Tuesday, April 29, 2014

17. 霜止出苗: "The End Of The Frost"

(BGM: "Clear Horizon" by Basia)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
晩春 Banshun: "Late Spring"
Season No. 6: 穀雨, Koku: 
"Grain Rain" 

Climate No. 17. 霜止出苗
Shimo Yande Nae Izuru:
"The End Of The Frost"
(April 25 -April 29)

The warmth of the sun has reached even the northern climes, reassuring farmers and gardeners everywhere that it's now safe to think about putting those seed starts into the soil. "The end of the frost" refers to the current conditions in the deep folds of Japan's mountain country, which covers three-quarters of the entire archipelago. Even in the farthest reaches of Japan's remotest communities, the land heaves a sigh of relief. Warm days are here to stay.

Though Japan's "hiking season" officially opens in July, this is our favorite time of year to hit the mountain trails weeks before the snakes, hornets and relentless heat become an issue. Whenever there's a break in the rain just long enough for the trails to dry out, you can find us every weekend on some random mountaintop enjoying the country from a different perspective.

There's something lifechanging about conquering a mountain trail by your own physical power. The climb can be gruelling, with slippery mud, loose rocks and missteps that could end in tragedy. But the process of overcoming your own sense of fear and self-doubt can truly be a growing experience. Not to mention the empowering, healing effect it has on a sedentary body!

 Here are a couple of my favorite hikes savored during the "end of the frost:"

Shou-un Waterfall near Buttsuji Temple (Mihara, Hiroshima)

Dizzying view of the Seto Ohashi Bridge at dusk from Mt. Washu (Kurashiki, Okayama).

"Fresh spring!
   The world is only
    Nine days old!
     These fields and mountains." 
                           -Matsuo Basho
A fiery sunset rewards our descent from Kannonzaki Trail (Okamura Island, Ehime Prefecture)

Jo-o Waterfall (Mihara, Hiroshima)

Critter Of The Season: 山蟹, Yamagani, Mountain Crabs

A kurobenkeigani (Chiromantes dehaani) hiding from my camera in a ditch in Obama, Fukui.
There's an old Japanese Aesop's fable about a mother crab who starved to death from the antics of a cruel snow monkey. Her orphaned crablets later avenged their mother's death by killing the monkey some years later. The whole story, called "The Battle Between the Crab And Monkey" (Saru Kani Ni Gassen) is delightfully rediculous, with animated chestnuts and dung getting in on the kung-fu action. But what intrigued me the most was the concept of crabs hanging around a forest alongside snow monkeys. (Which didn't make any sense, because Japanese mukashibanashi, like Dena'ina Alaskan folktales, often get their inspiration from actual animal behavior. Crabs were strictly sea creatures, according to my understanding).

I brushed the whole idea off as a flight of fancy until I came across one while plodding around the gardens of Ishiyama Temple in Otsu, Shiga. I looked down into a ditch and noticed this black crab, looking very out of place. Did someone just finish a seafood meal at the temple and chuck this for the koi?

The remains of an adult sawagani crab (Geothelphusa dehaani, a type of marsh crab that also lives in the mountains of central Japan).
A decade later, in a mountain stream near Hyakusaiji Temple (in northeast Shiga) I came across the same kind of crab, only this time, quite large and very much alive! It was true! There really are crabs in the mountains of Japan!

A larger sawagani crab (Geothelphusa dehaani), browsing among stones by a stream.
 But is this a true yamagani?

Apparently, the sawagani crab is water-dependent, never straying too far from its aquatic environment. More often than not, they're seen partially submerged, unable to survive for long without a water source. Though they live in the mountains, they're not the true yamagani of legendary fame.

The average Japanese layman will probably call any mountain-dwelling crab a yamagani, though the term specifically refers to the red-clawed genus of the Sesarmidae family, known as akategani in Japanese (赤手蟹, Chiromantes haematocheir). This particular species of crab is often confused with its cousin, the less colorful and more macho kurobenkeigani (黒弁慶蟹, Chiromantes dehaani). Both of these species are true land crabs, however.

