Japan's 72 Microseasons - #34
"Paulownia Trees Seed Promises"
July 23 - 27
きり はじめて はなを むすぶ
Kiri hajimete hana wo musubu
”Paulownia trees seed promises”
It’s said that the 10 days following the end of the rainy season are the hottest in Japan. This is the peak of summer. This is Taisho, the Great Heat.
We briefly mentioned fūbutsushi, those season signaling sights and sounds, back in #31 when we talked about fūrin wind chimes. A few other famous ones for the heavy heat of Japanese summer include yukata (浴衣, lightweight single-layer kimono), hanabi (花火, fireworks), and kakigōri (かき氷, shave ice).
But these are all man-made inventions that we’ve come to associate with a season that existed long before anyone set foot on the Japanese archipelago. The natural calendar—kept deep in soil, root, and sky—has its own events to mark the summer. In what we now call late July, at the very tops of trees sometimes dozens of meters tall, delicate purple flowers give way to hard brown shells. The paulownia already plans for winter and the year to come.
The paulownia1 flowers in early May, somewhat out of sight given that adult trees often exceed 10-20 meters in height. They are, however, very much loved and appreciated by bees of all types due to their deep bell shape and pleasant scent. Once they finish blooming, around the end of the rainy season, sturdy egg-shaped buds begin to form in their place. Within that strong shell, next year’s flowers begin to form, sheltered from the elements.
In the tweet2 for this microseason, I translated hana wo musubu (花を結ぶ) as “spread seeds,” but that’s not entirely accurate and came from my misunderstanding on how paulownia propagate. First off, the more common phrase is mi wo musubu (実を結ぶ), “to bear fruit,” as with an apple or orange tree. But the name of this kō has swapped in the flower kanji character (花) instead, and the tree already bore its flowers a few months back, so what gives? The seed-spreading also actually happened earlier, scattered in the wind, leaving behind empty pods that look quite like bird beaks and will stay on the branch through winter.
Instead, the flowers that this kō refers to are next year’s flowers. And key to understanding that is not only the horticulture of the tree, but the Japanese word musubu. Without doing an extremely deep dive3, the word “musubu” implies a binding, being tied together, fulfilling something—be it a business contract, a marriage4, or a near year-long growth cycle begun in July and ended in May. It can also mean to physically close something up tightly, just like the burgeoning bud of the flower is wrapped in on itself inside the shell.
For that reason, I decided to re-translate to (the admittedly overly purple prose-y) “seed promises” to reflect the various meanings and the forward-looking sense.
A last bit of wordplay: paulownia is the 12th suit in the flower-based card game hanafuda, representing December. However, as we just thoroughly covered, its flowers are only around in May. The reason for this is simple: it’s a pun, one of Japan’s most longstanding and beloved national pastimes. The Japanese word for paulownia, kiri, is a homophone to the word 切り, meaning “to end” or “to cut (off)”5. December is the final round of a game of hanafuda, and thus the connection was made and stuck (and there aren’t really any nice flowers in mid-winter). Notably, the classic illustration for the paulownia suit include the egg-shaped flower buds prominently.
The paulownia has a great amount of historical and symbolic importance to Japan (it’s on the 500-yen coin, for one), but I’m still trying to catch up on kōs here so we’ll save most of that for next year. One lovely little bit of cultural tradition I wanted to highlight though was that of planting a paulownia tree when a girl was born. The paulownia grows quickly and strongly, a hope that extended to the newborn. When it came time for that girl to wed in adulthood, the tree was cut down and fashioned into a chest of drawers (called kiri-tansu, 桐箪笥) for their new home and life. A bit of what they’d grown up alongside coming with them to wherever they’d go next.
Before I get too distracted by pictures of beautiful traditional handicrafts, here are the seasonal items for Kō 34 to wrap us up:
● Seasonal vegetable
kyūri, きゅうり, cucumber
● Seasonal seafood
uni, ウニ, sea urchin
● Seasonal food
sōmen, そうめん, thin wheat noodles6
The paulownia grows fast, flowers discreetly, and makes its plans early. The products of those plans may only be visible for a month or two, and only then to those who look for it. But if you do look, you can see that it’s already hard at work for next year.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
Specifically Paulownia tomentosa, the “foxglove tree” or “empress tree”
The first kanji character in the word for marriage, kekkon (結婚) is the same as musubu
Allegedly the tree is so-named because even when cut over and over it continues to grow unabated, although this may be an instance of folk linguistics explaining a coincidence
Definitely the most exciting way to enjoy these lightweight noodles is nagashi-sōmen (流しそうめん), a classic summer activity in Japan that involves making a bamboo water slide and grabbing the noodles as they go by