01.06.2013 - 16.06.2013 26 °C
BGM: 花咲く旅路 ("Hanasaku Tabiji") by 原由子(Hara Yuko)
The rains of June have finally come. For many people, the rainy season, called tsuyu in Japanese (梅雨, "plum rain"), is the most miserable time of the year. Mold grows on food, bathroom shower walls and between toes faster than pre-typhoon lightning. Even on cloudy days, the muggy heat reduces the average well-groomed businessman to a sweaty, whiny mess, incessantly grumbling the seasonal catch-phrase "atsui desune" (It's hot, isn't it?).
But to me, this is my absolute favorite time of the year in Japan. Sure, I say that about every season. But this time, I really mean it. In fact, I chose Takehara as my current post because I had a feeling it would transform into a lush, exotic paradise with the coming of the rains.
The clouds lift over the mountains of Takehara City.
The weather news tracks every move the baiuzensen (梅雨前線, "plum rain" or spring rain front) makes as it flows upwards from Taiwan and the Philippines back and forth over the length of Japan from June through early July. The rainy season is called "plum rain" because the Prunus mume tree (うめ, 梅, ume, "green plum" or "Japanese apricot") bears its tart, green fruit at this time of year. Poisonous in its raw stage, the locals pickle it with shiso leaves and salt to make umeboshi, or pack it in sugar to make sweet plum wine. (Talk about making lemon from lemonade!) The ume plum blossom is the official flower of Takehara City, but the fruit ripening on the bough is just as charming.
Ume plums at Bamboo Joy Highland Park, Takehara
One of my favorite things to do in Japan during the rainy season is hop into the Subaru with the Hubby and simply drive around any green mountains we can find, savoring the cool cedar and cypress-scented air and feeling the earth respire. Joyfully chirping rain frogs compete with wagtails and rock thrushes for airtime as the mountains burst into song. Millions of tiny moisture particles suspended in the air fill the lungs and wrap the body -no need for a steam bath. I find myself particularly conscious of my skin's ability to breathe this time of year, appreciating how I share this characteristic with all other living organisms. My connections to this earth feel their strongest during tsuyu.
An elegant damselfly in a stunning gunmetal and copper ensemble.
Though we know we've only seen a fraction of Takehara's natural treasures, we keep finding ourselves returning to the following districts to chill out in the soothing atmosphere and savor the refreshing friendliness of the people.
Tamari Village, Takehara City （竹原市田万里町）
Tall and green as childhood dreams, Poaceae bambusoideae (aka "giant bamboo," the namesake of Takehara) graces the land for miles in the mountain villages that dot the region. Traditionally, bamboo was planted at the base of the mountains to serve as a source of food, building material and to direct rainwater down to the rice paddies. Their long, flowing branches heavy with spear-shaped leaves wave gracefully like ostrich plumes in the slightest breeze. As the winds grow stronger, the hollow tops of the bamboo knock against each other melodically like wind chimes or primitive percussion. The sound of bamboo is very cooling to the senses.
The immense bamboo thickets around Tamari caught my eye as we wove around the twisting mountain roads of Route 2 between Yusaka Hot Springs and Saijo (Higashi Hiroshima). I wanted to take pictures of it but amidst all the hairpin turns, there was nowhere to stop the car. The stately old farmhouses out here are topped with milk chocolate-colored clay roof tiles unique to southwest Japan. We made a sharp turn onto the only turnout available, descending into a placid valley of tiered rice paddies freshly planted with bright green baby seedlings. It was utterly enchanting.
Serenaded by the enticing whistles of a pair of competing Japanese bush warblers, we aimlessly poked around the paddies. An elderly lady with patchy white hair carrying a bag of long green onions suddenly appeared behind us and followed us suspiciously. She eventually mustered up the courage to ask us where we were going. We told her we were just enjoying the view. She told us it was private property but we were allowed to "pass through" her driveway onto the main road. We were thankful for her assistance, but still in a bit of culture shock. This was, after all, the first time a Japanese person had ever discouraged us from enjoying the local scenery. (Most of the farmers we'd met thus far, from Kanto to Kansai, were more than proud to have foreigners admiring their handiwork). As we lingered near a rice paddy to check out some tadpoles, she made a second lap past us to remind us of the "correct" course we ought to be following. It was challenging not to laugh aloud, but somehow we managed.
Minutes later, a weather-worn farmer with sunburned cheeks and a poet's shirt walked his blonde Shiba dog silently past us, tossing us the same suspicious eye the old woman did before him. He stopped and asked us where we were going and where we lived. As soon as I mentioned my current post, his eyes lit up and his demeanor relaxed completely. His over-excited dog attempted to hump my husband's leg as we chatted on about our travels in Japan and his life out on the farm. Embarrassed by his horny pooch's antics, he kindly pointed us once again to "the correct path" back to our car, rushed to tie up his dog at one of the chocolate houses, disappeared for a moment and then strode up the hill to intercept us with a bag of home-grown asparagus. We were taken completely aback by his kindness.
We savored this green gift lightly fried in a bit of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Do I hear a "yum?"
I thanked him in English and he said a perfect "your welcome" with the most disarming, genuine smile I'd ever seen. He accepted our offer to help him bring in the crops this autumn.
