Monday, July 28, 2014

35. 土潤溽暑: "Ground Moistens, Humidity Increases"

(BGM: "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
晩夏, Banka: "Late Summer"
Season No. 12: 大暑: Taisho
"Major Heat" 

Ogasaneiwa (大重岩), a moss-covered igneous tuff formation on Mt. Noro (Kure, Hiroshima).
Climate No. 35: 土潤溽暑
Tsuchi Uruoite Jokushosu
"Ground Moistens, Humidity Increases"
(July 28 -August 1) 

I want to say we're having an "unusually cool summer" this year. But I'm starting to think that it's closer to the truth to say we've adapted to the "new normal." Three decades ago, most of Japan didn't get summer temperatures as hot as 35C. But today, even hotter temps are no longer mezurashii (珍しい rare) in Japan's many concrete jungles. No doubt there's a corellation between the amount of heat-retaining materials (concrete, asphalt, steel, etc) a city has and its heat index.

Late summer is a particularly dangerous time for city folk with weak constitutions. It quickly wears a body down to sweat twenty-four hours a day. I'm thankful that I don't live anywhere near a heat island this year, yet I feel for my many loved ones who do. Here in mountain country, the rain is certainly keeping temperatures cooler than they could be. But the season isn't without its woes; the 100% humidity and stifling heat create the perfect climate for biting dust mites and mosquitos that love to ambush us when the lights go out. I guess none of us can escape no matter what we do (sigh).

"Summer robes: 
  Still some lice
   I've yet to pick."  
                    -Matsuo Basho

Two typhoons are spinning in the Pacific as I type, and they've pulled their humidity all the way up here to wrap our town in mist, dumping on us six inches worth of torrential rain in a single day. Now the air is steamy and sultry. The Hubby and I have no choice but to stick to our nighttime walking plan. Lucky for us, there's plenty of beauty, fun and flavor to be had, both day and night.

Flower Of The Season: ひまわり, Himawari, Sunflower

"Incoming" (Kure, Hiroshima) (c) Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Sunflowers may be native to North America, but the Japanese love them like their own. (I've actually been asked if sunflowers existed outside of Japan). Known over here as "himawari," the name of this super-happy fun flower pops up in the most unexpected places, from hospice care centers to toilet paper and shampoo. Himawari is popular as a summer decorative flower and shade plant.  A growing trend among small towns and wards is to transform retired rice paddies into sunflower fields to attract honeybees and tourists. A sudden sight of a massive expanse of sunflowers can shock the senses into delight!

"Sunflowers of Toyosato" (Inukami District, Shiga Prefecture). (c) 2012 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Taste Of The Season: ラムネ, Ramune, Ramune Soda 

"Ramune Nao" (Tomonoura Village, Fukyuama City, Hiroshima). (c) Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
I will never forget my first experience with ramune soda: My close friend and I were strolling down a very noisy Nakamisedori during Tokyo's Sanja Matsuri festival. Among the gaudily colored pink and bright red vendors sat this huge vat of ice filled with canned tea, beer and these sparkling lake blue bottles of clear ramune soda. My friend said that all Japanese children guzzle this stuff during the summer months and collect the marbles inside.

He bought me a bottle for a few hundred yen but opening it was a puzzle! No twist-top? No metal cap? Are you supposed to break it open and sip drops of soda with a broken shard? How does this work? Help!!!

Guffawing at my lack of patience, he took the bottle from me and ripped off the plastic label, revealing the "key:" a blue plastic plug that fitted over the marble stopper. Ever more perplexed, as if watching a magic trick, I stared in amazement as he navigated my drink. He set the shiny Codd-necked bottle upright on a table, expertly placed the plastic plug over the hole and with tanned biceps flexing, violently punched the plug down hard. With a loud "POP!" and a "clink!" the sticky carbonated soda shot up like a fountain, spraying him and splattering wetly onto the table. "Dozo," he smiled friskily, handing the wet, half-empty bottle back to me. He seemed pleased; apparently the waterworks were part of the "cooling" effect of ramune. He contined to explain that the glass marble that rattled down into the bottle's little trap compartment was both a stopper and a psychological coolant. (And yes, when the drink is gone, the kids would to shatter the bottle and collect the marble inside).

