblematic of the “blue-rinse set” of my childhood.

Just to make it worse, to cope with the scorching West Australian summers, prized hydrangeas were often protected by repurposed large canvas sun parasols to prevent the almost inevitable sunburn and subsequent wilting. Hydrangeas in the driest continent in the world were a classic example of trying to fit a horticultural “square peg in a round hole”.

Ajisai: hydrangeas are ubiquitous in Japan

However, as some species are native to the Japanese archipelago, hydrangeas are in their element in Kyoto and are extraordinarily easy to grow it would seem. Often the color on a single plant may change as the flowers bloom and fade. I was surprised to discover that the ajisai was often used as a metaphor for a person whose affections change easily. Flighty and fickle in love; these are the personality traits hydrangeas symbolize in Japan. Given the Japanese propensity towards consistency in behaviour, it would seem that the “reputation” of ajisai has been slightly tarnished over the centuries.

A pink variety of hydrangea with small fertile flowers in the center.

Popular “mop head” hybrid named “Annabelle” introduced from America.
Another hybrid variety of hydrangea with unusual petal shape.
White Lace-cap hydrangea: gaku-ajisai
Yama-ajisai: Mountain hydrangea

In the gloomy grey light that tends to characterize days in the rainy season, hydrangeas provide a strong hit of color that helps to lift the spirits. Additionally, while studying the tea ceremony for some years, I became more closely attuned to the nuances of seasonal color. In an expression of hospitality “omotenashi” for the guest, the host of a tea ceremony conducted in summer should strive to make the guest feel “cool”. This can be summed up in the traditional Japanese phrase “ryo-ichimi” which translates as “an item of coolness”. Given that this concept is centuries old, it suggests that we need not rely on technology such as air conditioners. Rather, “coolness” is a mental construct, an attitude of being that helps keep us fresh during the long summer months; the sound of the breeze catching a delicate wind chime, the image of a waterfall. There are many ways to generate “coolness”. Like so many other aspects of Japanese aesthetics, “ryo-ichimi” depends on the active co-creation of atmosphere by the guest/recipient. Refreshment can be implied and it is up to the perceiver to “accept the invitation”.

Gaku-ajisai: Lace cap hydrangea

For me, one of the best ways to conjure relief in this sticky summer weather is by viewing particularly the blooms of the inky blue hydrangeas. Especially, I enjoy the more delicate blooms of Hydrangea serrata or “yama-ajisai”, with its delicate fertile flowers in the center, surrounded by broad petalled sterile flowers. More than anything else, it is this beautiful color gradation from the deepest violet-blue to an incredibly soft powder blue, that I adopt as my personal “ryo-chimi”. Cycling around town seeing large clumps of hydrangeas glistening in the misty rain helps me to maintain my “cool” as summer unfolds.

A hillside of hydrangeas at Yoshimine-dera.

This week it was my absolute pleasure to fulfill a long cherished dream of visiting the rather inconveniently located Yoshimine-dera temple in south-west Kyoto to view the hydrangeas. Some of the best information about the local “hidden spots” comes from elderly taxi drivers in Kyoto. I remembered that ten years ago, I had been given a “hot” tip that this largely overlooked temple had hillsides resplendent with hydrangeas during rainy season. For one reason or another, I had never managed to get there at this particular time of the year, so I was determined to check it out. I was not disappointed. The temple boasts an extraordinary siting on steep hills in the far west of the ancient capital.

A vertical display of hydrangeas on hillsides at Yoshimine-dera temple.

As promised, hydrangeas of various hues filled every available space from top to bottom and provided a unique “frame” to view the whole of the Kyoto basin from the west side. Particularly as I live on the far east side of the city, I am used to the opposite view. This was yet another “reframing” of the familiar that surprised and delighted me. I felt as though I had received a double dose of “ryo-ichimi” and returned home from my late afternoon excursion triumphant and refreshed.

View of the Kyoto basin from the west side framed by hydrangeas.

The reference to the twenty eighth micro-season is connected to the cycle of plant growth. The perennial known as Self-heal (Prunella spike): utsubogusa usually first appears around the time of the winter solstice in December and starts to die off around the time of the summer solstice which is known as Geshi in Japanese. The summer solstice is characterized by having the longest daytime and the shortest night-time of the year and is thought to occur around June 22nd. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this plant itself (in fact I cannot consciously recall ever having seen it), what is interesting is how the ancients used the life cycle of plants to measure the progress of time throughout the year.

梅子黄 Ume no mi kibamu :
The Plums turn yellow.

Early summer rain samidare falls on Kyoto at this time. Rain adds a special mood that is remarkably suited to the ambiance of the ancient capital. The high humidity in Kyoto fostered a poetic culture that focused heavily on atmospheric conditions and the long rains of the monsoon period were a major feature of Japanese summer. The monsoon tsuyu season begins around June 10th and lasts to the middle of July. So distinct is this rainy season in Japan that climatologists argue that the nation has indeed five seasons and so it is not surprising that the monsoon also influenced artistic expression traditionally.

Esteemed Japanologist Haruo Shirane writes that in the medieval Heian period (794-1094), the most important cultural vehicle was waka poetry. This 31 syllable Japanese classical poem functioned as a form of social communication amongst the aristocratic class. Its seasonal associations influenced all manner of art in Japan. Such was the “currency” of waka poetry that the atmospheric conditions of the four seasons became heavily encoded; for example, monsoon rain: samidare became associated with tedious melancholy. There is also a homophonic association between samidare and midare (troubled) in the Japanese language that started to link summer rains with depression and even “tangled” midare hair. Given that Heian court women wore their hair long, reaching below their waist, it’s not surprising that “tangled” hair could act as a metaphor for discombobulated states.

Actually, my first monsoon tsuyu in Kyoto some thirty years ago was more than a little depressing. Relentless heavy rain, mouldy shoes and leather jackets and not seeing the sun for thirty consecutive days proved rather “tangling” for me notwithstanding my relatively short hair. It was quite a shock for this Australian who was raised in one of the world’s sunniest and dry capital cities (Perth). While it is not always fun to be soggy (even now), especially when it is accompanied by a cloying stickiness, Kyoto herself taught me to appreciate the hitherto undiscovered beauty of dampness!

Moss at Ruriko-in Temple.

Kyoto’s humidity is exacerbated by its location in a geographic basin, meaning the air tends to stay trapped leaving greater moisture in the air. Although humans like to complain about this situation, it turns out the ancient bryophytes “the mosses” relish these damp conditions. In Japan there are around 3000 native moss species. Mosses may be the smallest plants in Japanese gardens, but a well maintained moss garden contains an extraordinarily tranquil and “timeless” space. Kyoto is blessed with a plethora of these perfectly “natural” looking gardens, though to keep such “naturalness” a great day of physical care is required. Moss is quite “fussy” in fact. It likes dappled shade such as that cast by Japanese maples as well as a humid atmosphere. Constant maintenance is necessary to sweep away fallen leaf litter which is acidic and destroys the moss. It is a common sight in Kyoto gardens to see a veritable “army” of workers crouched over manicuring the moss for days on end. Mosses have neither leaves nor roots and exist somewhat precariously on various substrates such as rock and clay based soils. They don’t take kindly to trampling feet either. One of the most famous temples in Kyoto aptly named the “Moss Temple” Kokedera closed its doors for some years after the rampant hordes of tourists more or less destroyed the delicate carpet like moss.

Stones and moss come “alive” after some summer rain.

It’s when I started to spend more and more time in these mossy Kyoto gardens, that I was able to transform my relationship to rain during the monsoon season. The way the vivid green “pops” against a grey sky was a revelation for someone who always predicated beautiful weather on a clear blue sky. Not only that, but it soon became clear that all the stones and pathways start to “come alive” after a little bit of rain and now I can truly say that the best weather for viewing a Japanese garden in unequivocally “in the rain”.

The sparkling effect of sunshine after rain at Ruriko-in.

This week I was fortunate to be able to visit one of my all time favorite “moss” venues Ruriko-in located in northern Kyoto. The name of this temple refers to the “lapis lazuli jewel-like” color the garden takes on after continuous rain has saturated the moss, followed by a sudden burst of sunshine which “illuminates” the green to create a deep blue/purple hue. It was wonderful to be there on exactly such a day and my spirits were lifted by the precious lustre that reflected off the moss.

The plums turn yellow.

The description of micro-season 27 refers to the steady ripening of the plum ume(which is actually a form of Japanese apricot Prunus mume). These “plums” are then harvested and traditionally made into important pantry items in the Japanese kitchen. The most common uses are in pickled dry plums umeboshi and a sweet plum liquor umeshu, thought to dispel the summer heat. As the time of ripening coincides with the start of the rainy season, the word for monsoon in Japanese is tsuyu or bai-yu which literally means “plum rain”.


Haruo Shirane. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons (Columbia University Press 2012)

腐草為螢 Kusaretaru kusa hotaru to naru :
Fireflies rise from the rotten grass.

“In summer the nights. Not only when the moon shines, but on dark nights too as the fireflies flit to and fro….how beautiful it is”.

Sei Shonagon (966-1025)

I am just back from a “firefly viewing” excursion “hotarugari” at the rice fields on the northern outskirts of Kyoto. Such a lovely thing to do on a warm Saturday night in early summer! The surroundings were dark and conducive amidst newly planted plots and gradually as it got darker after 8PM, flitting here and there along fast running streams appeared…..”a bunch”……”a swarm”….(actually after googling collective nouns for fireflies I discovered the official words are: “light posse” or “sparkle”). To be honest, I prefer my wordsmith friend Ken’s monikers as various as: “an efflorescence”, “a pulsation”, or my favorite (with an almost circus like appeal), ” a spectacularity” of fireflies: hotaru. As the nights are becoming warmer and more humid, there is something refreshing and indeed magical about seeing these beetles emit their cool, pale green light enmasse. On the night I was there, various groups of people had gathered (as has been the practice for centuries): from families with kids, to young and older couples. Everyone was excited to see them but there was also a subdued hush and almost an air of reverence. To view these ephemeral creatures “dancing”, certainly brings out the childlike wonder about the marvels of nature. I witnessed children trying to catch them and unexpectedly (yet delightedly) found myself close a hand around a bug that had alighted on my arm. It sat gently and created a beautiful pulsing glow in the “lantern” my curled fingers provided, before taking off in search of a potential female mate.