Hundreds of kilometers away from any ocean, these fascinating crustaceans make their homes in holes and crevaces along the banks of quiet mountain streams, scuttling out when the air is warm and humid to feed carefully in the fuzzy green mosses. Especially common in Kansai and the Chugoku regions, they also dwell quite close to humans in drainage ditches, gutters and around seawalls, often living for months without being submerged.

A true yamagani (Chiromantes haematocheir) in my drainage ditch. Note the bright orange-red claws.
I was blessed to find a whole community of these charming creatures in the gutter that runs just outside my front porch. This week when the temperature suddenly spiked to 27C, they made their first appearance of the year, much to my delight.

A juvenile akategani (Chiromantes haematocheir) giving me a manicure.
I personally adore these little guys. Though the odd one will go into attack formation by expanding their forearms and opening their claws, they will more than likely retreat into the shadows at the first sign of danger. During a heavy downpour, they will often evacuate their burrows in search for higher ground to keep from drowning (as they are land crabs). The one on my fingers here strolled all the way into my office and was chilling behind my chair when I found him. My hangnails seemed to provide him some nutrition and he resisted my attempt to relocate him back outside. (Ah, parting is such sweet sorrow. :-)

As the summer moves on, they become bolder eventually figure out that traversing smooth, paved highways is much easier than trudging through scrubby brush -hence the occasional, heart-wrenching crunch when one meets a nasty end under rolling tires. Like the kind folk on Christmas Island who protect their Red Crab population at all costs, I made it my own personal mission to keep these endearing critters out of danger as much as possible.

A pair of kurobenkeigani feeding peacefully in a ditch (Obama, Fukui Prefecture). Note the curled, leaf-like foreclaws.
One of the joys of being a naturalist in a foreign country is that you can sometimes relate to the lifeforms you encounter, even when they're brand-spanking new to your personal universe. The yamagani of Japan and I have much in common: both far away from our ancestral home, yet we feel we have enough roots and an affinity for the land to belong here. Just as some people feel surprised to see me, a gaijin (foreigner), in their isolated towns and villages, no doubt other creatures don't expect to see crabs high up in the mountains. Yet here we are, and here we'll stay. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!  :-)

(Warning: As fun as it is to catch and handle land crabs, their pincers can draw blood and they often harbor toxic parasites and bacteria. It's best to leave them in peace. If one ever strays into your office and needs relocating, however, it's wise to disinfect before and after handling with an alcohol-based gel or hand spray. And for all that's good and holy, please don't try to eat them raw!)

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.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

16. 葭始生: "Water Reeds Come Up"

(BGM: "Born At The Right Time" by Paul Simon)

Water Reeds Coming Up at Okubiwako Sports Park (Nagahama, Shiga)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
晩春 Banshun: "Late Spring"
Season No. 6: 穀雨, Koku: 
"Grain Rain" 

The phrase "grain rain" comes from an old Chinese legend of how grain fell from the sky "like rain" the moment Cangjie invented the first kanji characters. (Kanji is the primary writing system used throughout China and Japan, with limited use in Korea). In the West, we have a similar expression: "April showers bring May flowers." Both describe the phenomenon of late spring rains that improve the fertility of the land. Rice farmers take these brief, fleeting rains as a cue from Mother Nature to turn the soil, the first step in preparation for planting.

A field of rotated soil, ready for flooding (Kojinyama Park, Hikone, Shiga).
Climate No. 16: 葭始生
Ashi Hajimete Shouzu: 
"Water Reeds Come Up"
(April 20 -April 24) 

Lining portions of the southeastern shores of Lake Biwa and the many rivers that feed into her, water reeds (葭 ashi, yoshi), sway and rustle with the slightest breeze in a gentle percussion like horse hair brushes on a cymbal. This stately species of grass is still plentiful here, where for centuries, it has provided thatch roofing material, protection from bank erosion and shelter for many species of fish, birds and insects unique to the region.

Rushing Past the Rushes of Lake Biwa (Ohmi Hachiman, Shiga)
The rustic Suigo District of Ohmi Hachiman (滋賀県近江八幡市), home of the world-famous Ohmi beef cattle, is also well-known for its water reeds. For several thousand yen, tourists can enjoy a leisurely boat cruise, gliding gracefully through honey-colored tunnels of this towering grass.

Suigo Meguri cruise boats resting in a canal littered with sakura blossoms (Ohmi Hachiman, Shiga).
Known as the Suigo Meguri (水郷めぐり), this famous tourist attraction of Ohmi Hachiman was a must on our to-do list the entire time we lived in Shiga. But we always seemed to miss the cruise company's open hours, so Hubby and I each settled for an unusual bowl of ashi noodles in one of Suigo's many old merchant buildings that had since been remodeled into cafes. The taste was pure starch and salt and very bland like copy paper, but nonetheless refreshingly light and enjoyable with the contrasting flavors of sharp, peppery grated ginger and warm, smokey katsuobushi bonito flakes. (Next time, though, I think I'll go for the beef).

Ashi Udon Noodles with Red Konnyaku and Miso Pickles (Suigo District, Ohmi Hachiman City, Shiga)
Taste Of The Season: お茶, Ocha, Tea

Hojicha Tea From Ibigawa, Gifu
 Late spring has come and the long wait for shincha (新茶, new tea) is over! Shincha (the first harvest of the year) is usually found in department store food sections, shopping mall tea shops and supermarkets in nearly every Japanese suburb. Shincha can take on as many forms as there are types of tea. But with the continuing cool weather, the comforting aroma of rich, roasting hojicha (ほうじ茶)tea is a treat for the senses, sweet and nutty with an unmistakably green top note. Whereas straight, green sencha tea has a slightly perfumed quality and is good for cooling an overheated constitution, hojicha is heavier, robust and warming, yet has a cleansing effect on the palate, which makes it the ideal choice for an after-meal tea.

I was a tea lover long before I arrived in Japan. My first exposure to whole-leaf, unsweetened green tea was via the Republic Of Tea company based out of Novato, California. In the corner of our favorite bookstore in Anchorage (no longer in existence), was a tiny "tea bar" that sold paper cups of scalding-hot Republic teas at ghastly prices. But sipping your way through a cup of hojicha or sencha somehow made life in Alaska less unsophisticated, and thus, my friend and I became instant addicts. Back when the Internet was just a baby, he and I spent hundreds of bucks on our first online shipping purchase: a crate full of fine tea blends. Being an owner of these fine teas was one of the major highlights of my Alaskan life. But little did I know that only a decade later, I'd have the chance to stroll around one of the world's most prominent green tea capitals: Uji, Kyoto.

A green banner advertises shincha for sale in Uji, Kyoto.
In Uji, the streets are lined with centuries-old tea shops still in business, bustling with tourists, tea fans and elderly women shuffling in brown and purple crepe and crochet. Little edens lie tucked away between the buildings, decorated with bamboo screens, plants and flowers, beckoning tea drinkers for a moment of repose. The gentle hum of a rotating tea roaster intrigues children and retro fans alike.

An inviting little tea grotto (Uji, Kyoto)
A gorgeous antique hojicha roaster in Uji, Kyoto.
"Sleep on horseback
  The far moon in a continuing dream
    Steam of roasting tea."   -Matsuo Basho

Kids watching a tea roaster at work (Bikan District, Kurashiki City, Okayama)
Ready for drinking! Kurashiki Hojicha Tea (Bikan District, Kurashiki, Okayama)
A piping hot cup of roasted tea is said to be especially delicious this time of year. But what if all you've got is just a boring pouch of green sencha tea leaves? You're in luck; there's an easy way to duplicate the sensual heaven of roasting hojicha right in your own home! (Purists will probably shake their heads at this technique, but who the heck cares). 

How To Make Fresh-Roasted Hojicha At Home:

You Will Need:
*A cup full of plain, unroasted sencha tea leaves
*A frying pan 
*A dry plate or ungreased cookie sheet for cooling

Warm the frying pan on medium heat. When the pan is nice and hot, pour in enough sencha tea leaves to cover the bottom of the pan and dry-fry it, flipping constantly, until the rich, nutty roasted aroma fills the air. As it starts to turn brownish, empty it onto your plate or cookie sheet to cool, being extra careful not to burn or blacken the tea.

