April 18, 2009
LETTER FROM KYOTO
The rain has over 40 names
By Janice Tay
I HEAR the rain before I see it. I dress to go out anyway, my lips painted red under a grey sky.
Not everyone puts up an umbrella. The rain gentle yet, like day-old love.
I pass a woman outside the supermarket. She wipes water off her bike seat morosely; all the other bicycles are under cover.
I buy dried seaweed, dried sesame and roasted rice tea but the desiccation does nothing to turn away the wet. Is it because I also bought sake?
Outside, people are running for cover. The rain now fierce, like day-old love.
Mushrooms aren't the only things the storm brings; umbrellas are sprouting all over. In Japan, it's illegal to ride a bicycle with one hand holding an open umbrella but not many people seem to know this. Perhaps they find it convenient not to know.
The police probably do but I've never heard of them pulling anyone over for cycling under the influence of umbrella.
I ask the sky to stop but it is in no mood to listen. Perhaps it has bought sake too.
The woman who sold me the wine looked hard at my face but did not ask for proof of identity.
In Japan, the rain is known by over 40 names. Some are workmanlike labels - naga ame, long rain; others mark the season - samidare, the rain of early summer; but a few hint at stories.
When it drizzles even as the sun shines, it's because a fox has become a bride - kitsune no yome iri - and showers are needed to veil the wedding procession from human eyes.
You can drink the rain and you can eat it: Harusame, spring rain, is also a kind of vermicelli.
Drink, eat and listen because even the ways in which rain falls have been named. When a storm roars zaa-zaa, it's better to wait indoors till the deluge passes.
A downpour just beginning goes potsu-potsu - what the raindrops say because, though there are not many of them, they are big and very wet. But the drops will change their tune soon enough to para-para as they become smaller, more numerous and busy themselves with pattering and splattering.
The rain can come softly too; sometimes it falls shi-to shi-to. Though a quiet rain, it is a sinister one, the rain of ghosts and assassins. If you wander into the pages of a novel, you may hear it. And if you hear it, you may need more than an umbrella for a shield.
Rain has its names and it has its times. There are four seasons in Japan, but really five: spring, tsuyu, summer, autumn and winter.
Generally covering June and July, the rainy season of tsuyu thwarts laundry and frustrates futons. Fine weather is the signal for people to air their bedding and take their futons out to the balcony, where the mattresses slump over the railings like so many exhausted caterpillars.
But during tsuyu, the caterpillars sulk indoors, soaking up moisture from air soured by clothes drying imperfectly.
Still, optimists and tourism boards point out that tsuyu is also the time when irises and hydrangeas bloom. The sight of rain turning hydrangeas from pastel into pale is shorthand for temporality to Japanese eyes. Put it in an anime and the audience will know that it is June.
But my first tsuyu was dry and the hydrangeas I saw then blazed in the sunlight.
Perhaps the rain stayed away because someone had strung up an army of shine-shine priests. These teru teru bouzu can be seen hanging from windows at all times of the year, charms to keep skies clear and the rain from coming.
They are magic but not the kind that needs rare wands or expensive Latin. Take a small piece of cloth or paper. Scrunch it up. Cover it with another sheet and secure with string or tape so it looks like an upside-down dumpling. If you wish, draw a face on the ball.
Then hang it near a window but be sure to keep the head up. If it points to the ground, the doll will bring the rain instead.
The teru teru bouzu is said to have once been the magic of farmers. Now, it is a spell for children to cast on the day before an outing.
But during my first tsuyu, the Japanese I spoke to about the rain seemed more worried than happy that the torrents had not come. 'Tsuyu replenishes our water,' one said.
On another island an ocean away are a people who see things much the same way. The Hawaiian term for fresh water, wai, is the root word of prosperity, waiwai.
Money may not grow on trees but wealth can fall from the sky. And on the day that I go out in the rain, there is a big giveaway.
Even when I return and can no longer see it, the sounds still roll around my room. Gurong gurong gloing: This is what the rain sounds like in this space.
I unpack the things I bought. Shall I drink sake or tea?
I can still hear the rain so we have sake together. And when I can no longer hear it, I make a cup of genmaicha, green tea bulked up with roasted rice - the tea Japanese people used to drink if they were poor.