Asagao (朝顔) Morning Glory

Classic asagao

Classic asagao

Name: Asagao (朝顔) Morning Glory

Seasonal Association: summer

When To Wear It: June to mid-September

Auspicious: no

 

 

History:

The morning glory was originally introduced from China for medicinal use as a laxative during the 9th century. The plant was well established during the Heian period, and there is a minor character named Princess Asagao present in The Tale of Genji. During the Edo Period, the asagao was cultivated as an ornamental plant. Historically, asagao was considered an autumn motif in the pantheon of seasonal waka poetry, and it is sometimes included in the classical seven flowers of autumn (see below). However currently, the asagao has come to represent summer more than autumn. In fact, it is one of the few flowers today that is instantly recognized as a summer motif in Japan.

Aki no nanakusa (秋の七草):

The seven flowers or grasses of autumn. It’s unknown who first put together this group of plants as a representation of autumn, but it is a classic theme of even the oldest Japanese poetry.

It includes…
hagi (bush clover)
susuki (pampas grass)
kuzu (arrowroot)
nadeshiko (dianthus, pink, or wild carnation)
ominaeshi (valerian or maiden flower)
fujibakama (mistflower)
kikyo (Chinese bellflower) NB: occasionally, asagao (morning glory) is substituted for kikyo.

For more information on aki no nanakusa, check out http://www.urasenke.org/flowers/autumn.php 

Identification:

The easiest way to identify an asagao is to look for a thin, five pointed star the reaches out from the center of the flowers to the edges of the petals. This star will always be a different colour than the surrounding petals. The petals of an asagao will not be distinct, but will be a circle with varying degrees of smoothness around the edges. Another identifying feature of the asagao is its trumpet-like shape. The leaves of the asagao have three points all pointing downwards.

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Botan (牡丹) Peony

001Name: Botan (牡丹) Peony

Seasonal Association: Spring or Summer

When To Wear It: October-April

Auspicious: yes

History

Peonies were originally introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period, however it didn’t enter the poetic canon of flowers until the Edo period. Botan are also known as the king of flowers, and they are considered an appropriate floral offering for the Buddha. Classically, botan is associated with summer (especially early summer) as that is when the flowers bloom naturally. However, during the Edo period, cultivators created different breeds of peonies that bloom in winter, spring, and autumn as well.

Identification

Botan can often be confused with the tsubakiBotan blossoms are much larger and fuller than tsubaki blossoms, and they usually have more petals than tsubaki. These petals are often depicted in multiple layers and they have ragged edges while tsubaki petals are usually depicted as smooth and in a single layer. Finally, botan leaves are depicted with three distinct lobes while tsubaki leaves do not have lobes.

While these are general rules to distinguish between botan and tsubaki, highly stylized versions or unusual artistic interpretations can muddle this distinction.

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Botan

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More botan

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How many botan do we need?!

Ahhhhh! They're everywhere! (no seriously. They're a very popular motif! They're everywhere!)

Ahhhhh! They’re everywhere! (no seriously. They’re a very popular motif! They’re everywhere!)

The picture below IS NOT a botan, but a tsubaki (camelia).  You can see the differences between the two flowers clearly, especially with the number of petals and the smoothness of the petal edges.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

Tsubaki (椿) Camellia

IMG_0034 IMG_0043 Name: Tsubaki (椿) Camellia

Seasonal Association: Spring

When To Wear It: December-March

Auspicious: no

 

 

 

 

IMG_0033History

The kanji for tsubaki combines the radicals for tree (木) and spring (春) which perfectly describe this motif. Tsubaki is a tree that can grow at high altitudes, and it is very common to see the red and white tsubaki blooms when there is still snow on the ground (yuki-tsubaki). Tsubaki is also commonly called the rose of winter.

Tsubaki was an unpopular and inauspicious flower for samurai and their families. Tsubaki blossoms drop to the ground as a complete flower instead of petal by petal. To the samurai, this represented the death of the warrior in one stroke.

The popularity of the tsubaki reached a height during the Edo era. Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada incorporated tsubaki in his flower garden. After provincial representatives viewed the garden, a tsubaki boom happened across Japan for all social classes. In fact, a 100 Tsubaki Catalogue was produced, allowing for selective breeding.