Clear, refreshing ramune soda is surprisingly sweet (even for Japanese tastes!) and comes in a variety of flavors and colors, the most popular being the classic lemon-lime flavor pictured above. (If you live in the States, imagine the taste of Smartees candies as a fizzy drink). At first it seems a little mendokusai (めんどくさい, a hassle) to go through all that trouble for a swig of something cold. When you're parched, you don't want to fuss with a cap and lose half the liquid in a carbonated explosion, right? But ramune is from a time when people could extract gratification through slow processes, savoring life through more than just two senses. Getting this concept down, like learning how to open a bottle of ramune, takes practice -one that's worth the effort. Looking at it from this new perspective, ramune is not just a drink; it's a meditative initiation rite of summer in Japan.

Event Of The Season: 住吉祭り, Sumiyoshi Matsuri, Sumiyoshi Festival

The Sumiyoshi Festival in Takehara, Hiroshima (c) 2013 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
Japan has many shrines named "Sumiyoshi" and both Tokyo and Osaka are well known for their Sumiyoshi festivals that feature cleansing rituals, rice planting ceremonies and dance. However the Sumiyoshi festivals of coastal Hiroshima (and other locations along the Seto Inland Sea) are held to bless the waters for a good catch and ensure protection for the fishermen. Boats of all size, fitted with dangling round lanterns, coast up and down the harbor to the beat of a droning taiko drum.

Students working it for the Sumiyoshi Festival in Takehara, Hiroshima. The navigator standing on the bow collects offerings in exchange for a special chant from the hard-rowing crew. (2013)
Sumiyoshi festivals can last for several days, starting with shinto rituals and offerings, followed by the carrying of mikoshi and a boat parade. In Onomichi City, the festival culminates in a fantastic fireworks display lasting over two hours!

The start of fireworks for the Sumiyoshi Festival in Onomichi, Hiroshima (2014).
Summer in Japan might be tiring and at times downright miserable. But the Japanese have many exciting, energizing long-held traditions offering a physical and mental reprieve from the relentless heat. Many travel sites will warn travelers to avoid summer in Japan. But anyone who lives here knows that the festivals and traditions of summer are Japan's best-kept secret.

"Night Blossoms of Onomichi" (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.

"Kaboom!!" (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
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, July 27, 2014

34. 桐始結花: "Paulownia Trees Wrap Their Flowers"

(BGM: "Amber" by 311)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
晩夏, Banka: "Late Summer"
Season No. 12: 大暑: Taisho
"Major Heat" 

The rainy season might have lifted, but sunlight beats down relentlessly upon us now, heating up our concrete buildings and asphalt roads, turning the city into a giant kiln in which we all bake. The humidity didn't go anywhere, either. It remains trapped in bathrooms and hallways -any room with no airflow. A walk-in closet can double as a sauna. The number-one worry we all have is heat exhaustion, which sends tens of thousands of people (of all ages) to the hospital every year in this country.

When it gets this hot outside, we lie low during the day and take our walks at night, enjoying the singing of catydids and late-summer crickets, sneaking peeks at Japan's nocturnal creatures. Out here in mountain country, it's not unusual to hear the squeal of a wild boar or catch the bright orange flash of a fox running into the bushes. The excitement of encountering wildlife always helps us forget the miserbly oppressive heat.

And when night-strolling sounds like a bore, there's always day-camping at the beach! :-) 

Climate No. 34:桐始結花
Kiri Hajimete Hana Wo Musubu
"Paulownia Trees Wrap Their Flowers"
(July 22 -July 27)

Bundles of paulownia blossoms stretching up towards the May sun (Imabari, Ehime).
Known as kiri (桐) in Japanese, the Paulownia tomentosa was once the symbol of the Emperor but has since come to be the official emblem of the Prime Minister. This uncommon tree with its floppy, heart-shaped leaves and foxglove-like blossoms, dots the mountainsides in western and southern Japan, blooming upright and unimposing. (I say "uncommon" because it's not just found anywhere). You couldn't tell simply by looking at it, but this tree has played a vital role in Japan's music culture, as the koto is traditionally made from paulownia wood. It's also used to make furniture, guitars, skis, even fireworks powder!

