Golden Week, it sounds so beautiful while I am sitting here listening to the rain pounding the windows in the Pacific Northwest. We have had a few beautiful sunny teaser days, but typically May is dreary and rainy.
iris spears point to
the sky ready for action
blooms sway in the breeze
The first week of May is Golden Week in Japan and the weather is the most pleasant of the year. May 5th is Tango no Sekku, Boy’s Day, now celebrated as children’s day. A lot of things are displayed for boys: warrior dolls, armor chests and suits of armor, and other military implements. Decorateive paper balls are hung, and kashiwa mochi (rice cake wrapped in oak leaf) and chimaki (rice dumpling wrapped in a leaf) are served. In the Edo period, carp became associated with strength, endurance, and persistance. It is said that the carp that swims upstream and climbs the waterfall to reach the dragon gate, becomes a dragon. Carp streamers are set up on a bamboo pole. Normally there are 3, one red, blue and black for father, mother and child. It is the custom to fly one for each son.
Under the eaves, shob? (sweet flag) or yomogi (mugwort) is hung. Shob? it is said, purges evil spirits and averts fires. There are many other things related to shob? : fortune telling with shob? , a game where the length of the roots are are compared, a low table for making presentations of shob? and wigs made of shob? . The plant is soaked in sake for drinking and put in bath water to make shob? -yu.
Anything purple refers to iris. The ayame, or kakitsubata. There is a poem in Ise monogatari where prince Narihira has an affair with a woman who was to become empress, but was found out and banished to Tokyo. The prince and his friends set out walking toward Tokyo. In a place where they can see Mt. Fuji, is a swampy place where there are many iris growing and they stop to eat. The food they carry with them are dry rice cakes. They play a game and write poems with the letters of kakitsubata as the first letter of each line. The prince’s poem was so good that everyone cried and reconstituted the dry rice cakes. The poem goes like this: I knew a woman who wears Chinese clothes. I had such a lover and now I wonder what she is doing now. I’ve been traveling so long, I wonder how things are going back home.
A famous place to see the blooming iris in Kyoto is Ohta Shrine. They are normally in bloom by May 20th or so. You can see the iris from the side of the road and you don’t even have to pay to get in. Most are the dark purple flowers and they are most beautiful in the rain.
little fat sparrows
bathing in the dust hollows
under the willow
May is considered the beginning of summer. For tea people the change to the furo season is a major event. Closing the ro, changing the tatami, and wearing unlined kimono are manifestations of the change to summer. The change is called irekai. There is a saying that you close the ro with the yamabuki (kerria) blooms. In the furo season the brazier moves the fire farther away from the guests as the weather warms. Because the furo is smaller than the ro, the charcoal is smaller and it is a challenge to build the fire so that it burns correctly to heat the water. Because of this, all the utensils associated with fire change to the smaller furo size. Incense containers no longer need to be ceramic as byakudan (sandalwood) is used rather than the moist kneaded incense for the ro. Smaller kettles are used to fit the furo, the bamboo futaoki (lid rest) has a joint at the top rather than the center, and grass like flowers begin to bloom so baskets can be used for flower containers.
May is also the month for the picking of the tea, 88 days after the spring equinox. The new tea is sealed in the chatsubo (tea leaf storage jar) to age and it is opened in November, usually associated with the change back to the ro season in a ceremony called kuchi kiri.
May abounds with themes also because it is the start of the festival season. One of the biggest festivals in Kyoto is the Aoi (hollyhock) Matsui. It is celebrated at the Kamigamo shrine on May 15 and is one of my favorite festivals. During the Heian period the Aoi Matsuri was very popular and it is based on an imperial messenger who traveled to pray at the Kamigamo shrine for appeasement of the weather. There is a wonderful parade where people get dressed in Heian period clothes and go the shrine.
Hototogisu, the cuckoo, is a beloved theme and a single cry of the cuckoo (issei) is a famous gomei. You will also see iris themes and purple to represent iris. Water is another theme, from spring water, water birds, flowing water from between rocks, or water flowing beside a mossy bank.
An Anthology of the Seasonal Feeling in Chanoyu, by Michael A. Birch
Chado: The Way of Tea, A Japanese Tea Master’s Almanac, translated from the Japanese by Shaun McCabe and Iwasaki Satoko.
Notes from Midorikai lectures, 1996-1997