Japan's 72 Microseasons - #2
"In Mountain Villages, Bush Warblers Begin To Sing"
February 9 - 13
Kō-ō kenkan / Uguisu naku
"In mountain villages, bush warblers begin to sing"
The name of this kō, like so many of them, paints a pretty picture that emphasizes just how based in acute natural observation these are. In a few short words, four Japanese kanji characters, we set a scene that folks of the time could have easily called to mind. They’d think about how things were in previous years around the same time, and know what was coming up after. For us, too, regardless of country, time period, and local wildlife, those first clear, musical bits of birdsong bring to mind the dawn of spring and a promise of pleasant weather.
Bush warblers spend their winters quietly hunkered down in the mountains. But as the days grow longer and warmer, they begin to make their way down into nearby valleys and fields to forage and court. The males’ distinctive call (phoneticized in Japan as ホーホケキョ, hō-hokekyo) is then naturally heard first in Japan’s mountain villages—places that spend a longer, darker winter than most—whose rural residents are also beginning to emerge from their homes to start a new year.
You won’t see many of the kō concerned with the goings-on of towns and cities—at the point the Koyomi was adopted and popularized, places like Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (Tokyo) had populations in the hundreds of thousands and plenty of modern conveniences—but instead with places still intimately connected to (and thus affected by and aware of) the nature around them. That could be just a holdover from the almanac’s 1500 years of heritage leading up to it, but even today, the idea of a yamazato (山里, mountain village) conjures images of living with the land, rustic simplicity, and, less romantically: Japan’s population crisis. You’ll most commonly find the term among restaurant names and menus at places with a focus on fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients and game meats.
That’s the mountain villages part, so let’s have a look at the Japanese bush warbler:
Well, gosh they’re very cute aren’t they? Here’s an example of their distinctive song, if you’d like to close your eyes and imagine yourself in a mountain village on a crisp wintry morning among melting snow.
Aside from being very cute, uguisu (as they’re called in Japanese) are one of Japan’s 3 Great Birds—alongside the strikingly blue Ōruri and the sunset-colored Komadori. ”Great” here is in the sense of “notable” or “famous” but if you’re a fan of friendly songbirds, they’re also pretty great.
Uguisu feature heavily in paintings, poetry, and culture. They were popular pets throughout the Edo period, and lend their name to the famously chirpy ninja-prevention floors: uguisu-bari (called “nightingale floors” in English, which admittedly sounds cooler than “bush warbler floors” even if the nightingale is a wholly different bird). Take a listen here and compare to the call above (and just for fun here’s a nightingale’s call). Many visitors to Japan from overseas may recognize these birds’ name from the Yamanote line station in Tokyo: Uguisu-dani, “bush warbler valley.”
Let’s take a quick bird break and look at those two separate readings given for this kō: “kōō kenkan” and “uguisu naku.” As we talked about before, the Koyomi originally came in from China, like a lot of early Japanese writing and artistic/cultural influence. Along with adjusting the microseasons themselves, several of the readings were also localized. The second reading, “uguisu naku,” is pretty straightforward Japanese meaning “The bushwarblers sing” and is far more commonly used, but doesn’t match the actual characters used (“uguisu naku” would be 鶯鳴く). The first, “kō-ō kenkan,” is a kinda weird, esoteric holdover from China, that even native Japanese speakers would have trouble guessing at a glance.
The first two characters, 黄鶯, represent our bush warbler, but only the second one is actually “uguisu.” The first one is…”yellow.” And while there’s maybe a bit of yellow, they seem more greenish-brown than anything, no? Well, as mentioned above, uguisu are Japanese bush warblers. Their Chinese equivalent on the calendar is this guy: the kōrai-uguisu (高麗鶯, コウライウグイス).
As for the second half, 睍睆: it’s not a standard Japanese word but rather a compound of two keisei-moji (形声文字, lit. shape-sound characters). Without getting too deep into the trees here, keisei-moji are academically referred to as “semasio-phonetic characters.” They’re far more common in Chinese, but what that means is that they have a pictographic shape part to demonstrate meaning and a commonly readable sound part to demonstrate pronunciation (ken + kan). In this case, the meaning’s break down to observe+perfect, and both of them are variations of old poetic words for “beautiful.” Together, they make an expression of beauty revealing itself through something observed (in this case, birdsong) that also mimics the sound itself—well, kinda, for the Chinese uguisu maybe?
While we’re on alternates, it should come as no surprise that an alternate name for the uguisu in Japanese is the “spring-announcing bird” (春告鳥, or 報春鳥). They also appear in the saying “Ume ni uguisu” (梅に鶯, “bush warbler on a plum tree”), referencing a common motif in art and meaning something that fits perfectly, a match made in heaven—the plum tree and its blossoms being another welcome sign of early spring. Both are so emblematic of February in Japan that they feature on that month’s 4-card set in the traditional card game, hanafuda.
One last, color-related note: there’s a fancy, poetic color called uguisu-iro (lit. “uguisu-color”), which this article from tenki.jp hilariously and somewhat pettily calls into question. The writer asserts that moreso than the “boring” uguisu, all the artistic attention should be instead given to the mejiro. You can be the judge:
As Japan awakens from winter, the songs of the uguisu move farther north in a melodic line. This musical march is called the hatsu-naki zensen (初鳴き前線) or, charmingly, “the first-song front.” There’s a big emphasis placed on a year’s firsts in Japan, which gives us occasion to notice those things which can become routine and fade into the background with their regularity. What firsts have you had so far this year? As you go through your days, pay attention, listen close, and hear familiar songs for the first time.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons