Saturday 2 June 2018

Fireflies in Early Summer: Love, Returning Spirits, and the Ephemerality of Life

Early summer (shoka =初夏)is a beautiful time of the year in Japan: perfect temperatures, gentle light breezes, and clear blue skies. It is all the more beautiful for its transience, since the rainy season will arrive soon and with it humidity, dampness, and mould. I took the opportunity to air the futons today as it could well be the last chance for a while.

One symbol of the fleetingness of early summer are the fireflies (hotaru =蛍). Fireflies have a special cultural significance for the Japanese and feature in many idioms, haiku, tanka, novels, films, songs, stories, and place names. They symbolise everything from passionate love to returning spirits and the ephemerality of life. Even the names of the two most common fireflies - Genji and Heike - echo back to the fighting clans of the Kamakura period. Now is the prime-time for viewing (kanshō =観賞) these lightning bugs. Like cherry blossoms, there are firefly front maps that calculate the appearance of fireflies across the nations with scientific precision. Fireflies can usually be seen in Eastern Japan from mid-May to early June but, due to the warm March and April, this year they are being seen slightly earlier than in previous years.

Having never actually been to view the fireflies before (!) I decided to go to a local viewing spot (hotaru kanshō supotto =ホタル観賞スポット) and see what I was missing out on. Actually, just locally there is a small aqueduct dating back to 1655 which in the past was used for irrigation purposes and drinking water called Nobidomeyōsui (野火止用水) which literally means "water for stopping field fires"! Today it is a rural community development (ホタルの里づくり) spot known as seseragi where fireflies are raised; cages protect the larvae by keeping the water free from pollutants and rubbish (pictured). Unfortunately, I didn't spot even one firefly when I visited, something which raises serious questions about environmental degradation.

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For those living a little closer to the centre of Tokyo, Kugayama, just 15 minutes from Shibuya, holds a firefly festival from June 9-10 in which you're pretty much guaranteed to see the dancing lights since some 2000 captive bugs will be released. Festival organisers suggest 8pm as the time when the fireflies are most active though the homepage says it is even possible to see them at lunchtime! See some hints on firefly watching, in Japanese, here. Definitely worth checking out if you're in the Tokyo area - though looking at the Meteorological Agency forecasts, the rainy season may be upon us even before then and the time we get to spend with the fireflies will be even shorter than usual.