The mesmerizing firefly “dance” has inspired artists and writers for centuries. Hotaru have been beloved by Japanese – as a metaphor for passionate love, ever since they appeared in the 8th century poetry anthology Man’ yōshu. Even contemporary novelist Haruki Murakami, adapted his short story “Hotaru” into the first part of his best selling novel “Norwegian Wood”. The firefly is not only a symbol of love but also connotes a supernatural meaning. As cultural commentator Namiko Abe writes: “their eerie lights are also thought to be the altered forms of the souls of soldiers who have died in the war”. This would explain the title of the popular Studio Ghibli animation “Hotaru no Haka” (Grave of the Fireflies), which is a very poignant story of WWII life in Japan.

Hotaru-bukuro : Campanula punctuata

Just as the number of hotaru are diminishing in urban areas due to pollution, so too is the popularity of a charming perennial called Spotted Bellflower (Campanula punctuata): hotaru-bukuro that grows wild in fields and mountains. The flowers are either white or mauve/red with small purple “dotlike” spots. Traditionally children used to catch hotaru in the flower and keep them in the “bag” “fukuro” it provided, hence the name.

Bodaiju: Tilia miqueliana

The other flower I have seen recently in my neighborhood temple is Bodai-ju no hana: Miquel’s linden. Tilia miqueliana has delicate five petalled yellow flowers that hang from stalks on this tall deciduous tree with heart shaped leaves. Miquel’s linden has long been cultivated around Buddhist temples in Japan because its leaves resemble those of the Bodhi tree (sacred to Buddhists in India). Ficus religiosa (Bodhi tree) is the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened after meditating under it for forty nine consecutive days. Certainly when I passed under the Japanese version of this sacred tree in full bloom the other day, I was very aware of a subtly sweet “fragrance of enlightenment” too.

The description for the 26th micro-season refers to the appearance of fireflies emerging from wet stream beds of grass.

“kusa no ha o/ otsuru yori tobu/ hotaru kana”

“The firefly disappears from the clumps of grass to immediately appear in the distance”

Basho (1644-1694)

蟷螂生 Kamakiri shōzu :
Praying Mantises Hatch.

When is a weed not a weed? Perhaps when it has a respected efficacy for healing…afterall, just a flip in perspective can reframe the familiar to create new meaning. Everywhere I go at the moment I encounter drifts of what appears to me, as the most elegant of little white flowers framed by the deepest green/purple heart shaped leaves. Lizard’s Tail/Chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata): dokudami has an almost cheerful insouciance that on first glance would seem to make it completely appropriate as a delicate chabana tea ceremony flower arrangement piece. Certainly it is ubiquitous in the lead up to the rainy season. It can fill the cracks in empty parking lots and almost every available spare space in a garden bed where previously there might have been nothing. For most Japanese, it is considered to be a nuisance. I heard one friend describe it as “a bane that needs constant removal for the next four months”. That description sounds pretty “weedlike” to me. Certainly it has vigorous rhizome like roots. Apparently it was the first plant to reappear after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945! Dokudami begins to bloom in late May and continues all throughout the summer. It is a herb that seems to grow particularly well in damp soil. Perhaps part of the negative reaction to dokudami is the unforgettably fishy mint “medicinal” smell that transfers to your fingers if you touch it. However, once you get past the shock of the unexpected “fragrance”, you can start to reframe your impression of this plant by discovering its myriad uses as a herb for healing. In many East Asian countries it has been used traditionally a panacea for various ailments as well as a beauty aid for skin. This explains why an alternative name for it in Japanese is ju-yaku 十役 which might be translated as “ten medicines in one”. The commonly used Japanese name dokudami derives from the characters: 毒 (poison) and 濃 (to stop), so literally this is the “poison stopping” plant. Besides containing a lot of essential vitamins and minerals- the tea made from this plant is said to have anti-microbial and disinfectant properties, many Japanese also believe it slows down aging and beautifies skin. Additionally, the juice from a fresh leaf of the dokudami plant can help alleviate the pain of a minor burn. The more I know about it, the more it sounds like my kind of “weed”. So, for the time being, I am happy to leave it flourishing in my north facing backyard where it grows unabated amongst pebbles on a concrete substrate.

Gardenia augusta ‘Fortuneana’: ō-yae-kuchi-nashi

In contrast to the fishy smell of dokudami, I am also inhaling the intensely sweet fragrance of Gardenia flowers in my neighborhood at this time. Gardenia augusta with the intriguing Japanese name kuchi-nashi which literally means “no mouth” has been used in Japanese gardens since ancient times. One of the theories for the origin of the Japanese nomenclature is that the seed pod remains closed on the plant. Another interesting explanation has been that kuchi-nashi is a derivation of kuchi-bashi which means “beak” in Japanese, given that the seed pods look like a nest full of fledgling birds with open beaks. The double flowered form Gardenia augusta ‘Fortuneana’: ō-yae-kuchi-nashi is used in modern Chinese medicine to cure influenza and colds and to flavor tea. The oblong fruits have been used as a dyestuff to tint some traditional foods a yellow color.

