May, a month of great change, is traditionally regarded as the beginning of summer in Japan, particularly in the central coastal regions of Honshu. It is a month of much activity in every sense of the word, beginning with a riot of new green leaves as Golden Week sends much of the nation into travel mode. In Kyoto, citizens become noticeably more energetic, and on weekends the streets seem to fairly overflow with out-of-town tourists. On the social scene, May is especially cherished by poets and tea ceremony aficionados.
Activity, however, is most apparent as you become aware of the sudden surge of energy in the natural world. The forests become livelier by the day with bird song as countless summer residents return from their southern winter homes, and everywhere there is a growing diversity of newness: new flowering bushes, new plants, new leaves, new insects, newness in all directions.
Because of Kyoto's unique climate, an exotic combination of tropical and temperate elements, and its richly endowed geographical features, the feeling of spring is strong to the point of inducing a mild form of drunkenness. And if one had to suggest a suitable alcoholic beverage for May, champagne would certainly suit the effervescence and joy of this month. As the days get warmer and the days grow longer, the spirit seems to almost lose itself in the successive waves of fine weather and sweet air.
Finally, though a part of Western tradition, May is also the month when the world, for those who remember, celebrates Mother's Day the (second Sunday of May). Not surprising, roses, being the perfect gift for mother, flower profusely this month.
Kyoto living in May is taken up with celebrations in an outdoor world that is pleasantly warm all day long. Average May temperatures, like those of October, seems ideally suited to human living, and one need no longer worry about a sudden chill or bring an extra layer of clothing just in case.
May is a month crowded with outdoor celebration. Aoi Matsuri, Kyoto’s oldest most famous festival, and the exotic river rituals of the Mifune Matsuri both take place this month (May 21st). Another eagerly anticipated event is Takigi or Torch-lit Noh. This magical spectacle of ancient costumes, masks and ritual is usually held against a suitably gorgeous background. Nara's Kofuku-ji Temple holds its annual Takigi Noh performance on the 11th and 12th of May. At Kyoto's Heian Shrine the event is delayed until the first and second of June.
With the wonders of new growth to be seen nearly everywhere, May is the ideal month to enjoy a light meal or traditional tea and a sweet while marveling at a Japanese garden. With its lush garden surroundings, Kano Shojuan, just across the canal at the southern end of the Path of Philosophy (Tetsugaku-no-michi) is a perfect venue for enjoying a cup of tea amidst the splendor of nature in transition (daily 10:00-16:30, except Wed; ¥1,050, with sweet; Tel: 751-1077).
Another highly recommended garden viewing experience can be had at Ganko Zushi's Nijo-en, a restaurant that is sure to please, and which has an unbelievably large garden area.
For those interested in flower arrangement, one accessory prominently used to advantage in May are baskets or kabin kago woven of vines. These can be hung on the wall and filled with a segment of a flowering vine such as a clematis, or placed on an entranceway or hallway table. These baskets make an ideal souvenir to take home and use for flower arrangements.
The green month of May heralds the first tea harvest of the year. On or around May 2nd, 88 days after risshun (the first day of spring according to the old lunar calendar), picking of the newest tea leaves begins. Uji, in south west of Kyoto, is where you can see pickers in their traditional outfits busily harvesting tea throughout May. Uji is home to some of Japan's finest tea plantations.
The first harvested tea, ichiban-cha or shin-cha, is the most expensive because it is the sweetest and mildest in taste. With each successive harvest, the tannin level in the leaves becomes more noticeable, lending a characteristic bitterness to the tea. For tea connoisseurs, the first harvest is an eagerly-awaited event. Appropriately, some of the very first tea leaves are offered to the gods in the Kencha Sai Festival at Uji-gami Shrine on May 5th. At the same shrine, on June 1st, for ¥1,500 you can enjoy a tea ceremony, a light, beautifully arranged meal, and the satisfaction of being one of the first to savor the very finest of the year's harvest (for more information: Tel: 0774-23-2243).
For visitors who do not have the chance to go to Uji, Kyoto's famous Ippo-do tea shop is the ideal place to buy fresh tea or sample what is available. Elsewhere, throughout the city, you will also find sweet delicacies made with tea, and in some places even soft ice cream flavored with tea.
Another food item that is particularly identified with May is katsuo or bonito, a variety of tuna, that is served raw this month. This fish is served in many restaurants in May. A visit to Kyoto's gourmet food street, Nishiki (one street north of Shijo), is also a good idea to get an idea of the abundance of foods available in the Old Capital in the fertile month of May.
When it comes to color May is best symbolized by green and purple. The first fresh green spring leaves are called wakaba in Japanese or young leaves. These can be seen as a luminous fresh glow on the mountainsides surrounding the city, a phenomena that lasts until nearly the end of the month when they gradually turn to the final darker greens of June. Another green is that of the different kinds of irises that bloom in profusion in the city's many garden ponds. The iris, which grows so straight and seems so very full of life, is a symbol of good health and makes an ideal gift for someone who is not feeling up to form.
Another May motif, often seen in scrolls and paintings, is that of tiny Chinese dogs frolicking in a flowering background of peonies. Peonies, favored for their rich reds and subtle pinks, have flowers the size of large human hand. They are harder to find in abundance, but can often be seen as potted plants. Nara's Hase-dera Temple is particularly well-known for its slope of peonies.
Finally, the mauve purple flowers of the wisteria vine, equally beloved by flower enthusiasts over the ages, are also a treat not to be missed this month. Enjoy!
Written by Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT, since 1992), a Japan destination expert for travel and tourism. He specializes in private travel (customized day trips with guides / private guided tours) and digital guidance solutions (about 25% of our business and growing!). Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com or call us on +1-415-230-0579.
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