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.

Book Review: Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons

I have quite an extensive library of kimono books on my shelf. Some are in English, some are in Japanese, and some are bilingual. I use some of them almost daily, and some of them I rarely look at. I’d love to share some of my collection with you, and so I’ve decided to start doing book reviews.

This first review is on a book called Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons by Haruo Shirane. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. My reading tastes are very peculiar and eclectic. The easiest way to get me to NOT read is to put it on a bestseller list or to make a movie out of it. I think the only reason I love Harry Potter so much is that I heard about it through word of mouth before it became immensely popular. By then, it was too late. I had already read the first three books and I wasn’t going to stop!

But back to kimono. Or rather, kimono books. For each review, I’ll give an outline of what topics are covered. For this book, I’ve decided to do it by chapters. After that, I’ll give you my opinion, both the good and the bad, along with some final thoughts about the book.

Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons by Haruo Shirane

Published by Columbia University Press in 2012
ISBN: 9780231152815

The Basic Facts

Shirane’s overall argument for this book is that the seasonalisation of motifs is a cultural construction that was based on the Imperial court in Kyoto during the Heian period. These nobles rarely left the palace, so the only nature they were exposed to was the recreated nature of the gardens. This is the reason you will never see a wild boar as a classical motif on a kimono.

Introduction: Secondary Nature, Climate, and Landscape

In the introduction, Shirane debates the opposing viewpoints that Japanese people accept nature while western cultures try to fight against it. He also explains the old calendar that was used in the Heian court and that was used to assign seasonality to different motifs. This calendar is about six weeks later than the modern calendar and this difference explains some of the complications in kimono seasonality such as autumn motifs being acceptable in August (according to the classical calendar, August was considered autumn).

Chapter 1: Poetic Topics and the Making of the Four Seasons

This chapter examines Imperial anthologies of waka poetry and what they can tell us about the development of seasonality. Shirane starts by instructing us on the mindset of the Heian poet; that they were writing for an audience that implicitly understood the feelings and connections associated with each image they presented. “My love is like a rose” is not a phrase that would be used. Instead the poet would just use “rose” and rely on the reader to interpret “love” from it. The author also looks at several anthologies chronologically and charts the course of which seasons held prominence to the writers (at first it was only spring and autumn) and which motifs were used to express these seasons. Finally, he also talks about cultural creations of seasonality such as the moon or the deer (which exist all year round) coming to represent autumn and why this happened.

Chapter 2: Visual Culture, Classical Poetry, and Linked Verse

This chapter looks at how the seasonality established by waka poetry was expressed in various visual media, including the juni hitoe. Shirane lists several colour combinations that conveyed different motifs for different seasons. He also talks about kosode from the Edo period. During this time, kosode would sometimes have some of the characters from certain famous poems as part of the design. It would be up to the watcher to see these kanji and remember the poem and thus understand the seasonality of the kosode. He also looks at screen paintings and the development of twelve-month paintings (one panel for each month) which further refined the list of plant, flower, and bird motifs that were associated with each month.

Chapter 3: Interiorization, Flowers, and Social Ritual

This chapter looks at the habit of bringing the secondary nature created outside in the garden into the rooms of the palace. This was done partially through the art of ikebana, which he describes in great detail, but also through the construction of the palace itself. Features such as verandas, gardens that are viewable from inside the building, and alcoves decorated with seasonal flowers were also key features of bringing nature closer to the living space. This chapter also talks about the use of seasonal flowers in tea ceremony.

Chapter 4: Rural Landscape, Social Difference, and Conflict

In this chapter, Shirane looks at the difference between the secondary nature of the court and the nature experienced by the common people on farms, in the fields, and in the forest and mountains. Low ranking aristocrats and Buddhist priests were the authors of these texts, and in them, natural phenomenon were often associated with the gods, or they were viewed as bridges to other worlds. The dichotomy of “classical motifs” and “common motifs” is incredibly interesting. Most of the motifs are very different, however when they are the same, they will signal different things to different audiences. For example, the first cry of the hototogisu (a type of cuckoo bird) was seen as a sign of summer (classical) and also a sign to start planting the rice (common).

Chapter 5: Trans-Seasonality, Talismans, and Landscape

In this chapter, Shirane talks about motifs that have transcended traditional seasonal restrictions to become auspicious motifs that are acceptable all year round. These include motifs like pine, bamboo, the crane, and the turtle. In addition to individual motifs, Shirane also talks about auspicious topography and the notion of four seasons and four directions. He also tries to clarify the difference between a motif as a motif, and a motif as a talisman.

Chapter 6: Annual Observances, Famous Places, and Entertainment

In this chapter, Shirane talks about the annual observances that divided up the year. In particular, he talks about the significance and impact of the Five Sacred Festivals (gosekku) which occurred on the first day of the first month, the third day of the third month, the fifth day of the fifth month, the seventh day of the seventh month, and the ninth day of the ninth month. In addition, Shirane talks about famous places that people would visit in order to see seasonal displays (the first examples of hanami and momijigari).

Chapter 7: Seasonal Pyramid, Parody, and Botany

This chapter talks about the rise of haikai poetry in the Edo period and the departure from purely classical literature to poems written by the common people. Shirai describes a seasonal pyramid with refined, classical seasonal motifs at the top (such as cherry and plum blossoms) all the way down to new motifs that were introduced from the experiences of the common people (such as dandelion and garlic). During this time of literature development, seasonal food and fish also became seasonal motifs.

 

My Thoughts

The good

This book is one the most used books in my kimono library. I love the fact that it gives the history and background on motifs and this has broadened my understanding of them too. My favourite part of this book is the index. It’s divided up into the four seasons, and within each season, each motif is listed twice, once under its Japanese name, and once under its English name. This makes it very easy to find what I want, even if I’ve forgotten or don’t know the Japanese term. Once I turn to the page in question, most Japanese terms are written in italics so I’m able to spot what I want fairly quickly.

The section on kimono itself is small, only a couple of pages, but the sections on other topics (like ikebana, sado, etc.) are also only a few pages so there is very little danger of getting bogged down in a topic that you have no interest in for a long period of time. And there’s a little something for everyone with an interest in any aspect of Japanese culture. A word of warning though, the primary sources that Shirane refers to are poetry anthologies and there are countless references to different poets, poems, and anthologies. I have to admit, most of them went over my head.

The Not So Good.

The one complaint that I have with this book is that it’s not an easy read. It’s an academic text and I found myself sloshing through and re-reading sections (sometimes multiple times) before I understood what he was saying. Shirane is very wordy in his writing, and I feel that he sometimes doesn’t connect all of his dots properly in the arguments that he tries to make. For example, in chapter five, he talks about talismans and talismanic function. He provides a definition of a talisman and attempts to connect it to the motifs that he decides to talk about (such as pine, bamboo, and cranes), but for me at least, he doesn’t make a clear connection between the definition and the motifs he’s talking about. It almost feels as if he is choosing deliberately challenging words as way of creating a text that is not easily accessible to the general population. Using a more appropriate word like auspicious would make the text much more accessible. Be warned, this is not an easy read.

My Final Thoughts

Even with this book being a challenging read, I still enjoy it. When I begin to research a new motif, this is the first book that I usually reach for. It explains things that are otherwise confusing about kimono motifs such as why autumn motifs are popular on garments worn in August (because August used to be an autumn month under the old calendar). Would I buy it again? Definitely. Would I read it cover to cover? Probably not. There are some chapters that I refer to more often than others, and there are chapters that are more readable than others. But overall, I’m very glad to have this book in my collection and I suspect I will be using it for many years in the future.

 

 

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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