Japan's 72 Microseasons - #24
"Ripened Grains Are Harvested"
June 1 - 5
むぎの とき いたる
Mugi no toki itaru
Ripened grains are harvested
After the rain comes the harvest. And so it is that we find ourselves at the end of the Sekki called Shōman (小満)—the “Lesser Ripening”—and its final kō, the harvest of golden cereal grains.
Your natural first question may likely be “is there a Greater Ripening”? And the answer is yes and no. No in the sense there is no Sekki called Daiman (大満)1, but there is a bigger, arguably more important harvest later in autumn: rice. These two crops together represent the two major agricultural products for Japanese farming families, historically. Grains planted in autumn to harvest in spring, and rice planted in spring to harvest in autumn.
Speaking of autumn, in the middle of this kō’s name is the character for autumn: 秋. Put together with the character for grain, it’s read as bakushū, meaning “the grain harvest” but literally is “the grain autumn.”2 The reason is simple enough: for grains, their cycle of growing to ripeness and preparing to seed is now finishing. In a very real sense, it is their autumn. Just as the planets in our solar system have different lengths of what constitutes a “year” so too do the systems of flora and fauna that inhabit a world with its own sense of time.
A quick note to say that when we talk about “grains” here, that can encompass a wide variety of crops, but most commonly for Japan we’re talking about: wheat (komugi 小麦), barley (ōmugi 大麦), oats (enbaku 燕麦), and buckwheat (soba 蕎麦). You’ll notice the 麦 character in all of those, which indeed means “grain,” but another thing they share in common is a certain feeling of rustic nostalgia for many Japanese people.
There are plenty of cultural reasons to explore around that, but one of the more interesting has to do with, of all things, taxes. In feudal Japan, before a national coinage was established, the primary economic unit was the koku. This was an amount of rice roughly equal to what one person would eat in a year, and was not only how farmers were taxed3 for their land, but also how local feudal lords (daimyō) measured their personal wealth and influence.
Which is all to say, rice occupied a hugely important and very different place in society than the mugi grains grown and harvested earlier in the year. And one can assume there was a decent amount of anxiety around the rice harvest and resulting taxation. Not to mention that rice was also used in offerings, rituals, and saké brewing4. The bowl of pure white rice that comes standard with many a Japanese meal today was a luxury that the working class farmers in Edo period Japan dreamed of. Often, whatever rice was left after taxation was often mixed with other staple grains to make it last5.
Grains, on the other hand, were available soon after winter, and largely left in farmers’ control. Because of this, a wide variety of comfort meals and rural cuisine still make use of these crops, and even today for modern Japanese diners there’s something of a “traditional” flavor to them. The same can be said of the alcohol made from them—shōchū (焼酎)—which is essentially a grain-based vodka.
Although I did say that mugi/grains can represent a variety of different crops, for most Japanese people the first one that comes to mind if you just say “mugi” is barley. In fact, all the pictures in this post are of golden waves of barley, not wheat. And one way that barley is still seasonally enjoyed in modern Japan, even with year-round access to rice and every other modern convenience, is as a tea.
Perhaps further contributing to its nostalgic reputation is the close connection that mugi-cha, barley tea, shares with summer. Speak with a Japanese friend about childhood summers or visits to their grandparents growing up, and cold glasses of mugi-cha are likely to come up. It’s a unique taste, and one I’d recommend trying if you happen to be in Japan on a hot day (or have access to an Asian import supermarket and a vivid imagination).
Alongside our barley tea and bowl of tax-free cereal grains, let’s see what produce might we seasonally enjoy for Kō 24:
● Seasonal fruit
biwa, びわ, loquat
● Seasonal seafood
bera, べら, wrasse
● Seasonal wild bird6
shijūkara, 四十雀, Japanese tit
The opening to this post made it sound like the rains were done in Japan and a bright, sunny summer soon awaits the fine folks of the archipelago. Well, that’s not until the end of June when the solstice hits. In actuality, there is much more rain to come, as the end of Shōman marks the start of an unofficial, Japan-only quasi-sekki: Tsuyu, the rainy season. Hope everyone got all their grains harvested in time!
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
Apparently in ancient Chinese culture it was considered tempting fate to declare something to be a “greater harvest” as an expected outcome, as that would mean anything less than perfect was a loss
When part of this kō, however, it’s read simply as “Mugi no toki,” the time for grains
Without getting deep into things: a feudal lord would determine an average koku output that farmers should be producing, then charged a set percentage of that—anywhere ranging from 15%-70% of crop yield but usually reported at around 40%
The Japanese word “saké” (酒) refers to any and all alcohol, with the well known “rice wine” being nihonshu (日本酒)—literally “Japanese saké”
Ironically/fortunately, this is far healthier than a diet of only pure white rice
Not produce, so enjoy this one not on a plate but from a distance on a branch