Wednesday, August 27, 2014

40. 綿柎開: "Cotton Flowers Open"

(BGM: "Sayonara Natsu No Hi" by Yamashita Tatsuro)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
初秋, Shoshu: "Early Autumn"
Season No. 14: 処暑, Shosho
"The Limits Of The Heat"

Poufs of homegrown cotton decorates an autumn wreath woven by a friend of mine.
Climate No. 40: 綿柎開 
Wata No Hanashibe Hiraku
"Cotton Flowers Open"
(August 23 -August 27) 

The gradual setting in of dry, crisp evening air causes cotton and other seed pods to split and pop open with a snap. On my morning walks, I notice the grass beneath my feet has changed from the lush, vivid green I took for granted to a rusty, tired mat of ochre and tan. Jumping spiders and tiny grasshoppers dash out of my way as I swish through. It's easy to see that despite the heat of the noonday sun, for some species, summer is over and the race to procreate before the frost is in full swing.

Flower Of The Season: 紅葉葵, Momiji Aoi, Scarlet Rose Mallow

A mammoth scarlet rose marrow sways in front of an old country home in Shiga.
This towering member of the hibiscus family can easily grow up to seven feet tall and beyond. I'll never forget the first time I saw one of these comically large mallow blossoms. Thinking it was a child's pinwheel, I had to touch it to make sure it wasn't made of plastic! We know Hibiscus coccineus in the US as Texas star or lone star hibiscus. This flower isn't native to Japan by any means, yet it can be found teetering to and fro in neighborhood gardens from Honshu to Kyushu. Despite its other common name marsh hibiscus, H. coccineus apparently grows in much drier conditions like roadside ditches and along inner city driveways, where I often see them. The racy, bold blossoms of H. coccineus add a tropical touch to any landscape -Nature's final summer fling.

Taste Of The Season: 赤唐辛子, Akatougarashi, Red Chilies

"Crimson pepper pod
  Add two pairs of wings 
   And look! 
    Darting Dragonfly!"   -Matsuo Basho

Chilies drying in the early autumn sun (Shigaraki No Sato, Koka City, Shiga Prefecture).
Native to the Americas, Capsicum annuum first made its way into Asia via Portuguese traders during the 16th century. Powder made from the dried fruit of this plant, mixed with other spices in a formula called shichimi togarashi (七味唐辛子, lit. "seven flavors chili pepper") has been around since the Edo period. Fortunately for us, so have some of the shops that first perfected this classic Japanese condiment!

Passing by Kyoto's famous Shichimiya Honpo shop on Sannenzaka Slope (2004).
In my travels, I've not seen red chilies used in everyday cuisine beyond a flavor spike for pickled vegetables or as a sprinkled topping on soba noodles. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough. Bottles and jars of shichimi sit half-filled on just about every restaurant table I've ever sat at, so somebody must be using the stuff. I'm just never lucky enough to catch anyone in the act of sprinkling it on their food besides me.

A fragrant bowl of shichimi powder in a farmer's market cafeteria (Shiobara, Tochigi 2007).
Shichimi is one of those spice combinations that doesn't go with just anything the way other chili pepper powders do. The average shichimi is blended with nutty sesame seeds, dried citrus rind and sansho peppercorns to sweeten it, which substantially limits the spice blend's versitility. I've personally found shichimi to go best with savory, oily foods like ramen, soba soup broth and gyoza (fried dumplings). It tends to easily overwhelm tastebuds that have been sensitized to the subtleties of Japanese cuisine. But when the flavors work well, the effect is pure magic. (Straight-up, unblended akatougarashi, in either powder or dried pod form, is more appropriate for recipes that require the heat of chili peppers without additional flavors).

A very kind and genki (vibrant) shichimi vendor (Kusatsu Hot Springs, Gumma Prefecture, 2004).
But more often than not, especially this time of year, I see chili pepper advertised as a slimming agent in bath salts, body scrubs and as a major component in pain relief patches. Japanese women and the elderly are very familiar with the ancient practice of taking togarashi to improve blood circulation and aid digestion. It's not uncommon to see shichimi shops dotting hot springs and temple towns such as Kusatsu in Gumma prefecture and Tokyo's Sugamo district. Shichimi is the prescription of choice for health and genkiness (vitality), both cooling in summer and warming in winter. As the old Hippocrates saying goes: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."

Critter Of The Season: とんぼ, Tombo, Dragonfly

An akiakane (Sympetrum frequens) rests on a weathered bench (Toride, Ibaraki 2010).
These swirling, dipping masters of flight are so dear to me that I don't even know where to begin. My first encounter with Japanese dragonflies was a complete surprise to say the least: I was walking down a crowded Sapporo street headed for the famous Ramen Yokocho when I noticed people pointing to my chest and giggling. I looked down and there on my lapel, perfect as a beaded brooch, sat a lovely scarlet dragonfly, its iridescent, honeycombed eyes staring up at me almost wistfully. Smiling, I walked a whole 'nother block with that critter on my jacket, proud to wear such a glamourous piece of spontaneous living jewelry. As I was about to turn the corner, I looked down again and it had flown off. But for some reason, I felt blessed.

Making friends with the akiakane dragonfly.

Japan has around 200 species of dragonfly, coming in nearly every color of the rainbow, from yellow to purple. But the akatombo (red dragonfly) is the quintessential insect of autumn, swarming around parks and parking lots by the hundreds, especially in areas where rice paddies are prevalent. But as we've been seeing with swallows, fireflies and other creatures dependent on natural watershed habitat, the number of akatombo dragonflies has been decreasing with the loss of rice paddies nation-wide. The more the Japanese diet slowly changes from locally-grown rice to processed wheat products like noodles and bread, the faster the rice paddies disappear. In the meantime, more territorial, brownish-colored akiakane dragonflies like the one here perched on my finger have overrun much of akatombo's habitat.

I've only seen the beautiful, blood-red akatombo three times in my life and I'd love to see more. So over the past few years, I've made it a point to keep Japanese rice as my primary staple food. We do what we can for the environment, right?

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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