The paulownia tree blossoms just as the sakura are on their way out (around late April for the Chugoku region), adding refreshing splashes of lavender purple to brown mountains sprayed with baby pink and fresh spring green. I found this newly-dropped blossom on the ground while hiking up a lonely, winding island road. The flower was slightly sticky to the touch but smelled woodsy and fragrant like wisteria or acacia, only gentler. It was easy to see why the people of old heralded this highly versatile tree with such high esteem.

The expression "paulownia trees wrap their flowers" probably alludes to the time when the seed pods appear. It would be a strange day, indeed to see blossoms this late in the summer. But the idea of a blossom being wrapped like a gift by its own tree somehow stimulates the imagination.

A sweet-smelling paulownia blossom just dropped from its tree (Imabari, Ehime).

Critter Of The Season: 砂蟹, Sunagani, Ghost Crab

A petrified ghost crab freezes under my camera (Innoshima Island, Hiroshima).
Introducing my all-time favorite animal: the ghost crab. Very timid and easily spooked, they're sometimes quite hard to get close to. With a single arm motion, poof! they're gone, just like that, vanishing in a flash deep into their sand burrows, waiting cautiously for the threat to pass them by.

Even though it's a female crab's burrow, it still needed a feminine touch! :-)
They do pinch (and it hurts!) so I try not to handle them. And since their numbers along the Seto Inland Sea are dipping with habitat loss, I don't condone stressing them out. But they are my favorite critter and I can't just spend a day at the beach without taking at least one shot of them. What's a crab fan to do?

By trial and error, I learned there's a wrong way and a right way to get them to stand still long enough for me to take their picture:

1 The Wrong Way To Photograph a Ghost Crab
Wait for a crab to wander far enough from its burrow and position yourself in front of the hole so the crab has no access to it. Slowly corner the crab towards the sea. They'll do one of two things: either take off and zoom a ways down the beach or run into the sea. (If it runs into the sea, it could quickly die from drowning, so make sure you're there to rescue it as soon as it hits the water!) You can chase it down the beach and it will only run so far from its burrow (they can get lost!). So when they stop to assess their location, that's the chance for you to take your picture (providing your stamina holds out that long).

A ghost crab hugging some sand, preparing to toss it. (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
2 The Right (and Humane) Way To Photograph A Ghost Crab
Since all that chasing is stressful and exhausting to both photographer and crab, I found a much better way to get a decent pic: When the critter is hiding in its burrow, quietly kneel down into the sand about a foot away, getting your camera as close as you need while keeping a comfortable position. (You don't want to be too close to the hole- your body weight could cause it to collapse!) The challenge now is to be motionless (if you have a camera on a tripod with a remote shutter, you're good as gold. I only have an iPhone so I get to do things the hard way). Since crabs are sensitive to vibrations and motion, they will only notice you when you move. If you're perfectly still, they can't see you directly above them. (They'll just think it's a cloudy day!) Even if a horsefly or Giant Asian Hornet is sniffing around you, proceed with the photo session because it'll be worth it. Usually the sound of the shutter won't bother the crabs when they're busy excavating.

An Ocypode stimpsoni preparing to hurl an armful of sand (Namiki Cafe in Kure, Hiroshima)
Sometimes the juveniles are a bit more trusting, allowing themselves to be handled. This sweet, curious little guy found my skirt an interesting hike one day. I could not have been more delighted! Moving my hand down slowly, I let him step up onto it naturally. The results were priceless.

A thumbnail-sized juvenile ghost crab exploring my hand (Mihara, Hiroshima).
"A little crab
  Creeping up my leg
    Clear water."  -Matsuo Basho 

Ghost crabs are in need of our help. These cute crustaceans are losing their habitat from seawall construction, foot traffic on beaches, and from cruel pet owners letting their dogs dig up the poor crabs for some beachtime entertainment. Playing further down the beach or setting up camp away from a burrow cluster is a great place to start! :-) We can live in harmony with our marine friends!

