Signs of spring: Field Horsetail or Tsukushi

Japanese people are a lot more aware of the seasons than Belgian people are. While the first signs of spring are met with joy everywhere, Japanese culture takes it to another level by singling out a great number of tell-tale sings of spring that people can look for and rejoice about. Famous examples are the first cry of the uguisu (a little bird, called the Japanese bush warbler in English) and the first blossoms, which are usually ume (plum blossom). But even the less glamorous signs of spring are noticed and welcomed with open arms. Like the inconspicuous little plant called tsukushi (土筆) or field horsetail.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

The field horsetail by the side of a road. The plant is called tsukushi in Japanese and its scientific name is Equisetum arvense – picture from http://blog.livedoor.jp/ak0503hr0406/archives/51385999.html

This little plant pops up by the side of the road all over Japan in early March. It was first brought to my attention by my lovely English students. They are a group of senior citizens and they still recall the days when people used to eat this plant. It was an inexpensive food source in times when Japan was not yet the land of plenty that it is now.

I also noticed the Field Horsetail on the wonderful Facebook page ‘Seasonal food in Japan’. Apparently the page is owned by a Japanese company that produces the ‘Taste Calendar’ (味のカレンダー). Their website appears to be in Japanese only but their Facebook page sometimes contains information in English. I wonder if the inclusion of the Field Horsetail in such a trendy calendar means that it is gaining in popularity again. In Belgium, there is a trend of bringing ‘forgotten vegetables’, such as parsnip or celeriac, back the daily menu. It would be interesting to see a similar trend in Japan.

Equisetum arvense - the field horsetail  - tsukushi

Last year the horsetail was assigned to the 8th of March on the Japanese Taste Calendar.

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A day in paradise

Around the middle of April it was cherry blossom time in Japan. Needless to say I had been looking forward to this for a while. When foreigners think of Japan and typical Japanese things, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Sakura beauty

Beautiful cherry blossoms

My anticipation was only increased by the excitement that takes hold of the entire Japanese nation as the blossom time approaches. The news report even gives daily reports on the advancement of the ‘cherry blossom front’.

Cherry blossom front for 2008. The flowers open first in the south and then the front makes its way north. The blossoms were a bit late this year due to the cold weather. (picture taken from http://stlelsewhere.blogspot.jp)

Why do the Japanese people love cherry blossoms, or ‘sakura’, so much? Apart from the simple fact that the sight of a street lined with blooming cherry trees is just gorgeous, the Japanese feel touched by the transient beauty of the blossoms. The sakura are at their most beautiful for only a few days. One day of rain may destroy the fragile flowers. This short-lived beauty is often taken as a metaphor for life: so beautiful and yet so short and sad. Indeed when watching the blossoms, one may be touched by an intense joy and a sweet melancholy all at the same time.

Sakura detail beauty, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms against the bright blue sky

Sakura detail

The delicate beauty of a cherry blossom

Apart from these rather poetic feelings, of course the Japanese also love to celebrate the seasons and never pass up an excuse to gather with friends and enjoy some typical festival food.

Sakura selling sweet potato or yakiimo

A small cart selling grilled sweet potato (called 'yaki-imo' in Japanese)

Sakura sweet potato salesman

A happy salesman, also selling sweet potato

Sakura selling takoyaki or octopus balls

A stand selling 'takoyaki': baked balls of dough stuffed with vegetables and pieces of octopus

In my efforts to see as much of the cherry blossoms as possible, I prepared for a ‘hanami’ (the viewing of the blossoms) on a sunny afternoon in April at one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots: the Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya.

Sakura Yamazakigawa riverside, Nagoya, Japan

The Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya

Cherry walk in Nagoya, Japan

Walking alongside the river Yamazaki in Nagoya

Having been to a few other cherry blossom viewing spots earlier that week and being slightly underwhelmed, I was not prepared for the beauty of this place. Not only was it simply gorgeous, all other conditions were perfect as well: the weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, it was not too crowded since it was a weekday, and everyone I met was just as happy as I was. Even the animals I met were in a good mood. It truly seemed like a paradise on earth; some place as yet untouched by the rest of the world. A magic spell, just for one day.

Sakura and fish, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms and sunlight on the water. Even the fish seem happy.