Once the roasted tea is cool, boil some water and brew your homemade hojicha tea according to taste.

Store unused hojicha tea leaves in an air-tight jar, metal can with a tight-fitting lid or a plastic tea caddy (sold at finer Asian grocery stores).

Done. :-)

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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

15. 虹始見: "The First Rainbows Appear"

(BGM: "사랑하면할수록 Sarang Ha Myeon Hal Su Rok" by Han Sung Min)

Rainbow strikes near the village of Takatsuki, Nagahama (Shiga).

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
晩春 Banshun: "Late Spring"
Season No. 5: 清明, Seimei: 
"Clear And Bright"  

Rainbow Over Ohmi (Shiga).
Climate No. 15: 虹始見
Niji Hajimete Arawaru: 
"The First Rainbows Appear"
(April 14 -April 19)

The sky changes restlessly now, shifting effortlessly between neon blue and unsettled gray. Though the rainy season is officially two months away, people go to work with folded umbrellas in hand, prepared should the skies suddenly darken and dump their liquid sunshine without warning. It's hard to dress in the mornings. The noontime sun teases us with heat just warm enough for a long-sleeved shirt minus coat. But we all know we will shiver come evening from the cold stored up in the walls. The body can't keep up with these constant changes, and so the dreaded influenza virus runs rampant along city trainlines and in public schools (as if the cedar pollen allergy wasn't enough!).

Yet in my heart, I feel a sense of elation. A fan of the rain and cold, I relish every icy wind gust while they still blow. The earth needs as much water as it can hold for the hot summer months just around the bend. And so when it rains, I rejoice, especially when the sun decides to play hide-and-seek with the clouds, laughing in wide grins of color.

Representing the elusive connection between the divine and mundane, these luminescent, shimmering bridges to Heaven are the stuff of lovesongs and faery tales, fading in and out gently like pleasant memories. Most people I know view rainbows as symbols of joy, forgiveness and deliverance.

But for the longest time, I saw rainbows as proof of my unhappiness, of things I wanted but probably could never have. Unfulfilling job? I could surely find a better one over the rainbow. No money? There was a pot of gold with my name on it at the end of said rainbow. In a lame relationship? My heart's true love was definitley waiting for me somewhere under that same rainbow (but playing hard-to-get, no doubt).

Quite recently, my discontent had nearly gotten the better of me. I thought I wasn't satisfied with my lot in life, that the good times had passed and that I was screwed from here on in. Though I had a tender and attentive husband, a sweet pad in the middle of Heaven on Earth and the best friends and family on the planet, it still wasn't enough for me. I thought I was lacking, needing to control and chase until I finally seized what I thought was missing. (Though whenever I chase, I only seem to wind up lonelier than before. Funny, that).

This time, ironically, it took a rainbow for me to see that I have all I could ever need.

On our anniversary, my Hubby and I braved storm conditions to climb to the top of Mt. Senkoji (Onomichi, Hiroshima) in the gusty wind and flying rain, dodging people trying to get off the mountain. Right when we stepped onto the platform to admire the sea of cherry trees down below in full bloom, in front of us stretched a glittering rainbow, second in brightness only to the sun on the opposite skyline. As I watched his coffee eyes sparkle in amazement and wonder, I felt a joy in my heart, like I'd seen the face of God and lived to tell the tale.

It made me realize an undeniable truth in my life: though we don't own a single thing symbolic of affluence, success or wealth in earthly terms, we still have each other's friendship, and the ability to mutually savor a moment in all its sweetness. I dare say it's enough, in a world where it's so hard for anyone to recognize when they've found happiness. I need not look for more. Besides, to yearn is to depreciate the universe I already hold in the palm of my hand.

Our Anniversary Gift from Onomichi (Hiroshima).
I'm pleased to announce that rainbows, to me, now represent fulfilment. :-)

Flower of the Season: 藤, Fuji, Wisteria 

Lush wisteria graces a streetside park (Kurashiki, Okayama).
With the whisper-pink sakura blossoms fluttering to the ground in a blizzard of petals, the annual flower color palette shifts slowly through the spectrum into purples and soft violets.

Lavender-colored wisteria spills over a trellis in Tone, Ibaraki (2006).
My absolute favorite of these is the wisteria, a creeping vine that wraps itself stealthily around trees and trellises. Like wayward lupine hanging upside-down, the bluish-purple and white blossoms spill down and sway like an Aleutian beaded headdress, exuding a sensuous, woodsy perfume reminiscent of temple incense. They can be found all over the country, decorating front porches in the form of meticulously pruned potted bonsai, or twisting untamed around lower mountain trees.

Wisteria on display at Sankei-en Gardens (near Hiroshima Int'l Airport).
The Japanese are quite fond of this prolific flower, one of its many native beauties. Symbolic of love, patience, and longevity, this lush, fragrant member of the Pea family makes its appearance in practically every expression of traditional art, from kimono fabric and poetry to kabuki dance. The wisteria's thick, expanive foliage has been employed by gardeners for centuries as the shade plant of choice. A cascade of soothing, cool wisteria flowers can calm a tired soul, bringing the mind gently back to a state of peace and stability:

   Seeking an inn
     Wisteria flowers."  -Matsuo Basho
Purple rain in the backyard of a lucky home in Takehara, Hiroshima.
From late April to the middle of May, flower parks and temples around Japan display stunning walls and tunnels of wisteria, some of the vines dating back hundreds of years. Completely by chance, we were fortunate to stumble upon the famous Wisteria of Achi (阿智の藤 Achi-no-Fuji) in Kurashiki, Okayama. The oldest Akebono wisteria in Japan, this officially-designated natural monument is reputed to be between 300 to 500 years old and still blooms faithfully on the side of Mt. Tsurugata every year. Just the rootstock alone kept us mesmerized, locked in reverent meditation for a good half an hour.

The massive Achi Wisteria of Kurashiki, Okayama.
To think that this vine was alive before the Industrial Age, before Tokugawa Ieyasu and clipper ships, I, for one, was humbled, as I always am in the presence of the ancient. These everlasting expressions of Nature always remind me of my place in the system, that I am also a living expression of a force older than time, itself. How will my life interpret this energy? Will the final design resemble a straight, rigid bamboo pole or a mass of tangled wisteria roots?

The joy lies in discovery.

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.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

14. 鴻鴈北: "Migrating Waterfowl Head North"

(BGM: "I'm Like A Bird" by Nelly Furtado)

Whistling Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and Bean Geese (Anser Fabalis) on Lake Biwa in Nagahama
Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
晩春 Banshun: "Late Spring"
Season No. 5: 清明, Seimei: 
"Clear And Bright"  

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) on promenade in the moat at Hikone Castle, Shiga. 

Climate No. 14: 鴻鴈北 
Kougan Kaeru: "Migrating Waterfowl Head North" 
(April 9 -April 13)

The swallows may have arrived, but in Japan, it's time for the swans and geese to go. Master commuters of the bird world, these migrating waterfowl rack up the mileage points every year, flying back and forth to favorite feeding and breeding grounds in a perpetual loop. Along their arduous journey, some birds get left behind and are adopted by flocks of different species. Still others wander away from their extended families to create their own flocks.

Common Gulls (Larus canus, a seasonal species for Shiga) on the wind above Lake Biwa, Nagahama.

But no matter what they do, only one thing is certain: to survive, they have to keep moving, ever sensitive to minute changes in their environment. When their feeding grounds are all picked over and pooped on, it's time to move on.

Webbed Footprints (Nagahama, Shiga)
Many of us expats living in Japan tend to conduct our lives in much the same spirit of transience. We can become so used to a life of constant motion, that we develop an aversion to the idea of settling down. After awhile, this mindset can permeate all facets of expat life, from our work to relationships. I am no exception to this. Even as I write, I'm in the process of letting go of someone I loved for nearly half my life. There's nothing I can do about the unanswered emails I've been sending once a year, pretending the person on the other side cared. I just have to let go, because obviously, my friend already let go of me.

