Japan's 72 Microseasons - #50
"Chrysanthemum Flowers Bloom"
October 13 - 18
きくの はな ひらく
”Chrysanthemum flowers bloom”
Some parts of the natural world are so striking, so memorable, so perfect in shape or mysterious in being, that over time they become iconic symbols. Animals can become mythological, mountains can become divine, and a flower can become the seal of an imperial dynasty. Such is the case for the chrysanthemum: royal crest of the world’s oldest monarchy.
With intricate layers of delicate petals, and the ability to be cultivated into a variety of eye-catching colors, the kiku (菊, chrysanthemum) has been popular in Japan, China, and plenty of other countries for plenty of centuries.1 The first Chrysanthemum Festival—called Chōyō (重陽) or more simply Kiku-no-Sekku (菊の節句)—was commemorated in Japan in the year 910 CE, and continues today as one of the Five Annual Festivals. In Japan’s old lunisolar calendar, it feel on the 9th day of the 9th month2, an auspicious doubled-date (which is the general pattern for the sekku festivals).
When the annual event first kicked off in the still-China-obsessed imperial courts of Heian Period Japan, it was celebrated much as the Chinese nobles did: reciting poetry while drinking chrysanthemum-infused liquor and showing off your fanciest plants. And it was a lifetime lover of poetry, the Emperor Go-Toba (perhaps in high spirits during the festival), who first nominated the kiku as the official symbol of the imperial family3. Today, the (literal and metaphorical) seat of the Emperor is called the Chrysanthemum Throne, and the Imperial Crest is called the Kikuka Monshō (菊花紋章, “chrysanthemum flower crest”).
As most things do, the previously exclusive activities of the nobles made their way into the general populace, and by the Edo Period (17th century) even your average folks in your average towns were drinking chrysanthemum saké and growing the biggest and most interesting chrysanthemums they could, exhibiting them during a joyful late-autumn party full of song, dance, and games. This led to the creation of the Japanese Ogiku (大菊), chrysanthemums that could grow to an impressive 20cm or more in diameter.
Of course, before anyone can compete with or appreciate the beauty of these flowers, they need to actually bloom. Kō 50 marks the period—rather late in the year for such a vivacious blossoms—that chrysanthemums (菊) open up (開) their flowers (花). This late-blooming combined with their multi-faceted appearance brought them to symbolize longevity and good health going into winter (remember, this is all taking place around the harvest, as people prepared to settle in for a few months of cold and dark). This naturally led to them being used as a medicinal ingredient4, and kiku tea is still commonly enjoyed in modern-day Japan.
The kanji character for the flower was imported directly from China, and contains symbols for “rice,” “surround,” and “plant,” which taken together can relate to how the chrysanthemum grows following the rice harvest, grow verdantly, and have a round, swirled shape. The English word is derived from the Greek for “gold flower” (χρυσός ἄνθεμον, chrysos anthemon).
As the culture of chrysanthemum celebrating spread throughout Japan, different regions developed their own unique customs. Some areas practiced a cleansing ritual called kisewata (被綿, or sometimes 着せ綿), where fine cotton was placed on fresh kiku to absorb its aroma and dew overnight, then wiped on the body to ward off illness5. Others carefully cultivated bonsai varieties, which could grow perfect, miniscule blossoms.
One of the more widespread and interesting, though, are the kiku-ningyō (菊人形, “chrysanthemum dolls”). A sort of autumnal corollary to the more well-known Hina Matsuri dolls in spring, kiku-ningyō are lifelike dolls adorned heavily with living chrysanthemum flowers. And while the tradition began in 16th century Edo (now Tokyo), the modern celebration is most famously observed in the former castle town of Nihomatsu in Fukushima Prefecture.
Given this is an all-ages newsletter, I cannot formally condone you seek out and/or attempt to create your own chrysanthemum saké6. However, I can recommend some other age- and season-appropriate things to enjoy.
● Seasonal vegetable
satoimo, 里芋, taro
● Seasonal seafood
hatahata, 鰰, sailfin sandfish
● Seasonal edible flower
kiku, 菊, chrysanthemum7
It’s kind of incredible how one little flower, some nice colors arranged in a nice way, could come to mean so much to so many. That’s one of the primary comforts of nature: when you stop to enjoy it, you’re appreciating something in a way that connects you to people who came before, and those who come after, all over the world. How you see a flower is personal to you, but enjoying that moment of beauty is universal.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
The earliest record of cultivation in China dates back to 1500 BCE!
This year, it’s modern Gregorian calendar date will be October 23rd
Actually, it’s more likely that it was a PR move by the beleaguered teenage emperor, who ascended the throne at 3 years old amidst heavy criticism and constant shuffling of the imperial court, and who likely would have felt great pressure to assert some kind of national unity during the rise in power of the military shogunate—he abdicated at the age of 18 to pursue the arts in peace as a “cloistered emperor” until 1221, when he staged an unsuccessful rebellion and was exiled to the Oki Islands for the rest of his life
So it’s nice to think of him enjoying some good poems and good drinks among the flowers, deciding he’d like to immortalize his favorite
Pillows stuffed with kiku petals are said to relieve headaches, if you have a few lying around
Probably smelled great, if anything
It certainly can’t be as simple as steeping fresh or dried petals in nihonshū or shōchū for a few hours!
You can eat the ones on your sushi plate, too!