Saturday, February 8, 2014

1. 東風解凍, "Easterly Winds Melt the Ice"

(BGM: "Winter" by Tori Amos)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
初春, Shoshun,  Early Spring
Season No. 1:立春, Risshun: "The Beginning of Spring"

Snow melts in Yogo, northern Shiga Prefecture.

Climate No. 1: 東風解凍, Higashi Kaze Kouri Wo Tokeru
"Easterly Winds Melt the Ice" (February 4-8) 

I personally love this week in the old solar calendar! Without fail, every sadistic meteorologist on Japanese TV will make the eyes of the nation roll in unison by saying that spring has "officially" arrived. Though the coldest winds of the year rage outside, making everyone reach for their kairo instant hand warmer packs, this tidbit of outdated trivia is supposed to make us all feel hopeful, somehow.

True, we've had maybe two days where we didn't need to bundle up so tight. And perhaps that's from an eastern warm front. But nighttime temperatures are still dipping just below zero degrees, making for frosty mornings and chilly days. It ain't spring yet!

But even in this bleak season of struggle, Nature decides to throw herself a little party to brighten the mood.

Flowers of the Season: Plum Blossoms

"Spring too, very soon!
They are setting the scene for it--
Plum tree and moon." -Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Snow Melting on a hakubai  (white) Prunus mume

Pink koubai  blossoms of Kyoto's Kitano-Tenmangu Shrine

One has only to look outside and smell the fragrant plum blossoms to feel the joy of spring's arrival. Across Japan, oblivious to the relentless cold in an act of sheer defiance, Prunus mume trees push out their flowers like thousands of mini pompons. Spreading and falling like suspended fireworks, their blossoms give a powerful splash of color to the dry, muted landscapes of winter.

An intensely fragrant roubai (wax apricot) graces the Takehara countryside (Hiroshima Prefecture).
These ornamental Japanese apricots (popularly known by their English misnomer "plum") come in three different colors: 白梅 hakubai  (white), 紅梅 koubai  (lit. "red," but actually pink) and  蝋梅 roubai ("wax apricot," but known as the "yellow plum" even though it's really Chimonanthus praecox, a different species from Prunus mume).

A bright magenta koubai in Hikone (Shiga Prefecture)

Taste of the Season: 蕗の董, Fukinotou, Japanese Butterbur

There's a saying in Japan that in order to become an adult, one must taste the "bitterness of life." Symbolic of this sacrifice is the eating of bitter plants such as butterbur (Petasites japonicus, aka "bog rhubarb"), the first flower of early spring.

Fuki, like its cousin rhubarb, is a wild plant found on Japanese mountainsides. The stalks are usually steamed, boiled or simmered in a broth and served as a side dish. But the puffy bulbous flower buds, once eaten as a standard mountain vegetable, are nowadays considered a seasonal delicacy. 

Coated in a simple tempura batter and deep-fried in cooking oil, butterbur has a gentle nuttiness that overrides any bitter aftertaste. Though the mature stalks of the fuki  (butterbur) plant can be easily located in the local produce section of any grocery store, butterbur flower buds (like the ones pictured here found in Hikone, Shiga) are becoming a rarity in modern chain store supermarkets, as demand for this traditional food is on the decline.

But their warm flavor and chewy, brussel sprout-like texture are worth the extra effort in hunting them down. I found the taste undeniably "green," which always inspires me into thinking about spring.

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

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