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. 

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