Gardenia augusta: kuchi-nashi

The first week of June also marks the arrival of another of the traditional twenty four seasonal points “bōshu”. It literally means “the season of rice-planting”. For centuries this has always been a busy time for farmers.

Bōshu: Season for planting rice.

The description for the twenty fourth micro-season acknowledges that the beginning of June is also the period in which praying mantises hatch. Actually, these insects called kamakiri in Japanese which refers to the cutting action of a scythe, are regarded affectionately by most Japanese. As they are carnivorous, praying mantises help to keep the number or bugs down. One member of my Ikebana group captured the amazing sight of a huge group of praying mantises hatching in her home garden. I take this as a good omen for a “protected” summer.

Kamakiri shōzu: Praying mantises hatching.

麦秋至 Mugi no toki itaru :
The Time for the Wheat Harvest.

Recently while cycling around town, I came across a wonderful display of the Blue Passionflower: tokeiso (Passiflora caerulea) on a neighborhood fence. Originally from South America this plant was introduced to Japan relatively recently. The flowers are so distinctively large and I was immediately reminded of the passionfruit vines of my Australian childhood garden. Although the fruiting variety is another species the flowers are very similar. The “design” of the flower with its incredible symmetry and purple gradation is eye catching. It is thought to resemble the face of a clock hence the name in Japanese. Interestingly enough, they also call it “clock flower” in Egypt!

Minazuki : Seasonal sweet.

It’s hard to believe that June is already upon us. In ancient times, June 1st was significant as a seasonal festival of ice. Back in the days before refrigeration, the ice that occurred naturally in winter was preserved in a purpose built pit dug out in the shadiest areas of mountain recesses. These pits were called “himuro” “icehouse”. Needless to say that this ice was incredibly valuable and was traditionally offered to the Imperial court at this time. Adzuki beans and a sweet syrup made from boiling a certain vine were poured over ice and served to the Emperor as a way of forgetting the summer’s heat. Ordinary folk could not avail themselves of such a luxury so instead concocted a traditional sweet wagashi called minazuki. It is made from a white sheet of uiro (a gelatinous ingredient made of glutinous rice flour), covered with Adzuki beans and cut into triangles. The beans are symbolic of driving out evil spirits while the triangular shape was thought to resemble ice. Traditionally it was believed that to eat a bit of ice at the beginning of June would prevent emaciation in summer. Still battling my COVID kilos, I’m not likely to be emaciated anytime soon, but in an effort to combat the rigors of a Kyoto summer I thought it best to partake of minazuki confection this afternoon.

Ikkyu-ji Temple Kyo-Tanabe.

I have also been taking advantage of the recent fine weather to make some excursions to places I’ve never visited before in Kyoto. I had been curious to visit the famous temple Ikkyu-ji on the outskirts of town for many years and finally got to see it. I was particularly motivated to go at the moment because I wanted to see the massed clipped azaleas which are nearing the end of their blooming period. Ikkyu-ji is named after the iconoclastic Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest Ikkyu-Sojun who lived in the medieval Muromachi period between 1394-1481. Known for his quick wit and irreverent approach to life, he is loved and respected by Japanese people even today. He was immortalized in an animation series that most Japanese children know. Ikkyu-ji is the place he spent most of his retired life whilst still maintaining his position as head abbot of the prestigious and influential Zen complex Daitoku-ji in northern central Kyoto. Perhaps more than any other Zen monk in Japanese history, he embodied the contradictions of human life and had a huge impact on how Zen infused Japanese literature and art.

Ikkyu-ji: North garden.

When I arrived at Ikkyu-ji, I was expecting fanfare of some description given the fame of its former resident. Instead I was met with an incredibly serene atmosphere befitting its location as a remote, rural hermitage. The garden is a masterful design and the accent of color provided by the late blooming azaleas, highlighted the sophistication of forms used. As I sat on the weathered engawa verandah, I felt the back of my calf rubbing up against the ancient cypress planking. The curved smoothness of the time worn edge was an almost electrically visceral reminder of over five centuries of appreciative contemplation. As I ran my hand over this piece of living architectural history, I felt privileged and somehow connected to the visitors from long ago. This tangibility is part of the joyful experience of living in the ancient capital. Being of the 21st century, yet privy to the continuity of human culture from the medieval period.

Engawa: verandah time worn from centuries of visitors

While at the temple, I decided to bask in the peaceful atmosphere by ordering matcha tea that was served with a traditional Japanese wagashi dry sweet featuring fermented Daitokuji natto soybean: ( a salty reminder of Ikkyu’s connection to the sophisticated Zen temple that he presided over in the city). It was blissful to spend a few hours here on a Monday afternoon with next to none other visitors. I am not a great believer in “bucket lists”, but I will say that it was immensely satisfying to fulfill the wish to visit after three decades of yearning.

Dry wagashi sweet featuring fermented natto soybeans.

The name for the 24th micro-season alludes to the ripening and harvest of the wheat crop here in Japan. With rainy season just around the corner, farmers must work hard to cut the wheat during this short period of dry weather.