Sakura rabu rabu, Nagoya, Japan

A young couple, enjoying a romantic moment under the cherry blossoms

Sleeping under the cherry blossoms

It doesn't get any more relaxed than this: having a picnic and a nap on a sunny afternoon

Sakura and children playing in Japan

Children playing in the river

Sakura salaryman escaping modern life

An office worker escaping from modern life just for a moment

Bunny on a leash

Apparently rabbits are the latest it-animal when it comes to pets. I can easily believe that because yesterday – yet again – I came upon a rabbit on a leash. It was being walked in the park underneath the cherry trees as if it were a dog.

rabbit on a leash and cherry blossoms in Japan

Walking their bunny underneath the cherry blossoms

Whereas most rabbits appear either completely blank and lethargic or downright in panic ready to make a run for it, this rabbit was neither. It was calm yet attentive, turning toward the camera as we were taking pictures. It’s possibly the most photogenic rabbit ever. Its nimble little nose was working overtime trying to determine who was the latest photographer.

Being in Japan – the land where ‘cuteness’ is almost a cult – I have gotten a lower resistance to all things cute, and this rabbit was cuteness overload! It was still a young rabbit (five months old according to the owners), it was wearing a little denim jacket and its fur was as soft as it looks. I was screaming ‘kawaii’ (cute) as if I were a Japanese high school girl!

bunny on a leash photomodel, Japan

Posing like a genuine model

bunny on a leash profile, Japan

Profile to show off its jacket

Spring is in the air

Ever since a week or two, we have had the first hints of spring in the air. The weather is definitely changing, with alternating days of rain and sun; as opposed to winter where almost every day is sunny. The temperature has been notably higher too, although this week there has been a plunge in temperature that has taken us straight back to winter weather.

But nevermind that, because along with the first wafts of spring came the first blossoms of the season: plum blossoms or ‘ume’. The plum trees typically flower in the beginning of March. Due to the cold winter however, the blossoms are a bit late this year. We still have to wait a little while longer for the cherry blossoms, which bloom in April.

First pring blossom in Toyota City, Japan

The first spring day and the first blossom of the season

There is always an unmistakable joy to spotting those first tender flowers, in Belgium as well as in Japan. But somehow I seem to enjoy the blossoms even more here in Japan. Is it the collective excitement that takes hold of the Japanese people as the first blossoms appear? Or are the flowers just more beautiful here? In any case they are more abundant. I see blossoms everywhere I go, even as I was walking through an abandoned industrial site the other day. The rusted up machines and the delicate flowers made for a beautiful contrast.

Ume or plum blossom with industrial background

Plum blossoms with industrial background

The ‘hanami’ or blossom viewing parties are held when the blossoms are at their prime. You can see how they advance in the pictures below.

Ume or plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto

The first of the plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto, February 2012

Plum blossom grove

Plum blossom grove almost in full bloom, March 2012

The plum blossoms come in various shades of white and pink.

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Girl’s Doll Festival – Hina Matsuri

March 3rd was ‘Hina Matsuri’ or ‘Girl’s Day’. On this day, all families with a daughter display a set of traditional Japanese dolls in their house. But apparently the habit isn’t limited to people with daughters. Ever since early February, I have encountered these ‘hina dolls’ (‘hina’ is the japanese word for doll) everywhere I went: in malls, community centers, restaurants, etc. I had heard about Hina Matsuri before coming to Japan but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it is still so widely practiced.

The traditional doll display is hughe. It has seven storeys and portrays an imperial household, compete with furniture, servants and musicians.

hina matsuri emperor and empress

The first two levels contain an emperor and empress with three court ladies below them

hina matsuri minister of the left

A member of the imperial household. My best guess would be that he is 'the minister of the left'.

hina doll display

A few elaborate hina doll displays

Imagine having such a contraption in your living room, especially in a small Japanese apartment. No wonder that these days there are many modern and more minimalist options available as well.

hina matsuri minimalist

Minimalist hina dolls. Notice the 12 layers of fabric in the doll's clothing, which represent the 12 layer kimono's from the Heian period (called jūnihitoe).

hina matsuri mouse

And last but not least, my favourite: a hina doll mouse, wearing a kimono. Kawaii!