Pintails (Anas acuta) scooting around Lake Mishima (Nagahama, Shiga)
Whenever I feel this resigned, I'm always reminded of my old home in Alaska. I spent the majority of my years on a street named after the Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator). Every autumn, I'd spot them flying over our black spruce-covered neighborhood in an elegant V formation, cooing a lonely, haunting requiem, as if departing Alaska with great reluctance. I'd always feel a pang in my heart whenever I heard them, remembering the people no longer actively participating in my life.

Whistler Swans taking a nap on the shores of Lake Biwa (Nagahama, Shiga).

Apparently the haiku poet Basho, who often traveled around major waterfowl hub Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, was similarly moved by a flock of geese he saw leaving in the spring for their summer home:

"Friends part forever- 
  Wild geese
   Lost in clouds." -Matsuo Basho

Separation is never a happy thing. We still love, and the pain is sweet. But we move on despite of it, knowing the pain will eventually dissipate with time. Travel helps the memories fade a little faster. My friend, like the swans and geese of Shiga, was there one day, nowhere to be found the next. Parted forever? I have to assume so.

I see a lesson to be learned from this let-down, however, that's far too powerful to be left ignored: Suffering comes from attachment. Nothing is permanent, not even frienship. There's a saying along these lines, founded in Buddhism, that accurately reflects the truly transient nature of human relationships:

一期一会, Ichi-go, ichi-e.
 "One time, one meeting."

Statue of Ii Naosuke at Hikone Castle, Shiga.
Coined by tea master and Tokugawa Shogunate chief administrator Ii Naosuke (1815-1860, daimyo of Hikone Castle situated near the shores of Lake Biwa), this expression is often mistranslated by Westerners in the negative sense, in that all frienships must end at some point. Since my home culture programmed me  through media and religion to see concepts of love and friendship as eternal despite all laws of nature, I had an intensely difficult time wrapping my head around this one.

But the Japanese also see this phrase in the positive, for it can mean that every meeting, like every moment, is purely unique. Our time spent in the company of others must be done so in the spirit of servitude. The tea ceremony (茶道 sado) is a prime example of this concept in practice, with every motion choreographed to appear as if executed with the utmost grace. Every motion, like every moment, is a gift shared with the guest. Each person who crosses our path deserves our kindness. Sometimes, this is tough to remember, especially when we need to let go of those who cause us pain.

Just as the migratory birds must keep moving to survive, our hearts must remain open to the new people we meet, unafraid of attachment or injury. If they're not, then we suffer. But if we truly live in the moment, there's no need to attach. Leaving a frienship means room in the heart for another to begin. And so it goes. (So we come and go).

Flavor of the Season: 苺, Ichigo, Strawberries

Though the peak season for strawberries in Japan is actually the middle of March, many restaurant chains hold their strawberry fairs and promotional campaigns this time of year. On a chilly, rainy Sunday afternoon, a fellow expat friend and I found ourselves unable to resist their juicy, decadent pull. Sweet with just the right amount of tang, fresh, scarlet strawberries harmonize effortlessly with a dollop of pillowy whipped cream.

Strawberry Parfait at Gusto Restaurant (nationwide chain).
May each encounter be sweet! "Ichi-go, ichi-e," indeed!

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.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

13. 玄鳥至: "The Swallows Return"

(BGM: "Spring Of Life" by Perfume)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
晩春 Banshun: "Late Spring"
Season No. 5: 清明, Seimei: 
"Clear And Bright"  

This time of year, the spring rain front is pushed down and away from the Japanese archipelago (at least the southern part of it) by cold northern fronts creating crisp, cool weather for all to enjoy. As light-pink sakura petals flutter down like faery snow, the tips of new leaves push out of their woody casings, covering nearby hills and mountains in a fresh cloak of misty green. Reveling in the warm sunlight, the heart can't help but heave a sigh of relief. Spring is here for sure.

