Sunday, May 4, 2014

18. 牡丹華: "The Peony Blooms"

(BGM: "Wassiye" by Habib Koite)

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

Climate No. 18:  牡丹華
Botan Hana Saku:
"The Peony Blooms"
(April 30 -May 4)

The "king of flowers," the frilly, floppy peony reigns supreme along with the chrysanthemum, bamboo and pine tree as an iconic symbol in Japanese art, culture and lore. Often paired with lions or dragons in design, peonies symbolize wealth, power and success. They also imply reckless courage and a disregard for consequence, making them a favorite design element for wearers of traditional irezumi tattoos.

A splendid pair of peonies graces the border of a vegetable garden (Fujishiro, Ibaraki).
The regal peony has a flirtatious fragrance reminisent of cinnamon and roses, coordinating smartly with the tissue-like transparency of its gaudy petals and elegantly lilting leaves. The blossoms nearly explode on the bush with carefree abandon like fireworks in a summer sky. The spectacle and scent of peonies scream of undeniable positivity. I always enjoy spotting these lovelies, strategically placed as the centerpiece of a well-pruned garden, where they can receive their well-deserved attention.

A lemon yellow peony in the second courtyard of Kosaiji Temple in Setoda, Hiroshima.

 "The bee emerging
   From deep within the peony
    Departs reluctantly."  -Matsuo Basho

Tradition of the Season: 田植え, Taue, Rice Planting

Rice starts awaiting planting (Hikone, Shiga)
The fields have been turned, flattened and flooded. The planting of rice can begin. Trays of seedlings that were sheltered all this time in the greenhouses can now be tucked safely into their outdoor watery beds, where they'll grow tall and golden by summer's end. These square cakes of soil and root mass are wetted in the fields and loaded onto transplanter machines like the one shown below. A process that used to take whole families weeks to complete is now the short afternoon work of just a handful of dedicated farmers and a rented, fully automated machine. How times have changed!

A rice transplanter with seedlings loaded.
The rice-planting songs of old may have long since been replaced by the drone of a tractor engine. But the significance of taue is still evident in the sun-weathered, hopeful smiles of the farmers, full of anticipation and expectation as they carry the heavy responsibility of feeding the entire nation. Rice is a government-subsidized crop, so even if typhoons or drought strikes, the farmers can still survive. But after planting, they still dress in white and gather at the local shrine, drinking merrily and offering up sake to the local kami (神, god) in prayer for a successful harvest. May the summer sun be kind, this year.

Black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) picking out shellfish and worms from a flooded paddy ahead of the transplanter.
For the many waterfowl that live in Japan's rice country, the harvest has already come! Combing the tractors' wake, herons, egrets and gulls spear the water with pointed beaks, filling their bellies on the cornucopia of newly-overturned crustaceans, mollusks and amphibians struggling disoriented in the silky mud.

Without the tractors, these gulls couldn't easily access this prime food source. The paddies provide food not just for humans, but for all sorts of organisms: dragonflies, snails, snakes, frogs, foxes -going all the way up the food chain. It's easy to dismiss all activities of mankind as destructive to the environment. But what a blessing it is to stumble across examples of symbiosis like this one!

It's almost redeeming! 

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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