霞始靆 Kasumi hajimete tanabiku:
Mists start to linger.

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

Yamaguchi-san pruning a black pine tree: kuromatsu

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

Before and after pruning a black pine tree: kuromatsu

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

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

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

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

Black pine tree clippings after “haircut”.

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

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

The poetic phrase that describes this micro-season alludes to the “haze” or veil of mist kasumi that starts to appear on the mountains in early Spring due to increased moisture in the air. It is still very cold and the common expression at the moment is: “san-kan shi-on” or “three cold four hot”. The ancient’s also knew all about this as the phrase was first coined in China. Call me hypersensitive but it still feels extremely cold to me. Maybe the update 2021 version is “five cold two warm’.

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

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

Ume plum blossom.

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

The sculptural angularity of ume branches.

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

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

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

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

Red/pink kobai plum blossom

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

White plum blossom: hakubai

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

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

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

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

Sei Shōnagon (11th century Imperial Court Poet)

Red plum blossoms: kobai

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

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

Early Spring citrus fruit in the neigborhood.

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

On the sweet end of the spectrum: dekopon

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

On the astringently tart end of the scale: hassaku

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ōe no Chisato

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

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

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

Uguisuna: Japanese mustard spinach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese matcha tea and seasonal sweet.

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

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

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

Ume plum blossom pink buds.

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

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

New green bamboo structure aodake demarcating garden space

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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

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

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

Shimekazari: New Year decoration and amulet from the past.

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

Offertory coins and lucky mame:beans.

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

Yakuzuka: Purification Pillar at Saijosho-Daigengu Shrine.

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

Yakuzuka: Purification Pillar

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

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

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

Oni: Devil/Ogre mask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Pine kuromatsu “sho”

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

Black pine kuromatsu “sho”

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

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

which translates as:

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

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

Bamboo take “chiku”

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

Bamboo fence replaced at New Year

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

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

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

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

款冬華 Fuki no hana saku:
Butterburs bud

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

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

Butterbur Ikebana arrangement at Kyoen exhibition

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

Unfurling Butterbur flowers.

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

Butterbur/Coltsfoot bud Miso hors d’oeuvre

雉始雊 Kiji hajimete naku:
Pheasants Start to Call

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

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

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

Showing off at Heian Jingu Shrine

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

Mochibana “Mochi flowers”

水泉動 Shimizu atataka o fukumu:
Springwater Holds Warmth

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

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

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

kagamimochi: mirror rice cake

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

tsurara : icicles

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

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

Sei Shōnagon The Pillow Book (translated by Meredith McKinney)

芹乃栄 Seri sunawachi sakau:
Water Dropwort Flourishes

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu: Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ganjitsu ya/ kamiyo no koto mo/ omowaruru

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