Identification

Tsubaki and botan (peony) can often be confused. The classic feature of tsubaki is the tightly packed clump of stamena at the center of the flower. Tsubaki have between five to nine petals, and they are usually shown as a single layer of petals. In stylized versions, the petals will meld into one large undulating ring around the center. Botan are usually fuller than tsubaki and have multiple layers of petals. The petals are usually more ragged on the edges than tsubaki petals.  Tsubaki that are depicted with their branches can be called edatsubaki (camellia branches) or tsubaki no orieda (camellia on bent branches).

While these are general rules to distinguish between tsubaki and botan, highly stylized versions or unusual artistic interpretations can muddle this distinction.

A tsubaki tree depicted on a kimono.

A tsubaki tree depicted on a kimono.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

A close up of more realistically depicted tsubaki.

More stylized tsubaki. The petals are not clearly distinguishable but are depicted as an undulating ring.

Ume (梅) Plum

DSC_0155 DSC_0152Name: Ume (梅) Japanese Plum Blossom (A.K.A Japanese Wild Apricot)

Seasonal Association: Spring

When To Wear It: January – March

Auspicious: yes

Seasonality

Japan is a long, mountainous country. Its geography means that it has radically different temperatures and weather during any particular season. Winter in Okinawa, Kyushu, Kansai, and Hokkaido are very, very, different. Seasonality rules for kimono motifs was established by the nobility of the imperial court, which was based in the Kyoto region. Therefore, the time frame for what is considered spring is set by the weather in Kyoto, even though there are still snowstorms happening in Hokkaido. Essentially, the traditional season and the climatic season at any given time can be very different from each other.

Before the Meiji Era, Japan used a different calendar (a luni-solar calendar). According to the modern solar calendar, the traditional four seasons are as follows.

Spring: February 4-May 4 (first, second, and third months)
Summer: May 5-August 6 (fourth, fifth, and sixth months)
Autumn: August 7-November 6 (seventh, eighth, and ninth months)
Winter: November 7-February 4 (tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months)

Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons – Haruo Shirane

This traditional seasonality, which rules all seasonal kimono motifs, would place the blooming of ume firmly in the first month (spring) even though there is still very likely snow on the ground. Like the crocus in the west, ume is seen as a harbinger of spring.

History

Before the Nara Period (719-794), when you said the word “flower”, many people thought of the ume first. In fact, there were more poems written about the ume than the sakura during this period. Even today, when the flowers bloom, there are viewing parties and festivals to celebrate their arrival.

Besides being the first flower of spring, ume is also associated with academic success and passing entrance exams. The main reason for this is due to a man called Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a famous politician, poet, scholar and student of Chinese literature in the Heian period. During his career, he rose high in the imperial bureaucracy, but was falsely accused of treason and was exiled to Kyushu. This act led to the story Tobi Ume Densetsu (The Legend of the Flying Plum Tree). It’s said that Michizane had a favorite plum tree in his garden in Kyoto. After his exile, the plum tree missed him so much that it uprooted itself and flew to Kyushu to be with him. After his death, Michizane was exonerated and enshrined as a Shinto deity of scholarship, Tenjin. Many of the temples dedicated to him, including Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, adopted his favourite flower, the ume, as their symbol. Every February, students writing the annual high school and university entrance exams go to these shrines to pray for luck with their scholastic achievements. The exams themselves are also held around the time that the ume blooms, strengthening the connection between the ume and academic success.

Kimono Design: An Introduction to its Patterns and Background – Keiko Nitanai

http://www.jref.com/history/sugawara-no-michizane/

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.

Shochikubai
松竹梅

The kanji that make up shochikubai include matsu (pine) take (bamboo) and ume (plum blossom). The name comes from the Chinese reading of the characters instead of the Japanese reading (sho=pine, chiku=bamboo, and bai=plum blossom). This combination is known as the “Three Friends of Winter.” It’s a very auspicious combination, and although all the motifs are associated with winter (or the announcement of spring in the case of ume), it can be used year round.

Identification

Ume are shown as a flower with five petals that are perfectly round. It can be easy to confuse it with the other classic five-petaled flowers, the sakura (with a notch in each petal) or the kikyo (with pointed petals).

This is an ume with a double layer of petals.

This is an ume with a double layer of petals.

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This obi has ume blossoms as well as buds in it’s design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Variations

Neji ume are stylized blossoms and are shown with the petals twisting around the center of the flower.