Taste Of The Season: バーベキュー, Bahbekyu, Barbecue

Kaisen (seafood) BBQ with scallops, crab, squid and yakitori chicken (2004 Sapporo, Hokkaido)
It's that time of year again where the air is filled with mouthwatering smoke and the sizzle of fats and juices bubbling on a charcoal fire. Barbecuing is a masculine summer ritual all around the world. Here in Japan, it's a year-round treat in the forms of yakiniku (焼き肉 grilled meat and veggies) and yakitori (焼き鳥 skewered chicken and veggies).

Though I'm not much of a meat-eater anymore, I still have intense memories of some incredible Japanese 'cues. In the States, the standard fare is usually hot dogs, hamburgers, ribs and fish. Any vegetables or other fare are usually steamed in a tinfoil pouch set on the grill.

In a Japanese 'cue, however, anything goes: Shrimp, octopus, skewered fish, corn on the cob, sliced green peppers, green onion, okra pods, eggplant, pumpkin slices... if it can be fried in a pan, it's good enough for the grill. The best part about a Japanese BBQ is the balance of foods.

Pork (left) and horsemeat (right). Anything goes on a BBQ! (2005 Ryugasaki, Ibaraki)

Waterfront BBQ at Namiki Cafe, overlooking the Seto Inland Sea (Kure, Hiroshima)

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. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

33. 鷹乃学習: "Hawk Chicks Learn"

(BGM: "Learning To Fly" by Pink Floyd)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
晩夏, Banka: "Late Summer"
Season No. 11: 小暑: Shousho
"Minor Heat"

Climate No. 33: 鷹乃学習
Taka Sunawachi Waza Wo Nasu
"Hawk Chicks Learn"
(July 17 -July 21)

Photo: Public Domain Images
"Now that eyes of hawks
   In dusky night are darkened
      Chirping of the quails."  
                     -Matsuo Basho

I've been lucky enough to catch glimpses of northern goshawks (Jpn: 大鷹 ohtaka) five times so far, mostly in Shiga Prefecture. They swoop viciously from their tree post straight down into the water, grasp their wriggling prey in sharp, strong talons and somehow haul both fish and their own girth back out to rise up into the sky again. Incredible!

In feudal days, many samurai engaged in hawking (Jpn: 鷹狩り, takagari) as a hobby and symbol of status, employing techniques learned from neighboring Korea and China. Over the centuries, the goshawk has remained a revered symbol of strength, authority and power, though hawking in Japan was restricted many times throughout the country's history.

A trained black kite awaits a treat (Yoshino River Cruise, Tokushima).
The shy, elusive goshawk can sometimes be seen hunting along the edges of old forests and natural lakes. Its easier to spot their larger, more prolific cousins, the black kites (Milvus migrans), which tend to gather around boats and barbecues to steal unattended meat and yapping designer puppies, screaming their haunting call as a dinner bell. (Gotta be careful!) Having grown up around plenty of bald eagles, I still find myself checking the skies out of habit when I'm picnicking in the great outdoors. It looks like I need to continue this tradition while I'm here.

Critter Of The Season: カタツムリ, Katatsumuri, Snail

A Phaeohelix cruising down a hydrangea leaf in typhoon rains (Tone, Ibaraki, 2006).
A lifeform adored in one country can be abhorred in another. Take for instance the giant huntsman's spider: American women will, more often than not, panic when they see one, yet a Japanese baa-chan (granny) might welcome it as a house guardian. Chalk it up to cultural differences in thinking.

Slugs and snails are a pest where I come from. We're told to avoid them and never handle them for the bacteria they can carry. Yet in Japan, children are picking up and playing with these slimy, oozing mollusks with reckless abandon. Here, the land snail is a gentle symbol of the rainy season, celebrated in artwork, crafts and children's songs. As for adults, at some higher-end salons and beauty clinics, snails are busy crawling over womens' faces! (I can hear all my friends back home right now going "eeeeew!"). In my life, I've handled all sorts of creepy crawlies and the idea of snails crawling over my face sounds more soothing than a round of Botox.

