Friday, May 30, 2014

23. 紅花栄: "The Safflower Blooms"

(BGM: "Feel" by Robbie Williams)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing
 初夏 Shoka: "Early Summer"
Season No. 8: 小満, Shouman: 
"Grain Full" 

Shouman: the time of year when farmers can hope to see kernals forming in the "ears" of cereal crops such as wheat and barley. This sign allows them to heave a small sigh of relief, hence the term "shou-man," or "small satisfaction."

Climate No. 23: 紅花栄
Benibana Saku
"The Safflower Blooms"
(May 26 -May 30) 

The happiest little flower I've ever seen!
"Eye brow brushes
   Come to mind
     Safflower blossoms."  -Matsuo Basho 

Back in Alaska, I once ordered a packet of safflower seeds from a California-based seed company and tried planting them
, completely disregarding the kind of soil or climate they would need. I didn't see any sprouts for the entire season and figured they were duds. But the following summer, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw in my greenhouse a full-grown safflower right there in the dirt below the shelf where I had originally planted the seeds! Despite all odds, one grew for me! Talk about a survivor! 

Safflower (Jpn: 紅花 beninbana, Carthamus tinctorius), has played an important role in Japan's art culture for centuries. Their densely-colored spiky flower heads of happy, reddish-orange and mustard yellow petals produce a fine crimson oil known as "Kyo-beni," which was once employed to color the lips of geishas. According to history, the deep red dye paste "kurenai" made from safflower was once so coveted by Japan's elite that it was said to be more precious than gold!

In greater demand today as a source of oil than a clothing dye, safflower cultivation still continues along the gentle, sloping mountainsides of Yamagata Prefecture. Set in rural Yamagata, the delightlfully realistic 1991 Ghibli animated film  "Omohide Poroporo" (Eng: "Only Yesterday") features the story of a young Tokyoite woman who takes a summer off to pick safflower blossoms in the tempermental rains of early summer. The process of harvesting and processing safflower pulp is gorgeously illustrated in painstaking detail, giving the viewer a real sense of appreciation for all the hard work involved.

"Benibana" (C) Gen, Genkilee 2014 (Digital Watercolor On Photo)
Time, exposure to nature and the slow life all help the leading character to address and heal from painful childhood memories. The safflower seems particularly significant as a recurring theme in the movie, plain in appearance yet precious for its potential -symbolic of both the pain and beauty of life.

May I be as cheerful as the safflower in my own rainy seasons!

Taste Of The Season: さくらんぼ, Sakuranbo, Cherries

Ripe and ready to eat! (Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture)
Plump and juicy, these sweet little treasures are just in season now. Japan has several species of edible cherry. But the most famous can be found in, you guessed it: Yamagata Prefecture, where 70% of the country's cherries are grown.

The Fruitful Mountainsides of Yamagata Wrapped In Rain (2004)
I was invited by some dear friends to join them for a fun-filled day of cherry picking! We packed up the minivan with food and drinks and cruised up Route 8 through Fukushima Prefecture. We took a left through Tochigi around a still-steaming Mt. Nasu and ended up in the gentle, greenhouse-covered valleys of Yamagata City. We rolled into town right at daybreak.

Only a tiny bit of snow was still visible on the tallest peaks of the Alps to the north, but otherwise we were surrounded in a sea of glittering emerald and spring greens. The air was intoxicating with a soothing fragrance blowing in from the distant tree-covered mountains. It shook the insomnia out of me like a strong cup of coffee.

The smile on my friend's face is as sweet as the cherries!
Tying woven bamboo baskets around our waists, we balanced carefully on metal ladders to get to the highest possible treetops and carefully plucked the jewel-toned ruby orbs of juicy delight. Though we were told to put the reddest ones in our baskets, the cherries coyly beckoned us to revel in their tangy sweetness.

"Suppai! Suppai!" ("sour!") my friends muttered, mouths full of saliva and seeds that they'd spit on the ground one after another. Though it sounded like complaint, the joy written on their faces told me they were in cherry heaven. More seeds were on the tarp below than there were cherries in their baskets!

We laughed and picked under the hot greenhouse sun, surrounded in steam rising from the cool early afternoon earth. The sun played a vigorous game of hide-and-seek with the clouds, revealing itself after a few teasing drops of rain which would splatter on the overhead plastic sheeting. Below us, tiny juvenile tree frogs would hop lightly on the plastic tarp, making the most endearing rubbery, sticky sounds that punctuated their bell-like chirps. When our stomachs became painfully full of cherries, we concentrated on our real job of helping bring in the year's harvest.

Carefully sorting the cherries (Yamagata City, 2004)
The sorting was left to the experts as we rested in the farmhouse with ice-cold glasses of smoky, thirst-quenching barley tea (麦茶 mugicha). We watched as deft, discriminating hands sifted through the fruits of our labor, packing the prettier ones in fancy boxes while leaving us with the lower-grade cherries to enjoy on the way home. Our portions were much larger than what they'd reserved for gifts and we couldn't have been happier!

Whether our picking was that bad, or the Grannie of the House was feeling generous, we don't know. But one thing is sure true: each of us had wrapped in our hands over 3,000 yen's worth of Yamagata cherries! 

Life is sweet, 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.

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