Climate No. 13: 玄鳥至
Tsubame Kitaru:
" The Swallows Return" 
(April 4 -April 8)

A passive swallow rests on an advertisement banner at Aisaikan Farmers' Market (Ohmi Hachiman, Shiga)
As the sun gradually grows warmer, I find myself watching the skies for signs of those sweet little tuxedoed stunt pilots with burnt orange throats and elegant scissor tails. They race at tremendous speeds alongside cars, chirping with reckless abandon, always riding on that razorblade-thin edge between life and death. The Top Guns of the bird world, swallows are the bomb (awesome) and I always feel joy when they fly into town for the summer. Early April is the designated "season" for the barn swallow's return but this year, we in the Chugoku region got ours in late March! (Sign of global warming?)

Japan has several species of migrating swallow, but the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica, house swallow) its the most prevalent, with Japan and the Korean Peninsula as their major breeding grounds. Swallow nests can be spotted everywhere in Japan, from shopping mall entrances to public restrooms. Wherever the wall is textured or has a ledge, you can bet the industrious barn swallow knows exactly how to turn it into a fine, weatherproof home. Taking mouthfuls of mud from nearby riverbanks, rice fields and mud puddles, they dab it carefully to the wall, adding grass and weeds for bulk, building a sconce-shaped basket with a high ledge to keep out predators. Sheer genius.

Swallows about to leave their undersized nest (Toride Station, Ibaraki)

"Swallow in the dusk…
   Spare my little 
    Buzzing friends
     Among the flowers." 
                  -Matsuo Basho

Unfortunately, as Japan gets more "modernized" (i.e. more "westernized"), these little birds decrease in numbers year by year as a result. Biologists and birders alike believe this decline is due to a number of factors, including loss of habitat and competition from invasive species like starlings and carrion crows (as human garbage increases, so do the crows). In the suburbs, rice fields and crumbling, clay-walled neighborhoods are rapidly being replaced by huge expanses of concrete parking lot in the insane rush to make Japan look more like America. Managers of malls and shopping centers have also waged war on the poor swallow in the effort to keep their walls, sidewalks and customers' hair guano-free.

Swallows getting to know each other (Oshiba Island, Hiroshima)

But there is hope. Long-revered in Japan as bringers of luck, barn swallows are renown for their ability to peacefully reside among humans. To have your home chosen by swallows as prime real estate traditionally meant peace and prosperity for all who reside within. Communities, schools and bird fans around the country are doing their part to ensure both good luck and the survival of the species. Some people even go so far as to allow swallows to roost in their kitchens!

The elderly and families with children in particular seem to understand the companionship and educational value a little brood of happy swallow chicks can bring. I personally can vouch for the joy of living alongside swallows. We had a birdhouse tacked onto the paper birch tree just outside our kitchen window for our little tree swallow family back in Alaska. They gave us many years of fun and lovely music. It warms my heart to know that the Japanese love them just as much as we do. I just hope that more of our species becomes aware of the negative impact modern living has on the other creatures we share this planet with.

And if we can only get them to stop dive-bombing kamikaze style in front of moving vehicles!

Flower of the Season: レンギョウ, Rengyo, Forsythia

More flowers are starting to bloom now than I can keep track of, but this one caught my attention for its purity of color. One of the most common flowering spring shrubs of South Korea, the forsythia blooms in bright yellow splendor along the highways and hedges of south central Japan.

 Blooming simultaneously with the cherry and magnolia trees, forsythia brightens any landscape with a warm splash of intense color. The lilting, slender petals spread outward like the elegant fingers of an exotic belly dancer, enticing the admirer to join in the rites of spring. Thanks to this flower, I no longer have an aversion to the color yellow. I love it for the energizing effect it has on its surroundings.

Forsythia blooming alongside plum and cherry trees (Nagahama, Shiga)
Oh, how I wish spring lasted all year round! 

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.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

12. 雷乃発声: "Thunder Calls Forth"

(BGM: "Electrical Storm" by U2)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
仲春, Chushun: "Mid-spring"
Season No. 4: 春分, Shunbun: 
"Vernal Equinox"  
Clouds that spawned a tornado in Toride, Ibaraki (April 2011).