"Bradybaena" (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen, All Rights Reserved.
The bane of serious gardeners, land snails chew up and destroy the plants and vegetables people work so hard to cultivate. But culturally, they're a reminder of sweet slowness, something we need much more of in our busy lives. I noticed this tiny Bradybaena only one centimeter wide, browsing on a thistle right after the final rains of tsuyu finished falling to the ground. Dreading the killer heat that looms just days away, I sorrowfully, yet gratefully, watched this shimmering snail glide ever-so-slowly across his meal and just took a moment to savor the cool
mist while it still floated around us. I stood there spellbound, studying carefully as one tiny crystalline eye extended out from an indescript gelatinous mass, followed by the other. Every movement the snail made was like a meditation. May I learn to savor my own meals with such delicacy and patience!

Taste Of The Season: 素麺, Soumen, Somen Noodles

A generous bowl of cold somen at Junsei Restaurant near Nanzenji Temple (Kyoto, 2002)
We were given a beautiful box of somen noodles (handmade in Hyogo Prefecture) for an o-chugen present. Feather light and silky smooth when cooked, these pure white wheat noodles are excellent served on a bed of ice and dipped in a cold dashi broth.

Famous Ibo-no-ito somen from Hyogo Prefecture.
My favorite way of using these noodles is actually in an Asian fusion dish: I roll them with cut omelette and veggies in Vietnamese rice paper wraps -my version of fresh spring rolls. Perfect for a light summer dinner!

Fresh spring rolls with lettuce, somen, omelette, carrot, cucumber and bean sprouts, served with Thai sweet chili sauce.
Stay cool. :-)

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, July 16, 2014

32. 蓮始開: "Lotuses Bloom"

(BGM: "Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo" by Farida Khanum)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
 晩夏, Banka: "Late Summer"
Season No. 11: 小暑: Shousho
"Minor Heat" 

Typhoon Neoguri raised a ruckus in the southern prefectures, causing an evacuation advisory for nearly half a million people in Okinawa, alone! For the Chugoku region, instead of landslides and flooding, we got hit with a wall of stifling, oppressive humidity that lingered for several days and then subsided. Working in polyester business wear without an air conditioner feels like wearing plastic bags for clothes. The body screams to breathe!

But this is only the beginning. We may think it's hot now, but this merciful time of "minor heat" is our only chance to adapt before the sun's burners are set to "high" come August and September. Getting enough minerals and fluids, dressing in light, moisture-wicking fabrics and eating cool, watery foods help the body acclimate more easily. But perhaps the best way to deal with the heat is to get into the cool shade under a mountain forest canopy, or take a dip in the shimmering sea. The season of "minor heat" is a time for play!

Climate No. 32: 蓮始開
Hasu Hajimete Hiraku
"Lotuses Bloom"
(July 12 -July 16) 

Splendid lotuses soaking up the fresh rain. (Okubiwa Sports No Mori, Nagahama, Shiga)

Flower Of The Season: 蓮, Hasu, Sacred Lotus

"Lotus pond
   As they were unplucked
     Soul's Festival."  
                     -Matsuo Basho

"Reserve" (c) Genkilee, Gen 2012 All Rights Reserved.
I have a special fondness for this sacred flower. Perhaps I've been heavily influenced in my thinking by Oriental philosophies while living here in Asia. But any lifeform that starts its existence in mud and blossoms to become the throne of gods has my immediate respect.

Straight out of a Kangra-style miniature painting! (Okubiwa Sports No Mori Park) (c) Genkilee, Gen 2012 All Rights Reserved
Everything about the lotus astounds me: from its no-apologies bigness to its sweet, rose-meets-lily fragrance to the way its leaves and blossoms hover over the water like island bungalows. The broad, circular leaves are so wide and rubbery that when raindrops beat down upon them, they resonate a deep "thump" like a hand drum. During a light drizzle, the rhythm they produce is hypnotizing.

Pink, pendulous orbs for blossoms sway back and forth in the gentle breeze, perfectly balanced on slender stalks. This lovely plant well deserves lengthy contemplation.

Critter Of The Season: 蝶々, Chouchou, Butterflies

The plump, rippling caterpillars of spring have all wriggled out of their casings and spread their new wings to air-dry in the hot summer sun. Clever opportunists, these insects take full advantage of every second between summer storms, sucking up nectar and mercilessly chasing prospective partners. We naive humans might behold a butterfly and feel a sense of calm serenity, inspired by their kaleidoscopic beauty. But watching their behavior, it's easy to understand how harsh and dangerous their short lives really are. Dodging hungry birds, staying out of spider webs and and steering clear of zooming cars like ours, no matter how much modern society idealizes the butterfly's metamorphosis, I'm glad I don't have their life. Mine's busy, enough.