紅花栄 Benibana sakau :
Safflowers bloom.

Here in Kyoto, we are currently reveling in some of the best weather of the year. For centuries, the end of May is reliably warm during the days and crisply cool at night. Ritual neighborhood greetings repeat endlessly how perfect the days are, but there is often a rejoinder that comes with a sigh : “if only it would stay like this all summer”. Kyoto residents know only too well that early June will bring ramped up humidity and temperatures to announce the start of the unofficial “fifth season” which is called tsuyu or rainy season. In the meantime, we are enjoying clear blue skies and fresh breeze. Before the heavy humidity sets in, the quality of fresh breeze is highly appreciated. It is said that there are more than two thousand words for the different types of wind in Japanese. This attention to the many nuances of wind has been developed since ancient times. It is another way the actual seasons in Japan undergo finely graded series of changes. Aesthetically, these subtle changes are most often sensed visually; the shift in the color of the surrounding mountains, the succession of blooming flowers. We also start to “hear” various aspects of nature whether it be the singing of the frogs or the first cries of the cuckoo. Seasonal change is largely celebrated poetically by sights and sounds but also traditionally by movements of the wind. On these fine days from May till the beginning of June, the soft wind that blows gently, the balmy breeze is known as kumpū. The literary term for this in English is “zephyr”. From the Chinese poet Su Dongpo:

” Kumpū minami yori kitari, denkakaku biryō o shōzu”.

“The balmy summer breezes come from the South. It becomes cooler at the Palace”.

So it was with utter delight and great abandon that I threw open the glass doors to my garden (still no mosquitoes yet), and celebrated the perfectly balmy weather by eating a traditional Japanese sweet wagashi that is named after “the pleasant breeze that carries the fragrance of flowers”: kumpū.

Kumpū: pleasant breeze carrying the fragrance of flowers.

Along the streets of my neighborhood and lining the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River, I am seeing a lot of mass planted St John’s Wort: Kinshibai (Hypericum patalum). Yellow five petalled flowers grow at the end of stems with long oval shaped leaves. The flower stamens look like “kinshi” (golden threads) and the shape of the flower resembles “bai” (plum blossom). Originally from Southern China, it has been cultivated in Japan since 1760. It tends to be used in parks and for flower arrangements and I love the cheerful yellow color.

Kinshibai: St John’s wort.

Similarly used in mass plantings in public spaces, is another form of the popular Spiraea genus: Shimotsuke (named after the feudal moniker for Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo) where this plant was first discovered. In English it is known as Japanese spiraea (Spiraea japonica). Flowers are born in attractive corymbs, on new season’s wood, each only 5mm in diameter, pinkish red in color. A sprig of Japanese spiraea is always welcome in chabana tea ceremony flower arrangements in this season.

Shimotsuke: Japanese spiraea

The name for the twenty third micro-season comes from the appearance of safflowers in bloom. Traditionally, the orange flowers emerging before turning a deeper red color is a symbol of early summer. Safflower is grown for its culinary use as an oil but is also important for its use as a red dye in Japanese textiles.

蚕起食桑 Kaiko okite kuwa o hamu :
Silkworms start feasting on mulberry leaves.

Shōman is one of the twenty four seasonal points. By now it is getting much warmer and many plants are growing well. By late May, the fresh, new green leaves have started to turn a darker green color. Traditionally this is also the time when the little cuckoo hototogisu starts to chirp.

Tessen: Clematis florida

I have a great fondness for the many kinds of Clematis: tessen (Clematis florida) that have started to bloom in my neighborhood. Tessen in Japanese means “iron wire” and this refers to the very thin stalks which climb up like tendrils on fences and trellises to support the flowers. There is another reading of this Japanese name meaning “steel hermit”, which connotes the lean and wiry body composition of a spiritual ascetic. The flower seems disproportionately large relative to the extremely thin stem which reinforces the need for an “iron” constitution. The bloom has a beautiful windmill shape and colors range from white, through pink, mauve and dark purple. When I have tried to arrange this in my Ikebana class it has been clear that a hanging vase is well suited allowing the tessen to flow down. It’s much more of a challenge trying to arrange it in an upright fashion as the flower needs to be supported by something external.

Kodemari: Spiraea cantoniensis

Another flower I have been seeing recently is Reeve’s Spiraea: kodemari (Spiraea cantoniensis). This Spiraea is an excellent flowering shrub that is frequently planted in Japanese gardens. It makes quite a focal specimen. Flowering branches are often used in Ikebana flower arrangements. From its base, individual stems grow in clusters with a large number of small white flowers which blossom in a ball shape hence its name kodemari (small handball).

Ki-shōbu: Yellow flag Iris

Another variety of Iris which really stands out right now because of its incredibly bright color is the Yellow Flag Iris: ki-shōbu (Iris pseudoacorus). Interestingly in the reverse direction of migration that Irises have traditionally travelled from Eastern cultures to Western, the Yellow Flag Iris was introduced to Japan in 1896 from Europe and is now widely seen throughout Japan.

