January 13th, 2005


How delightful are the snow covers!

I was walking yesterday in Yanaka and Ueno Park, the 'old Edo' part of Tokyo where you still see a lot of wooden houses. You also see the blue tarpaulin village of the homeless people camped out between the trees. In self-service restaurants they're playing marbled, melancholy 80s ballads and, with the 80s decor, it all feels a bit sad, with the bare branches stirring outside in the wind.

But if you go into a temple grounds or a flower garden there's a seasonal delight of a particularly Japanese kind; the trees, flowers and shrubs have snow covers, yuki gakkoi. These are typically shinto artefacts made of straw, rope and twine. They're beautiful, delicate, artisanal; practical yet sacred, natural yet cultural.

The snow covers keep the plants protected from snow, of course, but they're also something to go and view, to marvel at; something seasonal and ephemeral whose regular appearance each year is familiar yet delightful. Let's go and see the snow covers today!

Flipping through the January edition of women's magazine Frau I found a page of 'calendar delights' mapping out the whole year as a series of seasonal pleasures of this sort. In April, of course, there's blossom-viewing. In June, for one week only, there are fireflies. Let's watch them with delight! And in September, of course, we view the moon.

I tried to imagine a British women's magazine telling its readers about ephemeral natural delights like this. It was difficult. I suppose a gardening magazine would mention them, or a rather old-fashioned country column in a newspaper. I doubt they would mingle delight and melancholy in quite this way, though. The blossom and the fireflies are an intense pleasure. We praise them with attention and a kind of formulaic poetry of the seasons, a poetry of deep yet stereotypical emotion which draws its strength from the precarious yet utterly regular transience of these seasonal occurrences. They're here, they're gone, but they'll be back next year. Perhaps we'll be here to view and celebrate them with identical, gentle, deeply-felt exclamations of pleasure. How delightful are the snow covers!