• by Matt Alt
  • Special To The Japan Times


Now that the tsuyu (梅雨, rainy season) has ended and the dreaded heat has descended upon the city, most of us have taken refuge indoors, camped out in front of the eakon (エアコン, air-conditioning) in a desperate attempt to wick away some of summer’s sticky mushiatsusa (蒸し暑さ, humidity). The summer months conjure up images of being sushizume (すし詰め, packed in like sardines) in crowded trains and bishonure no ase (びしょぬれの汗, sweat-drenched) commutes through the blazing sun, leading to stress and even, in worst-case scenarios, necchūshō (熱中症, heat stroke). In fact a great many Tokyoites spend the summer months praying for the first days of fall.

But these very same months, when the city’s human residents are suffering, are actually some of the plant and animal world’s favorites. There’s a famous kotowaza (ことわざ, proverb) in English that goes, “April showers bring May flowers.” In Japan’s kisetsufū kikō (季節風気候, monsoon climate), these showers tend to happen at the end of June, but the effect is the same. Once they end, a whole host of plants and creatures come out of the literal woodwork. And boku wa mushi no otaku! (僕は虫のおたく!I’m a sucker for creepy crawlies!).

Just the other day, after a big raiu (雷雨, thunderstorm), I headed into the local park for a jog and nearly stomped down on a fat hikigaeru (ヒキガエル, toad). I’m a little strange this way, but it just doesn’t feel like summer to me until I see my first toad of the season. They’re ibodarake (イボだらけ, warty) and a little namagusai (生臭い, stinky), but they have a certain charm that can only be described in Japanese: kimo-kawaii (キモ可愛い), which means they’re a little gross and cute all at the same time. They also pop up often in minzokugaku (民俗学, folklore). In tales of old, toads are yōkai no nakama (妖怪の仲間, associates of yōkai [goblins or monsters, though really yōkai are yōkai]), the source of sorcerers’ magic and even on occasion gods, such as the great Gama Sennin (蝦蟇仙人, the Taoist immortal Gama).

Another place that I’ve run into creatures is the tiny niwa (庭, garden) my wife Hiroko built on our deck, which is centered with hasu (蓮, lotus) and kuchinashi (クチナシ, gardenias). It turns out all sorts of interesting stuff makes its home in these plants.

Lotuses need huge quantities of water, which is why you often see little forests of them in the ponds near shrines and parks — Ueno Park’s Shinobazu Pond being a prime example. We planted ours in a pair of large plastic tubs that over the years have developed entire little ecosystems. For example, the waters teem with tiny medaka (メダカ, minnows) and the occasional yago (ヤゴ, dragonfly nymph), which help eat the ka no yōchū (蚊の幼虫, mosquito larvae) that inevitably appear in any standing water in this country.

The other morning, I woke up to the sight of a delicate, electric-blue colored insect perched on the edge of one of the lotus leaves. It turned out to be an itotonbo (イトトンボ, damselfly), and it’s been hanging out on our deck ever since it hatched. When I looked it up, I learned that they prey on adult mosquitoes, which explains why we haven’t had to light a katorisenkō (蚊取り線香, mosquito coil ) once yet this season. Because the word for damselfly in Japanese is “itotonbo,” or (“thread-dragonfly”) we took to calling him Ito-san (伊藤さん). He’s our man when it comes to pest control on the deck.

But that said, some pests are beyond the reach of Ito-san’s little mandibles. Because Hiroko’s plants are big and healthy, they attract all sorts of insects determined to lay their eggs on her handiwork — particularly the gardenias. The sight of an otherwise beautiful agehachō (アゲハチョウ, zebra swallowtail) fluttering by the window can send us scrambling out to shoo them away — Hiroko has jokingly declared these huge and beautiful butterflies her tenteki (天敵, mortal enemies).

But the real terror of the gardenias are ōsukashiba (オオスカシバ, hummingbird moths), so called because they resemble the birds at first glance. Believe me, you haven’t gardened in Japan until you’ve spent a morning picking the fat, juicy, pinky-sized caterpillars of these moths off of your flowers with a pair of chopsticks.

And speaking of flowers, I have excellent news to report. Lotuses take three seasons of growing before they produce their first flowers. This summer marks the third season for Hiroko’s lotuses. With a lot of hard work and the occasional help of allies like Ito-san, hers finally produced its first hasu no hana (蓮の花, lotus flower) this very week!

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