In early March, whilst out walking in a Tokyo park, Kiku and Miko-chan saw some gardeners removing straw matting that had been placed around the trunks of some pine trees – they looked a bit like the tree was wearing an obi belt, as around a kimono.
When they got home they asked Boss Panda what they were, and he told Kiku to go and get the seasonal almanac, as it marked a particular event in the season. “Those rice straw mats are called komomaki, and are sometimes used to help minimise the damage made by a particular kind of insect – the hungry matsukareha caterpillar. The matsukareha is a type of pine moth found in Japan, Siberia and Korea (dendrolimus spectabilis), which normally hibernates down in the leaf litter for the winter. But when the caterpillars begin to wake up they have an insatiable appetite for pine needles and can cause incredible damage to the trees in a short period of time. To help combat this, the komomaki mats were developed during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) as an alternative hibernation spot as they make their way down to the leaf litter on the ground.
Boss Panda pointed to a page in the almanac that described the sekki1 known as sōkō, or “frost descent”, and explained further, “the seasonal almanac plays an important part in their use – the mats are tied around the trees during this time which begins on 23rd October or on the day the almanac refers to as the ‘start of winter’ or ‘rittō’, on the 7th November. The mats then stay on the trees until the sekki in March called ‘keichitsu’, or ‘awakening of insects’ – which starts today with a five day micro season entitled ‘hibernating insects awaken’, or more poetically ‘hibernating insects open their doors’.
“At this time, the gardeners take down the komomaki and burn them with the pests still inside, thus tackling the insects without pesticides and using the ashes as fertiliser for the coming season”.
Miko-chan looked a little sad “It is good that they don’t use chemicals, but I feel sorry for all those drowsy caterpillars coming to an end like that. It makes me want to shout and warn them!” Boss Panda smiled at the kindhearted little shrine maiden doll. “That sounds like a good starting point for a haiku”, he encouraged. Miko-chan thought this sounded like a good idea, and went off to compose one.
Kiku was thinking about the mats and mentioned the pines he had seen in the grounds of the Imperial Palace, which didn’t seem to have them. “In fact you are right,” said Boss Panda. “There have been some recent studies which show that the mats actually provide shelter for many other creatures such as spiders, cockroaches and assassin bugs, may of which are beneficial and not harmful, and so some places such as the Imperial Palace no longer use them on the pine trees. But because it doesn’t snow in Tokyo as much in winter these days, Japanese people still like to evoke a sense of the season by using items (termed as fūbutsushi2) and so sometimes they are just added to trees as decorative elements.”
Kiku went off to tell Miko-chan not to worry because the decorative komomaki were not being used to trap and eliminate insects after all, and found her asleep at the kotatsu, with the following haiku she’d composed on the table top….
‘Wake up pine larvae!
Please leave your tatami bed
so you won’t get burned’
Komomaki information from www.japantimes.co.jp
1Sekkis, Kos and The Fox Alamanac
Kiku has been working on translating an old Japanese seasonal almanac given to him by Boss Panda. Originally from China, the recordings within it were changed long ago to more accurately reflect the seasonal transitions in central Honshu, the main island of Japan, where Tokyo is located. Closely linked to agriculture, the system divides the solar year into 24 segments called ‘sekki’ and each of these has a concise title that gives a general indication of the season. Each sekki is divided further into three five-day segments called ‘ko’ (climates). Each ko has an observation noted for the five days – a change in insect or plant behaviour for example, and Kiku is working his way through them, hoping that by following the little seasonal changes as remarked on in the almanac, he will come to have a better understanding of Japan, a country where seasonal foods and customs are still very familiar to many. He calls his own version the ‘fox almanac’ or in Japanese the ‘Kitsune no shichijuniko’ (Fox’s 72 climates).
2 Fūbutsushi is a word that is hard to translate into English, sort of meaning things which evoke poetic memories or the anticipation of a certain season. Another item which may elicit such a response in winter whether it snows or not is the yukitsuri (雪つり), or ‘snow hangers’: straw ropes that support branches preventing their breakage in case of heavy and wet snowfalls.