We have entered the micro-season of “The First Reeds Grow”, which is the first micro-season of the mini-season of Grain Rain.
Each mini-season contains three micro-seasons. The micro-seasons contained within Grain Rain are:
- The First Reeds Grow (April 20 – April 24)
- The Frost Stops the Rice Grows (April 25 – April 29)
- The Tree Peony Flowers (April 30 – May 04)
These seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai and are specific to Japan. However, just because the calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to others. No matter where you live you can use these seasons as a starting point for your personal exploration of the world around you.
Right now the landscape is really starting to change. There is new plant life springing up all around us. “The First Reeds Grow” focuses on those plants that are emerging by the lakes, ponds, and rivers.
Reeds are the common name for perennial grasses that grow in wetlands. In the scientific taxonomy, they are a part of the Phragmites genus. There are four species within this genus:(1,2,3)
- Phragmites australis– This is the most common species. It also has three sub-species:
- Phragmites australis subspecies. americanus;
- Phragmites australis subspecies. australis
- Phragmites australis subspecies. Altissimus
- Phragmites japonicus – Native to Japan, Korea, Ryukyu Islands, and the Far East of Russia.
- Phragmites karka. – Native to West Tropical Africa to Kenya, Tropical & Subtropical Asia to the Pacific.
- Phragmites mauritianus – Native to the tropical regions of South Africa and the West Indian Ocean.
Historically, reeds have played an important part in Japanese culture. The leaves, roots, seeds, and shoots are all edible and have medicinal qualities.
Reeds were also used to make things like blinds, thatch roofs, paper, and musical instruments. (1)
Two Traditional Japanese Reed Instruments
The hichiriki is a Japanese double-reed flute. This flute is 7 inches long (18 cm) and made of lacquered bamboo wrapped in bands of cherry or wisteria bark (5). The flute has seven finger holes on the front and two in the back. The hichiriki is sometimes compared to the clarinet or the oboe and is one of the wind instruments used in gagaku. Gagaku is the traditional court music of Japan.
Gagaku, which means elegant music, was adapted from 6th-century Chinese and Korean musical traditions.(7) Gagaku was established as a tradition for the Japanese court in the 8th Century. Gagaku is still performed today by the Music Department of the Board of Ceremonies, which is part of the Imperial Household Agency of Japan.(7)
The actual reed that is used in the hichiriki may come from a plant in the Phragmites genus or from a bamboo plant. However, some research has been done to determine the best reeds for the hichiriki are made from the stems of Phragmites australis harvested from a reed bed at Udono near Kyoto. (8)
Here is a quick sample of what a hichiriki sounds like courtesy of the Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection(9)
The shō is also a traditional reed instrument that is also used to perform gagaku. The shō has 17-pipes made of bamboo. These pipes are set on top of a circular wind chamber. The musician blows air into the chamber, which then vibrates a reed and produces the sound. Each pipe also has an air hole on it that needs to be covered by the musician’s finger in order to work. The tubes arrangement is said to resemble the folded wings of a phoenix.(10)
Here is what a chord progression sounds like on the shō courtesy of Orchestration in Gagaku Music by Stanford University.
Poems for the Season:
Since this season is all about the arrival of new plant life, I thought it made sense to share some haiku about sprouts. The first two haiku are from Matsuo Bashō.
the bush warbler in a grove of bamboo sprouts sings of growing old -Basho
up from April snow rising Udo sprouts tender purple succulent -Basho
Udo is a perennial plant native to Japan, Korea, and China. Its other names include Spikenard and Mountain Asparagus. Udo is often used in miso soup.
The next two haiku are from Kobayashi Issa.
on the tip of the newly sprouted bamboo... a baby sparrow -Issa
bush clover sprouting-- when people aren't looking the deer eats -Issa
In these two haiku, Issa captures some wonderful moments of spring and provides us with writing that demonstrates his compassion for all living things.
This final haiku also comes from Issa. Although it is not about sprouts, I really enjoyed this one and thought it would be fun to share.
the lunch was taken by the dog! reed warbler's song -Issa
The reed warbler is a migratory bird that returns to Japan from its winter residence in late April and May. Chris Drake describes the reed warbler’s song as “rather long, loud, and insistent cries”.(11) It seems like the poet’s attention was distracted by the reed warbler long enough for the dog to make off with the lunch!
- “Phragmites”: Wikipedia
- “Phragmites australis”: Wikipedia
- “Phragmites”; Plants of the World Online: Royal Botanical Garden KEW
- “Hichiriki”: Wikipedia
- “Hichiriki”: Britannica.com
- “Traditional Japanese Musical Instruments”: Wikipedia
- “Gagaku”: Wikipedia
- Kawasaki, Masahiro et al. “Structure and biomechanics of culms of Phragmites australis used for reeds of Japanese wind instrument “hichiriki”.” Microscopy research and technique vol. 78,4 (2015): 260-7. doi:10.1002/jemt.22469
- “Hichiriki”: Grinnell College Musical Instrument Collection
- “Sho”: Orchestration in Gagaku Music by Standford University
- Chris Drake;:“Reed Warbler (yoshikiri)”; World Kigo Database