Monday, August 11, 2014

37. 涼風至: "Cool Winds Blow"

(BGM: "Together Again" by Janet Jackson)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
初秋, Shoshu: "Early Autumn"
Season No. 13: 立秋: Risshu
"The Start Of Autumn"

An indigo noren curtain catches the breeze in the front door of soba shop (Matsue, Shimane).
Climate No. 37: 涼風至
Suzu Kaze Itaru
"Cool Winds Blow"
(August 7 -August 11) 

We all wait for nighttime, when it feels as if the door to the heavens has literally cracked open, allowing us a breath of the sweet, cool air flowing in. The daytime sunlight is still painfully strong and biting, but the hours around high noon bring a more tolerable warmth. We don't need the air conditioner except for a few hours a day. (This will help us out a lot since our utility costs are so high this time of year). Evey lungful of early autumn air saves our bodies extra work, giving us more energy for the demands of the festive Obon holiday.

Flower Of The Season: 鬼百合, Oniyuri, Demon Lily (Tiger Lily)

A lovely tiger lily marks the entrance to Koubou Temple (弘法寺) on Mt. Noro (Kure, Hiroshima).
It's as if the universe knew my all-time favorite color combination (vivid green, red-orange, black) and put them in a flower just for me!

A symbol of wealth, the oniyuri (Lilium Maximowiczii) is both a cultivar and wildflower in Japan. In my travels around the country, I've seen it edging roadsides, rice fields and parking lots in the Kanto, Kinki and Chugoku regions, thus far. Yet it's so strikingly tall and graceful that I can't help but think someone must have deliberately put the bulbs into the ground. Literally translated as "demon lily," oniyuri gets its name from both its coloring and demon-like appearance. But instead of striking fear into my heart whenever I see it, the oniyuri uplifts me like no other flower! I always look forward to them when they bloom!

Critter Of The Season: ヤモリ, Yamori, Schlegel's Japanese Gecko

Gecko with eyes glowing from my camera flash (Hikone, Shiga).
If there's any particular creature that helped me to comprehend that I'm now living in a subtropical zone, it's this little guy, Gekko japonicus. Growing up in the subarctic, I'd always associated geckos with places like Mexico or Hawa'ii. I never once dreamed I'd have the good luck of seeing a real one, let alone find a gecko clinging to the window of my Japanese apartment kitchen!

A gecko hatchling I found in my kitchen clings desperately to my warm finger (2007, Ibaraki Pref).
Geckos hide in the cool shadow of wall creases and doorframes by day. But as soon as the porchlights come on, they scuttle up the walls like Spiderman, creeping silently upon their prey (cockroaches, moths, caddisflies, etc.) with all the stealth and skill of a ninja. As with the agile amagaeru (green tree frogs) that have a talent for camouflage, Japanese geckos can go from dark to pale depending on their surroundings. This little dude on my finger changed from a plain concrete grey to this more intricate coloring just in the brief time that I had him inside for a photo shoot.

Their name yamori comes from the words ya (家, house) and mori (守, protect). Young parents will more than likely cringe at the thought of these creatures inside their fancy, high-tec condominiums. But the older generation of Japanese have no qualms letting a few yamori live peacefully inside the walls. (Free, organic pest control!)

Apparently, this species has both a squeaky mating call and an alarm for when they feel threatened. Perhaps my handling technique makes geckos feel too safe to squeal, since I've never heard one freak out, yet. (Hopefully that's the case). But they're quite vocal at night, chirping loudly from building foundations, sounding closer to a rusty bicycle tire in need of a good lube but lacking the acoustic richness of a grasshopper chirp. Nonetheless, I like knowing from the sound that these little critters are nearby, another comforting sound of the season.

Event Of The Season: お盆, Obon, Festival Of Souls

"Not to think of yourself
  As someone who did not count. 
   The Festival of Souls." 
                              -Matsuo Basho

Excited residents of Tone, Ibaraki awaiting sundown and Obon festivities along the banks of the mighty Tone River (2005).
Although I'm of a different spiritual persuasion, I have a great fondness for the Obon festival, that marvelous send-off party for the souls of the dearly departed on their way back to the netherworld. It's not so much the meaning of the ceremony that does it for me, but the way in which the Japanese people so openly and eagerly welcome "outsiders" to partake of these festivities. I can think of no other holiday in Japan where the glass ceiling of racial difference is completely lifted and both Nihonjin and Gaikokujin can dance together as one people under the glittering stars.

Dancing and drumming on an elevated stage at the Obon Matsuri in Tone, Ibaraki (2005).
You don't have to be a Buddhist or even have deceased loved ones to dance the bon-odori (盆踊り, Obon dance). Nothing matters except that you 1) try your best and 2) have a blast. Hands sway gracefully as you coordinate gentle forward, backward and side steps in a continuous, gradual circle. I always find it easiest to pick a really good dancer a few people ahead of me and concentrate on her/his movements so I don't look like a complete idiot. But everyone is in too good a mood to care, and no matter how hard you screw up the steps, everyone around you will say you're doing great. Besides the droning taiko drums are so heart-pounding, eardrum-burstingly loud that you won't hear anyone heckling!

My mentor gleefully showing me the correct hand position for the Bon Odori dance.

There are many Obon songs out there, some with their own specific motions, so the steps you learn in one town might make you look different in another. But no matter. I'd like to say that you'll get the hang of it quickly, but I never did. Yet it's so much fun to just jump right into the circle and start going for it like it's the last dance of your life, which it very well might be if the humidity and heat are high enough. But working up a sweat in the dance circle is a great way to justify eating all those skewers of scrumptious yatai vendor foods!

Lining up for some sizzling skewered treats!
Some Obon rituals are a bit more reflective and somber, with no yatais, no dancing and the only "music" you hear might be the chanting of Buddhist monks. Actually, most of Obon is celebrated in a close family context: graves and butsudan (仏壇, god shelves) are spruced up and given fresh incense and flowers prior to the arrival of the departed spirits. When the spirit has arrived, a candle is lit and kept lit througout the festival. Families gather, get the spirits up to speed with local news, pay their necessary respects and go to the local hot springs to unwind from a long day's travel. Some people might go to temple for prayers and rites, particularly if souls are in need of soothing. Obon in most sizeable communities usually culminates in a dance party complete with fireworks. But for many others near a river or a large body of water, on the final night of the holiday, the spirits, symbolized by a lit candle, are set adrift to their ethereal home during the Toro Nagashi (灯籠流し, lantern-floating festival).

Just weeks after surviving my own brush with death, I was fortunate to catch the Hikone City Toro Nagashi festival along the banks of the Seri River. In a backdrop of sacred darkness, hundreds of people knelt down at the water's edge and quietly released their lanterns into the gently flowing current with a push and the folding of hands in prayer. The sultry night air was heavy with sorrow that night, as many bid a teary farewell to their loved ones, many who were victims in the Great Tohoku Earthquake earlier that spring. I found myself crying along silently from the opposite bank, finally taking important time to process all the sorrow and loss we'd witnessed when we lived in northern Kanto during the time of the quake. Obon is a much-needed time of emotional release and catharsis in a land where the outward display of emotion is more or less discouraged.

As Paul Simon says, "sometimes, even music cannot substitute for tears."

"Prayers For Safe Passage" (c) 2011 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. 

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