The small orange blossom with five petals is a nejiume. The larger blue flower is a nejikiku (twisted chrysanthemum).

Korin ume is a highly stylized version. In this design, the five petals are still visible, however they are not distinctive.

Note: When I acquire this motif in my collection I will add a photo of it.

Umebachi is five large circles (representing the petals) placed in a circle around a sixth, smaller circle.

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 Finally, Begin Japanology has done another great video on the ume.

Matsu (松) Pine

002 (3) 009 (6)Name:  Matsu (松) Pine

Seasonal Association: Winter

When To Wear It: all year

Auspicious: yes

 

A Note on Seasonality: Some sources of classical poetry place matsu in the category of a winter motif.  I tend to agree with this assessment as pine has a very strong association in my mind with O-shogatsu (New Years) as well as it’s inclusion in the trio of shochikubai (the three friends of winter).  Others do not agree with this.  However one fact that is indisputable is that matsu is an auspicious motif and therefore can be worn all year round.

History

There are two main kinds of pine trees that grow in japan. Kuromatsu ( 黒松 black pine) grows in coastal areas and akamatsu ( 赤松 red pine) grows on mountains and in fields.

Their long life (sometimes hundreds of years) hardiness, and the fact that they are green all year round make them an auspicious symbol of longevity.

Pine is used in a wide variety of items in Japan. Lumber, windbreaks, fuel, torches, and bonsai all use pine wood. The soot from burning pinewood is used to create ink for calligraphy. In addition, matsutake mushrooms can only be found growing around the base of akamatsu.

Spiritually, pine is heavily linked with the gods of the Japanese pantheon. Noh plays usually feature at least one supernatural character, and the background for all noh stages is a painting of a single pine tree.

During O-shogatsu (お正月Japanese New Year) homes are decorated with a pair of kadomatsu (門松gate pines). These decorations are said to provide homes for the gods during their visit to Earth.

Kadomatsu (gate pine) are traditional New Year decorations. They always feature bamboo and pine.

Kadomatsu (gate pine) are traditional New Year decorations. They always feature bamboo and pine.

For more information on pine, Begin Japanology has created an excellent video on the subject.

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.

Shochikubai
松竹梅

The kanji that make up shochikubai include matsu (pine) take (bamboo) and ume (plum blossom). The name comes from the Chinese reading of the characters instead of the Japanese reading (sho=pine, chiku=bamboo, and bai=plum blossom). This combination is known as the “Three Friends of Winter.” It’s a very auspicious combination, and although all the motifs are associated with winter, it can be used year round. It is especially popular during the Japanese New Year. Bamboo and pine are always included in decorations called kadomatsu (門松) although it’s still a little early in January for plum blossoms to be blooming.

Identification

Here are the two most common ways of depicting matsu.

Kasamatsu (笠松) Hat of Pine

In this motif, the pine foliage forms a hat while the branches form the ties of the hat, Although personally, I think it looks more like a mushroom than a hat.

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Matsuba chirashi (松葉散らし) Scattered Pine Needles

This motif resembles scattered pine needles on the ground. The needles are always depicted in pairs that are attached at the base of the needles.

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Take (竹) Bamboo

052Name: Take (竹) Bamboo

Seasonal Association: Trans-seasonal

When To Wear It: All year

Auspicious: yes

A Note on Seasonality: Different parts of bamboo are associated with different seasons in Japan.  For example, the straight stalks of bamboo have a close connection with winter due to their inclusion in O-shogatsu (New Years) decorations and shochikubai (The Three Friends of Winter).  However, bamboo also plays an important part in the celebration of Tanabata, which takes place in the summer.

History

Take is one of the most important plants in Japan.

It has taken on many meanings and associations over its long history in Japan. According to Haruo Shirane in his book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, bamboo has come to represent long life, prosperity, immortality, fidelity, and chastity. It is also a member of shochikubai (see below) which is an extremely auspicious combination of bamboo, pine, and plum blossom.

Its importance is shown very well in this video from Begin Japanology.

Bamboo is an integral part of Japanese culture and is used in thousands of products. Here’s a short list illustrating the importance of bamboo in Japan.

Practical applications: baskets, building construction, scaffolding, fencing, inuyarai (犬矢来traditional Kyoto fencing) implements for tea ceremony, traditional umbrellas, toys, cups, ikenbana baskets, fans, flutes, and brooms are examples.

Kadomatsu (gate pine) are traditional New Year decorations. They always feature bamboo and pine.

Kadomatsu (gate pine) are traditional New Year decorations. They always feature bamboo and pine.

Decorative applications: figurines, kadomatsu (門松decorations for the Japanese New Year, O-shogatsu) shishi-odoshi (ししおどし traditional stalks of bamboo that fill up with water, then pour it out while making a noise. They were traditionally used to scare off animals, but are now used only decoratively in gardens.)

Annual Celebrations:

Tanabata ( 七夕): On July 7th, people will tie handmade paper ornaments to a branch of bamboo to celebrate the legend of two lovers that can only cross the milky way and meet one day a year. For more information on Tanabata check here.  http://www.jref.com/culture-society/tanabata/

O-shogatsu(お正月): During O-shogatsu, the Japanese New Year, homes and businesses are decorated with kadomatsu. Pairs of kadomatsu (門松) are placed on either side of the door to welcome and be a temporary home to the visiting gods. Kadomatsu are decorated differently depending on region, but all of them have three pieces of upright bamboo as the centerpiece.

bamboo figurines

bamboo figurines

Legends:

The oldest Japanese story to be found so far is the story of the bamboo cutter, also called Kaguya Hime or Taketori Monogatari. In this story, a bamboo cutter finds a stalk of bamboo that is glowing. When he cuts it open, he discovers a baby girl. When this baby girl grows up, she eventually returns to her home on the moon. It’s a very popular story that all Japanese children know.

Food: Takenoko (竹の子bamboo shoots) are served fresh from March to May and preserved year round (especially in ramen). In addition, the sheaths around the base of mature bamboo can be used as a food wrapper.

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.

Shochikubai on a hanhaba obi.

Shochikubai
松竹梅

The kanji that make up shochikubai include matsu (pine) take (bamboo) and ume (plum blossom). The name comes from the Chinese reading of the characters instead of the Japanese reading (sho=pine, chiku=bamboo, and bai=plum blossom). This combination is known as the “Three Friends of Winter.” It’s a very auspicious combination, and although all the motifs are associated with winter, it can be used year round. It is especially popular during the Japanese New Year. Bamboo and pine are always included in decorations called kadomatsu (門松) although it’s still a little early in January for plum blossoms to be blooming.

 

Identification

Bamboo is depicted on kimono in two distinct ways.

Take (竹) bamboo
A long, straight stalk of bamboo with visible joints (fushi) at regular intervals.  Take can be depicted with or without leaves.

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Bamboo in a utilitarian setting.

Bamboo in a utilitarian setting.

Sasanoha (笹の葉) bamboo leaves
A clump of three, four, or five thin pointed leaves. The points of the leaves are always oriented downwards. It is very common for sasanoha to appear without take.

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Susuki (薄) Pampas Grass

014 065Name: Susuki (薄) pampas grass  (A.K.A. silver grass or plume grass)

Seasonal Association: Autumn

When To Wear It: August to October

Auspicious: no

History:

Susuki goes by many names in English including pampas grass, silver grass, and plume grass. It is another member of aki no nakakusa (the seven grasses of autumn). Historically, susuki was used for thatch for the roofs of homes, temples, and sheds. Nowadays, it could be viewed as a weed because it grows everywhere, but Japanese culture embraces simplicity and subtle elegance. Susuki, a simple but elegant grass, is emblematic of this mindset.  Susuki is an essential decoration for tsukimi, the mid-autumn moon viewing festival.

Aki no nanakusa (秋の七草)

The seven flowers or grasses of autumn. It’s unknown who first put together this group of plants as a representation of autumn, but it is a classic theme of even the oldest Japanese poetry.

It includes…

Hagi (bush clover)
Susuki (pampas grass)
Kuzu (arrowroot)
Nadeshiko (dianthus, pink, or wild carnation)
Ominaeshi (valerian or maiden flower)
Fujibakama (mistflower)
Kikyo (Chinese bellflower) or asagao (morning glory)

For more information, check out http://www.urasenke.org/flowers/autumn.php

Identification

Susuki is depicted as a tall thin stalk with a feathered top. The top usually bends over to the side.

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An example of susuki that is coloured rather unrealistically.

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A simple example of susuki can be seen in the top left of this picture.