The description for the twenty second micro-season refers to the very important silkworm that has been bred for its silk making capacity since ancient times in both China and Japan. It takes approximately one month of feasting on mulberry leaves before it will start to spin a white thread around its body, thus creating a cocoon as the precursor to precious silk.

竹笋生 Takenoko shōzu :
Bamboo shoots appear.

For many years now, I have enjoyed participating in a monthly book club, whose members are committed to reading many of the Japanese literary classics in translation. It took us three years to investigate the 1000+ page tome “The Tale of Genji” Genji Monogatari: widely considered to be the world’s first novel and one of the high points of the Japanese canon. It was a brilliant education on all manner of Japanese culture in the courtly Heian period (794-1185). Of course I was particularly attuned to any mention of seasonal flora and over time I became increasingly curious about a plant that blooms in early summer called Deutzia u-no-hana (Deutzia crenata). Unlike many of the plants in Genji monogatari which I have seen in domestic gardens even now, Deutzia seemed conspicuously absent. Finally through almost detective like inquiry, I managed to track it down but it is certainly not so common these days. It happens to be blooming now at a local temple.

It has very delicate white petalled flowers that blossom in a spiked shape. In Heian period waka poetry the blooms are alluded to as snow or sometimes as crested waves. Interestingly this is a plant that exemplifies how aesthetic tastes change over time. Almost forgotten now by many Japanese who prefer the bright colors of pansies and roses, u-no-hana had its hey day during the Heian period particularly amongst the aristocratic courtiers about a thousand years ago. The favorite Heian color was white and this is evident in many of the most celebrated flowers of the period: plum blossom, cherry blossom, deutzia and chrysanthemum. Moonlight, dew, and snow were also considered to be white. The Deutzia flower was considered to be a symbol of early summer. It was paired with the small cuckoo hototogisu in Heian period paintings. At the Imperial court, aristocrats “wore the seasons” and the layer kasane of the multilayered kimono appropriate for early summer was named “u-no-hana”: characterized by a white surface and a green interior. Even up until the late Muromachi (1333-1573) period, in the “Secret Transmissions of Ikenobo” (an important historical manual for Ikebana flower arrangement published in 1542), the Deutzia flower was one of the symbolic flowers for May. At some point at time, due to the vagaries of history, u-no-hana fell out of favour and while it still exists here and there, it is no longer as exalted as it once was.

Shi-ran: Chinese Ground Orchid.

Another small plant whose brightly colored flowers really stand out at the moment is the Chinese Ground Orchid shi-ran. (Shi means purple and ran means orchid). It’s widely planted in Japanese gardens: along pathways, in beds and also in pots. The plant is also used for medicinal purposes traditionally as well as to make glue.

Takenoko: Bamboo shoot.

The name of the 21st micro-season refers to the appearance of bamboo shoots takenoko . It seems a bit late for takenoko as they have already been stocked in supermarkets for a few weeks now. The truth is that there are several varieties of bamboo popular in Japan and each has its own harvest period. The larger Japanese Timber Bamboo (Phyllostachys bambusoides) is actually producing new shoots now. However, the most widely cultivated bamboo in Japan is Mōsō bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis), and this is also the most popular source of edible bamboo shoot in Japan and China. it tends to be dug up just when the newly emerging “head” of the shoot comes out of the ground. Although it is considered to be a seasonal delicacy, there is quite a lot of work in its culinary preparation and to tell the truth I prefer to be a guest rather than a cook when it comes to eating it. After the outer husks are removed, the rich soft flesh must be boiled for up to 2 hours to remove the toxins. Japanese people like to use nuka (rice husks in a powdered form) when boiling as it helps to remove the natural bitterness. After that, it is usually cooked with bonito flakes and I particularly like it when it is served with the fresh new leaves of the Japanese Pepper tree sansho.

Historically, in the classical poetic tradition, the senses of sight, sound and smell were elevated as elegant sensations while taste was dismissed as common and vulgar. However by the mid Edo (1600 -1858) period, the preparation and presentation of food had become very popular and therefore many foods were “seasonalized” in Haiku poetry. In contrast to meat which tended to be available all year round, fish and vegetables were eaten only when they were seasonally available. One of the key words for understanding Japanese cuisine is shun (peak season or at its tastiest). For traditional cooks, there is a great deal of pride in serving food at its tastiest and bamboo shoots also feature as part of this culinary cycle.

蚯蚓出 Mimizu izuru :
Earthworms rise.

One of my seminal memories of the early days in Kyoto, occurred on a Thursday morning in mid May some thirty years ago. I had been visiting my landlady Yamauchi-san for a cup of tea when a kindly, older Japanese gentleman (widely reputed to be the octogenarian’s boyfriend), paid a visit. Unbenownst to me he was coming to pick her up for their annual visit to see the Rabbit Ear Irises kakitsubata at Ota Jinja shrine in northern Kyoto. Rather spontaneously I was invited to come along and so we all bundled into his tiny Daihatsu car for the fifteen minute trip north. Ota Jinja shrine is nestled in the foothills of the Kitayama mountain range and Ota pond/marsh in the shrine’s precincts, has been famous for its kakitsubata since the Heian period (794-1185).

“Sacred mountains and the irises of Ota marsh-the depth of our prayers can be seen in their color”.

Fujiwara no Toshinari (1114-1204)

Ota Jinja shrine has now been designated as a national site of scenic beauty, but thirty years ago only the cognoscenti knew about it. Still I don’t mind paying 300 yen into the honor box now that it has become more famous, as the sea of violet Irises among the freshest green maple leaves creates an indelible impression.

Sea of Kakitsubata Irises at Ota Jinja Shrine in Kyoto.

Among the many varieties of Iris, the kakitsubata (Iris laevigata) seems to be particularly beloved by the Japanese. Perhaps one of the reasons is the way Japanese poetry and painting have long been inextricably connected. One of the most iconic paintings in Japanese art history is the national treasure Kakitsubata-zu: Korin Ogata’s (1658-1716) depiction of Irises spreading across two golden screens. Although Kakitsubata-zu has been reproduced countless times in various advertising campaigns and has been splashed on all manner of merchandise from T-shirts to mugs, it has an incredible presence due largely to its use of vibrant colors and the almost abstract simplicity of its calligraphic design. This 18th century work is completely unlike the intricate floral compositions of the period with its composition almost a reductio ad ulitimum of just the basic elements: the vibrant azurite blue hues of the Iris blooms and the vivid malachite green of the leaves, swimming against the simplest background of gold leaf on paper. This is truly an extraordinary work and a few years ago, it was the greatest joy to see this masterpiece as it was displayed in early May at the Nezu museum in Tokyo, at the very same time that the kakitsubata were blooming in the museum’s garden. No matter how many times one sees an artwork as a reproduction, nothing can compare with the impact of seeing the original directly in situ.

Kakitsubata-zu: Korin Ogata (Image courtesy of the Nezu Museum).

Another layer that helps to explain the Japanese affinity for kakitsubata is contained in the waka poetry that appeared in the Heian period court literature. In the 10th century classic “The Tales of Ise” a poem recounts how some companions on a long journey stopped to rest at a place called Mikawa, beside a river bank where Irises were blooming. A rustic, old, eight plank wooden bridge nearby reminded the travelers of a spot that had a similar feeling in the old capital Kyoto and so they decided to write verse that generated nostalgia. They even turned it into a poetic game where “kakitsubata” was used as a hidden word in an acrostic poem. (HA and BA sounds were used interchangeably in pre-modern Japanese). The poet was yearning for the wife he had left in Kyoto.

KArakoromo/ KIsutsu nare shi/ TSUma shi areba/ HArubaru kinuru/ TAbi o shi zo omou

Since I have a wife/ familiar to me as the hem/ of a well worn robe/ I think sadly of how far/ I have traveled on this journey. (translated by Newhard and Cook)

Ariwara no Narihira (825-880)

When thinking of the iconic nature of Korin’s screen painting of Irises, I am also reminded of the Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh’s depiction of the same flower. (When I was growing up in Perth, an Australian business man Alan Bond paid a record breaking 53 million dollars to acquire this painting. It was later sold to the Getty Museum in the States). As many people know, Van Gogh was a huge admirer of Japanese art.

“I envy the Japanese, the extreme clearness that everything has in their work, It never is wearisome, and never seems to be done too hurriedly. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few sure strokes with the same ease as if it were as simple as buttoning your coat”.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

His love of Ukiyo-e prints is well documented and there is an equally assured ease evident in his work of the same title.

Detail from Van Gogh’s “Irises” (Image courtesy of the Getty Museum).

Thinking about the description for this twentieth micro-season, it is evident that early summer provides greater impetus for hibernating creatures to surface. Although insects were thought to have awakened some two months ago by the lunar calendar’s reckoning (in the seventh micro-season of the new year), perhaps the earthworms are “late risers”.

蛙始鳴 Kawazu hajimete naku :
Frogs start singing.

One of my favorite traditional events of the year comes at the end of the national public holiday called Golden Week. The seasonal celebration known as “Boy’s Day” originated at some point during the Kamakura (1185-1336) period with the rise of the Samurai warrior class. However, the fifth day of the fifth month has had a longer history as an annual observance ever since it was adapted by the Imperial court in the 8th century from China. Originally one of the “Five Sacred Festivals” Gosekku, the Tango Festival Tango Sekku became the most prominent summer observance in the Heian period court. It began as a ritual for dispelling evil influences and from the 8th century, various plants with strong scents and medicinal qualities such as Sweet flag shōbu and Mugwort yomogi were placed close to the body or on the eaves of houses to ward off evil. Since the leaves of the Sweet flag iris shōbu resemble the blade of a sword, the plant was symbolically powerful. Even today, we can buy shōbu leaves at every supermarket in the first week of May. Bathing in the waters of a shōbu infused tub is supposed to fortify one’s constitution and public baths sento also feature shōbu-yu (Sweet flag bath) on May 5th.

The word shōbu is also a homonym for shōbu (尚武) which alludes to “warrior spirit”. Thus in the medieval period, the Tango Festival became a day for boys to show off their martial prowess. After this time, samurai armor was displayed prominently in homes in this period to celebrate masculine energy.

Samurai armor displayed prominently during Boys Day Festival.

