Two Symbolic Plants for Japanese Summer

Now Sakura (cherry blossom) is well-known as a representative of Japanese spring. Then which plant best represents Japanese summer? When I envision a nostalgic summer scene, two plants immediately come to mind: asagao (morning glory) and hoozuki (Chinese lantern plant). They bring up the image of summer vacation, festivals and the Bon season. While sakura trees are on the street, making a part of the landscape, these plants are usually enjoyed at home – in flower pots to decorate the space under the eaves of houses.

Asagao

854-iriya[1]

Morning glory is a typical plant used as an educational material in the subject called living environmental studies for children in lower grades in elementary schools. Usually, they take care of their own pots from seeding, watering to gathering the seeds with writing observation diaries. Asagao is adopted in schools not only because it’s easy to grow but also it will bring lots of awareness to children such as the importance of taking care of plants and scientific wonders. It’s no exaggeration to say that this kawaii flower cultivates our basic gardening skills.

Growing  asagao, however, is not only a childish hobby. Recently it gets attention as one of the popular spiecies for green curtain, but this flower has been popular since a long time ago. At first, it was imported to Japan more than 1,000 years ago as a medicinal plant with a laxative effect. In the edo period, asagao, especially mutant ones became very popular among common people. Even today, plant lovers enjoy mutant morning glories, calling them henka-asagao (henka means ‘change’).

I got some henka-asagao seeds this year, so will post the outcome on this blog once it successfully blooms 🙂

Hoozuki

880-hou[1]

Hoozuki had been used as a medicinal plant in the old times as well. It became also popular in the edo period and both asagao and hoozuki were sold by plant peddlers. While it was used for various purposes like a tranquilizer among common people, it is said that yuujo (courtesan or professional prostitute) used hoozuki when they wanted to have an abortion. Aso, this plant has been used to decorate Buddhist altars at home as it looks like lanterns guiding the spirits.

Summer Festivals Featuring Asagao and Hoozuki

Today, in many parts of Japan, asagao markets and hoozuki markets take place, announcing the arrival of summer. One of the most famous ones are Iriya Asagao Festival in Kishibojin Temple (also called Kishimojin Temple),Tokyo and Hoozuki Ichi in Sensoji Temple, Tokyo. Those who visited Japan in the old times, like Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, Robert Fortune and Vittorio Arminjon, were fascinated by the Japanese gardening culture in which even poor people enjoyed growing plants making the best of the limited space and resources. These festivals can be a great chance to get a glimpse of the traditional Japanese gardening culture which is still alive.

Hoozuki Ichi
Date: July 9 and 10, 2014
Venue: Sensoji Temple
Address: 2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Access: 5 min walk from Asakusa St. (Tokyo Metro)

Asagao Festival
Date: July 6-8, 2014
Venue: Iriya Kishibojin Temple
Address: 1-12-16 Shitaya, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Access: 1 min walk from Iriya St. (Tokyo Metro), 3 min walk from Uguisudani St. (JR)

(photo courtesy of  http://sozai-free.com/)

Hide Your Belly Button When You Hear Thunder

Today it rained so hard with thunder here in eastern Japan. I saw a small boy running so fast on his way home. For the small kids, thunder must be one of the most terrifying things.

On a day like today, I remember my childhood: The adults around us said, “Hide your belly button, or the god of thunder will take it away.”

Who is the god of thunder? Although there are several myths describing this god, but in general, he’s called ‘Kaminari-sama’, or more formally ‘Raijin’, living above the clouds with the drums on his shoulders to create the sound of thunder. If you visit Japan, you can meet him at the most famous touristy site, Kaminarimon of Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Raizin.jpg
Raizin“. Licensed under Public domain via ウィキメディア・コモンズ.

Then why kids have to hide the belly button? This actually means “Wear your clothes properly to cover your belly.” It’s normally hot and humid in this season, but the temperature goes down quickly when thunderstorming. So the parents tell kids not to expose their bodies to cold temperature; otherwise, they would easily catch a cold.

It seems to hold true… Now I’m feeling cool breeze from outside.

Kaidan: Cooling Off Without Air Conditioning

Summer in Japan is really hot and humid.  Yet there is a cool way to refresh without air conditioning in Japan – enjoying kaidan (ghost stories).

It sounds like a joke, but ghost stories seem to have a cooling effect scientifically. The mechanism is, people get tense when they feel fear, which causes the peripheral blood vessel to contract. It impedes the blood circulation.  The body surface temperature goes down as a result.

With or without this evidence, kaidan has been popular as summer-time entertainment since the old days. It may be partly because of bon, a Japanese buddhist custom in summer. During the bon period, it’s believed the ancestors’ spirits come back to this world.  Actually lots of Japanese summer festivals such as tanabata, toro-nagashi  and okuribi derive from or related to this belief. So people might feel the dead souls somewhat closer than other seasons.

There is another view on the origin of kaidan as summer entertainment.  In 1800s,  a famous kabuki  scriptwriter Tsuruya Nanboku IV wroted stories for natsu-kyogen (kabuki theatrical  productions during summer) including a splendid play entitled “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan”. At that time, summer-time productions were played by young actors with lower price because the top actors took vacation. To attract the audience during summer, kaidan , which had been played in spring or autumn till then, was played with novel settings. It is said that kaidan was established as a Japanese summer tradition since then.

Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Traditional Kaidan Stories

When I was small, my grandma used to tell me ghost stories. I was so scared but I learned the lessons behind such as the sin of betrayal at the same time. Some of my favorites are:


Traditional Ghost Arts

For most Japanese people, the typical image of ghost is not like Casper but a sad, beautiful woman wearing a white kimono. When I was a kid, I truly believed that ghosts had no legs, but later I learned this was a creation of Maruyama Okyo, a famous artist in the past.

Oyuki.jpg
Oyuki” by Maruyama Ôkyo (1733-1795) – Found at: http://eee.uci.edu/clients/sbklein/GHOSTS/html/edoghosts/pages/oyuki.html. Via Wikipedia.

If you’re interested in appreciating the traditional ghost arts, it’s worth visiting Zenshoan temple in Yanaka, Tokyo in August.  Every summer, they exhibit Encho‘s (famous rakugo storyteller in 1800s) collection of ghost paintings, one of the best of this kind in Japan.

Zenshoan’s Location
https://plus.google.com/112728337418675952578/about?hl=ja

 

Bonsai Village

If you want to take a side trip to the suburbs of Tokyo, Bonsai village is definitely one of the most worthy places to visit.

Omiya Bonsai village, celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, is located in Saitama Prefecture. It takes less than an hour to get there from the major stations in Tokyo like Shinjuku and Ueno.

This town was created by a group of professional bonsai gardeners immigrated from Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Now with 6 bonsai gardens and 1 bonsai museum, it attracts bonsai fans from all over the world. The 8th World Bonsai Convention will be held here in 2017.

You can find the most authentic and historical bonsai trees in this area.

For the first-time visitors, it is easy to start from Bonsai Art Museum. This museum explains the basics of bonsai and exhibits the trees more than 100 years old.  It’s very unique in dealing with the living creatures as art. You can find something new and different every time.

Enjoying bonsai art is playing with imagination. Stand in front of the trees, imagine you are a small creature, and look up the trees… what can you see?

5626_442610835818090_1561094000_n

487423_442610795818094_92316244_n

P1010255


Around the art museum, there scattered historical bonsai-en (bonsai garden). Bonsai-en is privately owned by a professional bonsai gardener growing and maintaining bonsai trees. The gardens are open to the public and you can buy bonsai trees if you like.

Here are some etiquette tips in the gardens:

  • Enjoy them in a quiet manner, not making a big noise.
  • Don’t take pictures. (Photos are permitted only in a particular area of Bonsai Art Museum.)
  • Don’t touch bonsai trees.

You can find more details from the below link.

Omiya Bonsai

http://omiyabonsai.jp/

Shijimi Soup: Comfort Food from Edo Period

Tokyo Skytree opened in May, 2012 and has become one of the most touristy sites in Tokyo. The closest station Tokyo Skytree St. used to be called Narihirabashi St. , named after a nearby bridge. The area around this bridge was wetland in the past, famous for shijimi (freshwater clams).

Morning in Edo (old name for Tokyo) started with the voices of the vendors selling shijimi and natto (fermented soy beans) on the streets. One of the typical Japanese breakfast menu – rice, natto, shijimi miso soup and pickles, was already established in the Edo period.  Shijimi has been popular from the old time not just because it’s cheap and accessible, but also because its medicinal effect is well-known. It was used to cure jaundice and to help mothers make more milk in that time. Still now, shijimi jiru (miso soup with shijimi) is one of the popular hangover cures.

This savory, nourishing soup is super easy to make. Here’s a basic recipe.


Ingredients: water, shijimi clams, salt and miso paste.

STEP 1
Remove sand from the clams by leaving them in the salt water (salinity: 1%) for 3-5 hours in the dark place. Then wash thoroughly.

蜀咏悄 3

STEP 2
Place water and shijimi clams in the pot and simmer until it’s boiled. Skim off the scum from broth.

蜀咏悄 4

STEP 3
Add miso paste.
*I use a strainer to make the soup smooth by preventing large particles of miso paste get into the water.

蜀咏悄 2

Done! 🙂

蜀咏悄 1

I don’t use dashi for miso soup when using clams to enjoy their pure taste.  You can arrange it by adding sake, grounded sansho pepper and/or green veggies like mitsuba (Japanese chervil) and scallions.

Joy of Rainy Season in Japan

The rainy season has come here in eastern Japan.  It’s called tsuyu (梅雨, literally means ‘plum rain’) and lasts about one month from June to July.

It’s physically uncomfortable… but it’s also true that tsuyu is one of the best times to enjoy the beauty and tradition of Japan.

The best thing about this season is ajisai (hydrangea). The beautiful blooms decorate everywhere – streets, parks and mountain paths, which changes the daily scenery like a kaleidoscope. It’s also nice to visit any ajisai-dera (hydrangea temple) where lots of hydrangea trees are planted.

P1000250

It’s also the best season to encounter lots of small creatures like snails, pond skaters, Japanese tree frogs… Especially, it’s just whimsical to see hotaru (firefly) flickering in pitch darkness at night in the countryside…

At home, ume-shigoto (plum processing) is a traditional seasonal event. This rainy season coincidents with the harvest time of plums and people make various products using plums such as umeboshi (salted pickled plums), plum wine, plum juice and plum jam. It is ancient wisdom to prevent plums go bad in this hot and humid weather. And these plum products have various healthy and medicinal benefits like preventing summer fatigue and antibacterial effect.

When you feel sluggish, koh (Japanese incense) helps freshen the stagnated air. According to a traditional koh house, tsuyu is the best season to enjoy koh as it smells better in the humid air. The aroma, together with the beautiful sound of rain, changes the atmosphere best for chill-out and meditation…