Climate No. 12: 雷乃発声
Kaminari Sunawachi Koe Wo Hassu:
" Thunder Calls Forth" 
(March 30 -April 3)

Lightning terrorizing central Japan (April 2012)

Lighting: spindly gnarled dragons flashing across a blackened sky, roaring fiery breaths that crash in massive sonic booms. No wonder the people of ancient times named thunder and lightning the "call of the gods."

Walking around quiet shrines and holy places of Japan, I always see small white pieces of paper folded in a zigzag shape called shide (四手), hanging from hand-woven fibrous ropes (shimenawa  注連縄). These paper strips are used in Shinto rites to represent the purifying fire of lightning which can apparently protect an object from evil and render it sacred. (I had no idea paper could be so powerful!)

A shide hangs from a 1,000 year-old cedar tree at Hyakusaiji Temple in Higashi Omi, Shiga.
Though fearsome and deadly, according to one of my rice-growing friends, lightning has long been revered in Japan as a bringer of nutrients to the soil (scientific proof pending. This excellent Ibaraki-based blog by Avi Landau elaborates upon the relationship between farmers and these awesome forces of nature). For this reason alone, I feel pressured to see lightning as a good thing.

But lightning storms in Japan are just downright scary! Every year, a handful of innocent joggers, boaters and grandpas fixing their rooftop antennas are zapped to death by lightning. And every year, it seems that another person I know has to replace an electric appliance because electric tentacles fell from the sky, wriggling their way down the power lines frying it to a smoky crisp. Whenever the sky glows sickly orange, signaling the formation of a lightning storm, I'm struck silly with a mix of elation and dread. I know I'm in for a spectacular light show, but lacking the wits to appreciate it to its fullest.

I have good reason to fear the Japanese thunder gods. When I lived in Sapporo, lightning struck an elementary school, heating up a bathroom pipe so hot it shot right through the school roof! I've had lightning strike the power pole just outside my Ibaraki apartment window with a "boom!" as loud as an elephant rifle, knocking out the power for at least three hours. I've also watched lightning literally chase my neighbor up a flight of stairs! When it flashes as frequently as once per 5 seconds, like it does in late summer, you really do think it's out to get you! 

That's why I'm thankful that I now live in a prefecture not so prone to electrical storms. And with this being the season of the first thunder cracks of spring, when cold Siberian fronts clash hard against warm spring southerlies like an unhappily married couple, this year, I'm happy to say that all the action occurred out east and left me with pristine blue skies. Though my mind kept expecting turbulent weather this past week, all has been clear and calm. I couldn't be more pleased.

A hot pink sunset turns a green boat to gold on the Seto Inland Sea ( with no lightning in sight!) 
Flower of the Season: コブシ, Kobushi, Magnolia

Snow-white magnolias braving the mid-spring cold.
"It was with awe 
  That I beheld
   Fresh blossoms, white blossoms 
    Bright in the sun."   -Matsuo Basho

A peek inside a Magnolia kobus (Hiroshima Prefecture).
 Blooming just days ahead of the sakura wave, the big, floppy flowers of the kobushi magnolia dot the mountainsides of the Chugoku region like hundreds of thousands of frozen snowballs. Upon opening, their vertically spiking porcelain blossoms face the sun head-on, offering up a delicate, sweet fragrance. As spring progresses, the petals fall back and flop downward, flapping in the wind like rabbit ears.

As the petals prepare for their backwards dive into oblivion, it's common to hear the Japanese express a feeling of sadness. But to me, the effect is quite comical. Again, I find myself unable to go along with the prevalent cultural mindset. The petals may drop, but the tree is still alive. Leaves will bud after the flowers have gone. Is that not a beautiful, wonderful thing?

I feel so rebellious: fearing lightning though it's really my friend, laughing at the fall of the kobushi flower...Did I lose my marbles or did the marbles lose me?

I have a feeling the answer to that is in the near future. Stay tuned.

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.