Japan's 72 Microseasons - #8
"Peach Blossoms First Bloom"
March 11 - 15
もも はじめて さく
Momo hajimete saku
Peach blossoms first bloom
There are many flowering trees in Japan less famous than the heavily romanticized sakura (cherry blossom), and it’s the ones that appear ahead of those symbolic blooms that I particularly enjoy. Maybe it’s because, perhaps unsurprisingly, I find the changing of the seasons to be more interesting than the full height of them, and sakura arrive when spring is already well underway. Or maybe it’s just because I never paid as close attention to when the others were scheduled on the calendar to bloom, so it was always a nice surprise to see them.
The Big Three that lead us into spring, each politely taking their turns on the stage, are ume (梅), momo (桃), and sakura (桜); plum, peach, and cherry blossoms, respectively. The early, delicate white flowers of the plum trees are starkly contrasted by the bold pink of the peach trees that follow. They are, undeniably, spring-like. A thing that could not exist in winter.
While all momo trees are cultivars of Prunus persica, the beautifully flowering kind is—appropriately—called hanamomo (花桃, lit. “flower peach”), while the fruiting kind is called mimomo (実桃, “fruit peach” but also readable as “true peach” if you like). Flower peaches can produce fruit and vice versa, but each excels at the thing it was guided over time to do by nature or human hand. This same thing applies to the plum trees and kind of to cherry blossoms, but those are their own special, different thing.
But we’re here to talk momo, and this kō is when their flowers are taking center stage in the landscape and in displays for the traditional holiday Hina Matsuri (ひな祭り, Girls’ Festival or Doll Festival). While now fixed at March 3rd, for most of its centuries of observation it was celebrated when the peaches blossomed, anywhere between mid-March and early April. It should come as no surprise that its other name is Momo no Sekku (桃の節句, The Peach Festival), and it is one of the main Five Seasonal Festivals (Go Sekku, 五節句) of the ancient calendar alongside New Years, Boys’ Day, Tanabata, and the Harvest Festival.
On a related note: the word “sekku,” meaning a seasonal festival, shares its first kanji character with “sekki” (節気), our 24 lunisolar periods that the microseasons reside in. It’s a kanji most commonly seen in the word kisetsu (季節) which is, simply, “season.”
The most notable feature of Girls’ Day is the Hina-kazari (雛飾り) doll display, which features figures of a classic noble court. Alongside that will be the pink peach flowers, and any variety of pink sweets like those pictured at the top of this newsletter. While all that pink fits in neatly into modern-day gender expectations for young girls, the association goes back thousands of years and all starts with the blossoming momo, whose flowers grow beautifully and directly off the branch.
Speaking of “blossom,” readers with Japanese language familiarity will notice that the third character in the name of this kō, 笑, usually means “laugh/smile” and is read wara, not saku (bloom). As is often the case with the kō, it’s a mix of old linguistics and poetic imagery. Before the language was standardized by a central government into dictionary-defined rules, some of the Japanese expressions for flowers blooming were emu (笑む) and hokorobu (綻ぶ). The former more directly relates to the modern “smile” but the latter carries a meaning of something stored up bursting forth all at once. This can be a seed sprouting in the ground, a flower blooming on a tree, or a grin appearing on a face.
This smile/bloom usage persists in a couple of phrases, such as yama-warau (山笑う, when a mountain’s flowers all suddenly bloom) and hoho-emu (微笑む, to break into a grin). That last one may ping some recognition in any older anime fans, being part of the title for YuYu Hakusho’s opening song: “Hoho-emi no Bakudan”
While not exactly what’s happening here, the Japanese grammatical phenomenon where a kanji character is given a non-standard reading to convey a certain meaning is called gikun (義訓), and can be seen in creative prose. So one could, for example, write out a flower “smiled” but let the reader know you really mean “bloomed.” Or write out “holy sword” but make sure they read it as “Excalibur.”
The reason I mention this is because the start of this kō falls on March 11th this year: the twelfth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters in the Tōhoku region of Japan. And while cleanup and recovery have progressed amazingly well in the decade-plus that has passed, Fukushima in particular continues to struggle with an undeserved negative image. Prior to the disasters, one of Fukushima’s pride points was its produce. Namely: its peaches.
My hope is that each new year, each new cycle of blooming flowers and fresh springs can also see more and more smiles for Fukushima. That they’ll come as naturally as pink blossoms on a warm day after a long winter.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
Visiting family friends in Saitama the other day, they remarked that they’d noticed bees flying about for the first time this year—it seems Keichitsu is right on schedule