By Danielle Legault Kurihara
One of the best ways to get to know Japan is to hang out on a bench with one of the farmers in front of his rice paddy, green, yellow or brown. You can speak intermediate conversational Japanese but his patois is thick. You’re an urban French-Canadian who landed in this small village tucked in the bamboo forest, with a Japanese husband from the city. You built your contemporary Japanese home next to Mr. Arita’s tile roof traditional house, on a high rock embankment, like those particular stone slopes associated with Japanese castles. Now you live in Mr. Arita’s birthplace far away from your own.
In my experience, Mr. Arita would be an excellent language teacher. He listens actively and paraphrases to check if he understood. I try to do the same and we spend most of our time laughing at each other’s misunderstandings. I generally answer “Hai” to everything he says.
He tells you about the change of seasons, your three aging Japanese Shiba dogs sitting at his feet. Since they were puppies, he has shared with them the daily stale bread he feeds his ducks. Now you can’t take your morning walk without them stopping to gaze longingly at Mr. Arita in his field. It’s spring and most houses including my own have a plum or cherry tree in its garden and the whole neighbourhood is enveloped in a pink and yellow daze because rapeseed is also in flower. Mr. Arita says he saw a big black snake crawling up my stone wall from the dirt path around the rice field irrigation pond. As he does each year, he assures me it’s not venomous and will slither away from me. And, as he has done every spring and summer for the past 15 years he says, “but the vipers will get you, haha!” The mamushi, a pitviper snake, “bites 2 to 3 thousand people every year in Japan alone, with the most severe bites requiring intensive care … 5 to 10 bite victims eventually die every year”, says the Web. I am terrified of them and wear boots to walk from my car to my front door. Mr. Arita once killed one and impaled it on a stick to show me what it looks like for real. One of the farmer wives, an 80-year-old woman who works tirelessly at growing her bean, daikon and potato patch, showed me the fang marks a viper had left on her wrist. She laughed at my horrified look and said she fetched her husband in the orange grove to drive her to the hospital in his Kei truck, matter closed.
Nature has exploded so next Sunday we will join our respective cleaning han to clear weeds around the irrigation pond and sweep the sand in front of the small temple dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy and pets, who is worshipped at thousands of Japanese temples. In Shikoku, where I live, many of the temples on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage are dedicated to her. It’s nice that she’s protecting three old Shiba dogs too.
The sun is getting closer to the earth and on the southwest island of Shikoku we suffer terrible humid summers. Just before that, we must live through a month of rainy season and even if the neighbours say that the rain is needed to fill the irrigation pond before the scorching summer, it’s no relief. Centipedes abound in the house, clothes don’t dry and shoes are moldy. I always look forward to the last typhoon which usually hits mid-October and chases the humidity away.
Many people here are prompt to point out that Japan has four seasons. For a Canadian, it obviously fails to impress, but when I discovered that the ancient Japanese calendar has 72 seasons, my interest was piqued. The 72 Seasons – A Year Seen Through the Ancient Japanese Calendar application created by the Utsukushii Kurashikata Institute gives excellent detailed information about these micro-seasons in a rather poetic way, accompanied by haiku and evocative drawings. From it I learned that season 24, for example, runs approximately from May 31 to June 4 and it is called The Time for Wheat. Different types of grain have reached maturity and the last scene of Ozu Yasujiro’s movie “Early Summer” depicts tending the fields during this period before rainy season. The seasonal fish is mantis shrimp, a delicacy in some Tokyo sushi restaurants and water shield, a natural plant that used to grow in ponds and marshes, is the seasonal vegetable but it is now cultivated in northeast Japan. As the seasonal fruit, cherries grow in abundance in my garden. There is even a seasonal confectionery made in Kyoto. “Minazuki” contains red bean paste and sweet rice jelly resembling ice because in ancient times the ice preserved in ice houses was given to the Imperial Court to consume on June first. Apparently from April to July of the lunar calendar “Buddhist monks confine themselves in rooms to undertake meditative training.” People would refrain from drinking alcohol and eating meat which was called summer abstainment. A haiku written at the end of the 17th century says: Abstaining from sake/ and avoiding illness/ I apologize to my mother. The associations between nature, art, history, literature, food and emotion pull me deeper in this country where I have put down roots.
Ikebana and postcard art have kept me in tune with the Japanese seasons as I witness them in my own environment in rural Japan. When I first learned flower arranging in the Saga Goryu style, I was obsessed by the rules, genres and angles and I sweated bullets trying to meet the technicalities perfectly. It’s only after seeing the pond on the grounds of the school’s Daikakuji temple in Kyoto that I finally understood that I was reproducing its scenery. Although I need to comply with the rules, now I hold a real image in mind: my round and shallow container represents the pond and the flowers and vegetation in and around its inside rim must look natural. The connection between my creations and the real historic place hooked me into the art.
Etegami is the folk art of drawing a picture on postcards with Japanese sumi ink and watercolors. The drawing includes a greeting or a haiku, a saying, a verse or a personal message evoking deeper meanings of seasonal themes. For example, in one October class we painted eggplants as they have connotations with autumn. To illustrate, eggplants are found in a Matsuo Basho haiku: summer heat lingers/let’s set our hands to cooking/melon and eggplants. I learned that this vegetable originated in southern and eastern Asia, thus the reference. While other students in the class wrote autumn haiku and greetings, I was at a loss to come up with allegories about eggplants.
Practicing these contemplative seasonal art forms has made me wonder about how I would describe the place of origin I left 25 years ago. Can I still relate to it from the heart, from the senses? I knew I had to return to my beloved poet Felix Leclerc’s flaneur notebook. I thought his enchanting musings would hold the key to returning to the landscapes I left behind. Felix, a bard from Quebec, describes thunder as loaded china cabinets moved around by giants behind clouds, or dipping your quill in dawn as you look out the barn window, the pond drinking sunshine from her little bed, the patience of water as it rounds out a stone, not having paintings in the living room but having windows. His island in the Saint Lawrence near Quebec City is a flower in water, nights are dark as holes and mornings are like golden gates, an eternal wind blows through deep caves. On my postcard, I quoted Felix beside the drawing of my eggplant, “The first leaves are caught in the fence”. I added a note explaining that eggplants signify autumn in Japan but my sister was still puzzled on receiving a drawing of a purple vegetable.
As I sit on the wooden bench in front of the rice paddy, I remember tall cattails and deep red sumac around marshes where my parents would take us for walks past the 1800s half-hidden cemetery. The torrent roars beneath us, a childhood sound. There is my mother’s thick weaved poncho, her shepherd’s pie, my brothers and sisters in galoshes carrying sticks, the smoky dark evenings before Halloween and bold Canada geese passing over our heads announcing that autumn was upon us. My son carries the same landscapes and experiences as he was led there by his grandmother. I try to evoke these images for Mr. Arita, my neighbour, who listens hard and patiently to my garbled Japanese as my gaze travels beyond the rice fields to Quebec, to the other seasons of my life.