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!

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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