Monday, March 24, 2014

10. 雀始巣: " Sparrows Build Their Nests"

(BGM: "This Must Be The Place" by Talking Heads)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
仲春, Chushun: "Mid-spring"
Season No. 4: 春分, Shunbun: 
"Vernal Equinox"  

"Sparrows On the March" (Kagamiyama Park, Higashi Hiroshima City)
The cold air snaps of early spring are practically gone, yet I'm still wearing thermals out of habit. It's a time of evenness, of balance. With little effort, I feel good in my skin, again. And with the equinox comes a positivity that's reflected everywhere, from the blooming flowers to the morning birdsong symphony.

Fresh water and flowers for the dearly departed (Motoujina, Hiroshima City)
According to Buddhist custom, the vernal equinox Shunbun (春分), like its autumnal counterpart Higan, is a time for cleaning family graves. To the American mind, a day of grave cleaning might sound rather depressing, as death is a taboo subject in our culture.

But for many of my Japanese friends, Shunbun no Hi (Vernal Equinox Day) is far from unpleasant. In fact it's quite the opposite. It's a time of emotional cleansing. For many Japanese, the deceased are still considered active members of the family, despite their lack of physical form. Quite a few people I've spoken with still consult the spirits of their departed loved ones as if they were still living and breathing.

Traditionally for Shunbun no Hi, the family prepares fresh flowers, Buddhist prayer paraphernalia, a picnic lunch and sweets called ohagi (soft mochi rice coated in anko bean paste) and head out to the family cemetery. After cleaning and sprucing up the graves, they offer prayers and incense to the deceased, maybe inform them of certain important family events, and finish with a relaxing picnic in the warm spring sunshine. Some families go out for a fancy dinner after cleaning up the family graves, followed by a soak in the local hot springs. Whichever way they do it, they leave with a clear conscience, ready for new year ahead.

Climate No. 10:  雀始巣:
Suzume Hajimete Sukuu:
" Sparrows Build Their Nests" 
(March 20-24)

Sparrow Chick (Toride City, Ibaraki)
Though the term suzume in the Shichijuni-kou calendar refers specifically to the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus saturatus) for this season, all sorts of birds are now pairing up, checking out real estate and building their nests of straw and mud. Just this morning, I spotted the first swallows of the new year, inspecting last year's nest under the roof of a ramen shop. Carrion crows and starlings can frequently be seen flying through the air with straw in their beaks. Everyone seems so busy in the buildup to true spring!

Sparrows still in their thermals despite warm March air. (Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture)
Suzume sparrows in particular are quite dear to the Japanese heart. Not only are they incredibly cute and jump up and down like little girls playing hopscotch, but they can be quite tame at the prospect of free food. Their general upbeat character has inspired dance (such as Sendai's spirited Suzume Odori), art, the rather violent fable Shita Kiri Suzume (which portrays the birds as magical benefactors), and even poetry.

"In blossoms
  A horsefly plays... don't eat it
   Friend sparrow."  -Matsuo Basho

I've yet to meet a person in Japan who dislikes sparrows. Even my husband calls them his "little buddies." Lucky for him, they're preparing to multiply.

Taste of the Season: 蕨, Warabi, Bracken

A boxed lunch of green bracken (left) and other mountain veggies on rice. (JR Tokaido Shinkansen)
The boiled fronds of bracken fern (Pteridium) are eaten in Japan and Korea as a common spring vegetable. Their soft, understated taste goes well with rice and starchy root vegetables like bamboo shoots and lotus root.

Two types of edible fern at the supermarket: zenmai (brown, left) and warabi (green, right).

Despite their prominence in Japanese cuisine, warabi, as opposed to its brown fiddlehead cousin zenmai (Osmunda japonica), is potentially carcinogenic to humans and other mammals. Recent studies have shown an association between bracken consumption and stomach cancer. An interesting blog about the controversy, along with a how-to of "safe" preparation can be found here.

Ice-cold warabi mochi from a vendor truck, sprinkled with kinako powder. (Odori Park, Sapporo, Hokkaido)
For many, rubbery boiled fern fronds can be an acquired taste. A different, much sweeter way of enjoying bracken is to have a nice plastic tray full of wiggly cool warabi mochi, a Japanese sweet resembling Jell-o, made from warabi starch mixed with boiling water. Warabi mochi comes in an assortment of bright colors and rich, sugary toppings. But my personal favorite is the gorgeous matcha green tea flavor pictured below.

Green tea flavored warabi mochi. (Saijo, Higashi Hiroshima)
I first became a fan of warabi mochi when my dorm mate Sumire whipped up a batch for me in my Alaskan kitchen. Though both of us aced all of our science classes, neither of us were aware at the time that we might've been consuming hydrogen cyanide or DNA-damaging ptaquiloside. But that's neither here nor there. To me, it's one of those tastes that's worth the occasional risk.
Since the mochi version of warabi is so processed, I'm guessing (hoping) that any risk is automatically removed from the product, anyways.

Let's just go along with that idea. It is the season of positivity, after all. :-)

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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