Nika Village, Takehara City （竹原市仁賀町、賀茂川の蛍）
The rainy season in Japan means fireflies! I asked an acquaintance about the best place to find fireflies in Takehara. She told me "anywhere along the Kamo River in Nika Village."
From downtown Takehara, we took Route 2 to the Yusaka Hot Springs access road, backtracking along the Kamo River （賀茂川） down Highway 330 and stopping at a small riverside park in front of the community hall. It was only 6:30 pm -still too bright for fireflies but perfect for an early-evening stroll in the cool mountain shadows. We thoroughly enjoyed inhaling the rich perfume of acacia and chestnut blossoms wafting in from all around us. Rain frogs struck up a chorus as we explored our surroundings on foot. An organic rice farm here, some artichoke plants there. More milk chocolate houses and pretty little patches of petunias and pansies... If there was anything I learned at the Firefly Festival last year in Maibara, Shiga, it's that fireflies absolutely LOVE freshly flowing stream water with lots of grass and elegantly draping tree cover to relax in. This little park out here in Nika had everything a firefly could ever want. We knew we wouldn't be disappointed!
As the sky grew dark, my husband and I decided to perch ourselves on a convenient wooden platform under some draping cherry trees, obviously built for firefly viewing. We compared our photos of the rice paddies when suddenly, an elderly man with snow-white hair in his late 60's, sporting a white tee shirt and flapping flip-flops, shuffled up to us and asked us our business. He looked cool and comfortable in his evening underwear and endearingly uninhibited. We told him we were a married couple and with an understanding smile, he invited us to stay and enjoy the show on his property for as long as we wanted. "We had a TV camera crew out here last night!" he beamed. "It's peak firefly season, now. You'll see hundreds of 'em for sure! Enjoy!" After showing off his impressive collection of blooming hollyhocks and roses, he bid us good night and shuffled his tired body back home, probably to savor a frosty after-bath beer.
With the buzz of excitement in our hearts, as if waiting for a fireworks display, we cheered as the mountain silhouettes of Nika Village handed the stage over to the jet-black curtain of night. Surely enough, at exactly 8:00pm, a single, tiny green light pulsed slowly before us in the river below. Then another. Then two more. And then a streak as one took off in flight. The sakura trees sparkled as if wrapped in flashing Christmas LED lights. The river glowed and shimmered like the Milky Way Galaxy, as if the universe had been turned upside-down with stars glinting both above and below. The illusion made me feel a bit dizzy but it was utterly mesmerizing. It was all we could do to just sit there and stare with mouths gaping, grateful for the chance to share such a wondrous moment.
From mid-June to the first week of July, Genji fireflies can be spotted all along the Kamo River from the second major bend in the road past Yusaka Hot Springs to Nika Elementary School. In some places, the entire hillside shimmers with thousands of fireflies hanging out in the trees -an unforgettable sight! (Too bad my iPhone camera can't do the place justice. But we indeed saw thousands of fireflies out there. It's no exaggeration).
Takehara Town, Takehara City （竹原市竹原町）
"Back at the ranch," the fireflies of the Kamo River were making me wish we had something of natural beauty around our immediate abode, like we did in every other place we lived in Japan. Just when I was thinking we had nothing special worth mentioning, I noticed a quick, dark shadow racing across our driveway, ducking like a flash into a small crack in the concrete drainage ditch.
My heart skipped a beat! Could it truly be?
One of the most endearing critters in Takehara to emerge with the June rains is the land-locked freshwater yamagani ("mountain crab"). Freshwater crabs are said to be common throughout Japan but up until now, I'd only seen them in mountain streams and temple drainage ditches around Kansai and Hokuriku. This particular species has a curved line on its carapace that, together with its comical eyes, gives it a perpetual smiley face that can warm the heart of any crabby soul.
Heavy rain sends these little guys scrambling out of their ditches in search of higher, drier ground. I was delighted to see them taking shelter on our doorstep this past week. Oh how I wish I could give them a nice terrarium home with lots of fresh veggies to eat! But I read on the Net that they're too fragile and stinky to keep. Regardless, it elated me to realize that if I wanted to see intriguing wildlife in Takehara, I only needed to glance outside my bedroom window.
An apprehensive baby crab scuttled into my office during a hard rainfall. I mustered up the courage to pick it up. The crab's pointy legs scaled my arm quite delicately, with no prickly sensation whatsoever. Light as air, I could barely feel it crawling over my hands. It seemed to appreciate the flaky dead skin of my cuticles as it carefully touched its pincers to my finger and lifted them up slowly to its microscopic mouth. My fingers didn't hurt at all so I'm not sure the little critter got any sustenance for his effort. The pleasure was all mine. He was the perfect symbiotic guest.
As far as I know, I might be the only person on this island chain who actually loves the rainy season, for all the wonderment it brings. I don't mind being alone in this, as foreigners in Japan are used to living "on the fringe," anyways. The heat will rise when the rains let up in July, scorching this Garden of Eden and everything in it, threatening the drier parts of Japan with menacing droughts and crop failure. Tsuyu gives us a final opportunity to catch our breaths and enjoy the amazing beauty that surrounds us before we all buckle down into hard-core summer survival mode. I, for one, pledge to enjoy tsuyu in Takehara as much as possible. May the plum rains keep blessing Takehara with life, comfort and inspiration.