Nonetheless, I love it when they flit and flutter into my path. It's always a joy and a challenge to try to sneak up on a butterfly and capture their shimmering, myriad colors, stalking them as quietly as I can before they get spooked and fly off. Our best luck has always been on mountainsides in the sunshine. Here are a few of my mid-summer favorites:

1. Great Purple Emperor (大紫, Oh-Murasaki

A Sasakia charonda fresh out of its cocoon (Miyoshi, Tokushima).

2. Mellicta ambigua (コヒョモンモドキ, Ko-hyomon Modoki)

A Mellicta ambigua couple mate atop Mt. Noro (Kure, Hiroshima) (c) Genkilee, Gen via Oppa 2014, All Rights Reserved
3. Small Copper (ベニシジミ, Benishijimi)

A tiny and richly-colored Lycaena phlaeas on a dandelion (Sera, Hiroshima). (c) Gen, Genkilee 2014 All Rights Reserved
 4. Chestnut Tiger (アサギマダラ, Asagi Madara)

A Parantica sita in July milkweed (Iwakuni, Yamaguchi). (c) Genkilee, Gen 2013 All Rights Reserved
 5. Alpine Black Swallowtail (ミヤマカラスアゲハ, Miyama-Karasu Ageha)

A Papilio maackii female flashing hidden colors (Hikone, Shiga).
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, July 11, 2014

31. 暑風至: "The Air Gets Hot"

(BGM: "Yume De Aetara" by Rats & Star)

Fluffy clouds froth up like whipped cream over Lake Biwa (Nagahama, Shiga).
Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
 晩夏, Banka: "Late Summer"
Season No. 11: 小暑: Shousho
"Minor Heat" 

Torrential downpours from Typhoon Neoguri create warm mountain steam (Hiroshima Prefecture)
 Climate No. 31: 暑風至
Atsukaze Itaru
"The Air Gets Hot"
(July 7 -July 11) 

Though the jet stream still sails over the Japanese archipelago, keeping the country cool and moist with tsuyu rains, a typhoon approaches from the south near the Philippines, pulling up with it sultry heat from the Equator. As the cold front from Siberia clashes hard with this new warm air, all havoc breaks loose in a wave of lightning storms and torrential downpours the Japanese call "guerilla rain" ( ゲリラ雨 gerira-ame), rain so hard and violent that it sneaks up without warning, often claiming lives in its wicked wake.

Many of us have gotten so used to the low morning temperatures that we actually welcome these storms to give us our coolness back. Our skin has yet to adjust to the heat.

Event Of The Season: 七夕祭り, Tanabata Matsuri, The Star Festival 

The Weaver Princess & the Cattle Herder (Source: Wikipedia, a Public Domain Image).
As I watch this rain, I feel a tinge of sorrow. The star-crossed lovers of ancient lore, Orihime and Hikoboshi (the Weaver Princess and the Cattle Herder, symbolized by the stars Vega and Altair) won't get to cross the Milky Way and hook up this year because of the bad weather. (Hear children across the isles heave a synchronized sigh of disappointment). Looks like the two lovebirds can only meet in their dreams.

How did these ill-fated lovers get such a harsh gig?

According to a book I once had as a kid, the story went like this: The Weaver Princess (Orihime) was the daughter of the King of the Heavens and her duty was to weave new star cloaks that her father would wear each night. She fell in love with a cattle herder (Hikoboshi), whose cattle were actually stars. When the two fell in love, they were so unseparable (as lovers usually are), that they neglected their duties. The King had no new cloaks to wear and the star cattle were roaming all over the skies, raising cain. To put some order back into the universe, the King decreed that Orihime and Hikoboshi get back to work, separating them by the Milky Way and allowing Hikoboshi only one night a year to traverse it (in clear weather, mind you) to get some good annual lovin.' (Talk about strict!)