Not surprisingly, the talismanic nature of certain animals and foods is also apparent during this festival. In the medieval period, the carp koi was considered to be the “king of fish”. In China, the legend was that carp were able to climb the rapids named Dragon Gate Ryūmon and transform into a dragon. Subsequently, carp koi became valued as symbols of overcoming obstacles and social success. Raising carp streamers koinobori on poles around the time of Boys Day is a continuation of this tradition. Even today, koinobori are beloved all over Japan and they can be seen flapping in the breeze in many places. On my daily walk in the eastern foothills of Kyoto, I came across a magnificent display outside a prestigious boys high school recently.

koinobori: carp streamers displayed outside a school in Kyoto
koinobori are designed to “swim”in the breeze.

The talismanic function of food is also evident in this festival. From the mid Edo (1600-1868) period, the oak leaf rice cake kashiwa-mochi became popular as an edible good luck charm: because old leaves stay on the tree until new ones start to emerge they symbolize an unbroken family lineage. I was thrilled to discover that my local wagashi traditional sweet shop produced kashiwa-mochi with an unusual miso-an (white bean paste and miso) filling. They tasted utterly delicious and I even had to have a second one to “bolster my masculinity”.

kashiwa-mochi: Oak leaf rice cake

In the garden, Irises are very much the the flower of the moment. There are many different kinds and they represent the transition from late Spring to early Summer. One of the first to bloom is the Japanese Roof iris ichihatsu. Ichi means first and hatsu means beginning in Japanese. I saw a lovely display at the historic Kamigoryo shrine in north central Kyoto recently.

Ichihatsu: Japanese Roof Iris (Iris tectorum)

The other day as I was visiting Honen-in at the end of the Golden Week public holiday, I suddenly heard a loud and distinctive sound as I approached the Higashiyama mountain that abuts the temple. Although nothing was visible, I soon worked out that the frogs must have grown to the point of making their presence known. Somehow it seems very appropriate that this very particular “singing” heralds the beginning of Summer. Rikka is one of the 24 seasonal points marking that Spring is over.

牡丹華 Botan hana saku :
Peonies Bloom.

Nothing quite prepares you for the majesty of a peony in full bloom. The extraordinary frill of petals reminds me of amongst other things, a lion’s mane. There are numerous horticultural varieties of peony but the most decorative cultivar known as the “King of Flowers” is the Tree peony botan (Paeonia suffructicosa).There is much variation in color and flower shape. White, red, soft pink, magenta and even yellow can be seen. They can be either single or double petalled. They are grand show stoppers and are often depicted in paintings, kimono and hanging scrolls. As a combination for classical art, peonies and butterflies are often depicted together.

Paeonia suffructicosa: botan

Introduced from China in the 8th century by Buddhist monks who admired the peony as a medicinal plant, they were originally widely planted in temple grounds. Perhaps it is not well known that temples favored plants that could provide a healing utility. The tea plant Camellia sinensis was also grown in this capacity. Peony is used in traditional medicine as a pain killer and anti-pyretic. Therefore the flowers were less important than the bark and roots. Actually the genus name commemorates Paeon, the physician of the Greek Gods.

The other day, when I was discussing the lavish display of peony blooms in the Zen temple Kenninji in the Gion district of Kyoto, of the students in my Ikebana class made what I thought was an interesting cultural comment. It was her belief that it was not really appropriate for a Zen temple to display such dazzling gorgeousness and that the cumulative effect of viewing too many peonies was something akin to “indigestion”. I nodded quietly to myself, yet again reminded that the traditional Japanese aesthetic eschews overly “loud” displays. Traditional manuals for tea ceremony advise that special care should be taken when selecting vases to display peonies in the tea room. There are special baskets that exist exclusively for peonies. Alternatively, old bronze seiji vessels are seen as appropriate receptacles given the grand nature and Chinese provenance of the flower.

In addition to be grown at temples medicinally, peonies were also favored by the aristocracy. Peonies had been planted at the Chinese Imperial Palace since before the Tang Dynasty (618-907).Because of this, peony symbolism included nobility, honor and wealth. These associations continued and were also adopted by the Japanese Imperial Court during the Heian period (794-1185) in Japan. They were very expensive and therefore only available to the elite until the 19th century when advances in grafting techniques made them more affordable for regular people.

Chinese peony: Herbaceous peony: shakuyaku

The other most common variety of peony in Japan is known as the Chinese peony or the herbaceous peony shakuyaku (Paeonia obovata). It was probably introduced from China (where it has been cultivated since 900 B.C), at a similar time as the Tree peony in the 8th century. It differs from Paeonia suffructicosa in that it emerges out of perennial root stock every Spring and unlike the Tree peony, does not become woody. Flower colors are not quite as varied as the Tree peony but there are also single and double petalled varieties. Almost as beautiful as the “King of Flowers”, shakuyaku is said to be the “Prime minister of Flowers”.

Paeonia obovata: “Prime minister of Flowers”.

The magnificent fragility of both Tree peony and Chinese peony blooms becomes obvious after even a brief Spring rain. Naturally this evanescence makes them even more beautiful in the traditional Japanese aesthetic.

“After cutting the peony my mind seemed emptied-twilight”

Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

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”


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.