Naturally, as with all fables, there's a heavy-handed moral to the story: never get so caught up in love that you forget to do your job. (Remember that in the real world, hard work equals true happiness). Duly noted.

Bamboo decorations for the Tanabata Matsuri in Takehara, Hiroshima (2013)
Traditionally on Tanabata, you don't do much more than write a wish on a strip of paper and tie it to a decorated bamboo pole situated outside under the stars. If the weather is good that night, your wish is bound to come true.

With time, strict adherence to customary rules tends to lax a bit, and so today you can find more and more Tanabata decorations displayed in enclosed spaces, such as supermarkets, hotel lobbies and inside homes (consider it the Eastern alternative to a Christmas tree). Tanabata is an excellent example of an ancient Chinese holiday that succumbed to modern practicality.

Detail of Tanabata streamer (Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, 2003)
Star Festivals occur between July 7th and August 15th, depending on the region. So if the wishes festival-goers write don't come true in July, they get another chance a few weeks later in a different part of the country. Hopefully the weather will co-operate.

Flower Of The Season: 朝顔, Asagao, Morning Glory 

Honey bee enters the temple (Tsukuba Botanical Gardens, Ibaraki Prefecture).
"Breakfast enjoyed  
   In the fine company
    Of morning glories."  
                     -Matsuo Basho

A perfect morning glory in front of an udon restaurant (Hikone, Shiga).
In China, where the Star Couple legend originated, morning glories are symbolic of the Weaver Princess and the Cattle Herder. Their velvety purple and blue blossoms reflect the colors of a starry night, especially when sprinkled with glittering morning dew. They open full and brilliant with the light of daybreak and fizzle out limp in the heat of the sun, fading away (as all things do) into nothingness. The morning glory has also come to represent unrequitted love, mortality and the fleeting nature of passion, even in the West. (I find it intensely interesting that the same flower can evoke similar emotions in people from vastly different cultures).

Night colors in morning light. (Toride, Ibaraki)
All this talk of separated lovers and the temporality of romance makes me grateful for having overcome all my past episodes of lovesickness. There's truly nothing more painful than the pangs of longing. It can turn ambition and hope into pure, useless goo.

 Taste Of The Season: 苦瓜, Nigauri, Bitter Gourd

Fresh goya, sliced and salted, ready for frying!
Bitter gourd (aka goya) looks exactly like a lumpy cucumber with smartly tapered, pointy ends. But instead of watery in the middle, this cucurbit is dry, pithy and the entire vegetable dreadfully bitter, even at its peak of flavor (similar to an unripe persimmon, if you've ever had the misfortune of tasting one of those). It's safe to say that this vegetable is intensely unpopular among children and many adults.

That being said, goya one of my favorite summer veggies! :-)

There are many health incentives for eating bitter gourd. Here in Japan, goya are prized for their impressive vitamin load and stabilizing effect on the digestive system. As with natto (fermented soybeans), I actually had to force myself to like this unpalatable vegetable. But with more exposure, a small addiction grew and at one point, my husband and I couldn't stop cooking with them! The taste is undeniably green. (Remember that blade of grass your friends dared you to eat when you were a kid? Goya tastes like that, only with a cucumber-ish texture). Goya goes down much easier, however, when fried up with a bunch of oily, salty meats and veggies. I've yet to see goya served on its own with no accompaniment.

I really started enjoying them after a co-worker taught me a little secret to cutting the bitterness down a couple notches. Here it is in a nutshell:

Step 1) Wash and dry goya with a paper towel. Slice lengthwise.
Step 2) Remove fibrous white pith with a spoon.
Step 3) Slice goya into 1/4" slices (see above photo)
Step 4) Set goya slices on a plate, sprinkle with a few dashes of salt, set aside for 10-15 minutes on the counter, uncovered. Rinse with cold water and blot dry with paper towel.
Step 5) Cook salted goya in the desired fashion.

Our favorite way of savoring bitter gourd is in a hot platter of goya champuru, a popular tofu stir-fry dish from Okinawa. Here's a simple recipe from "Cooking With Dog" that can be easily whipped up with common ingredients found on both sides of the Pacific Ocean (pardon the cheesy narration).

Happy, healthy summer!

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