February 4th is an auspicious day. It’s the first day of spring according to Japan’s ancient almanac. Only in a culture such as Japan’s, a culture of anticipation, could a day as early as this be the first day of spring. Here, unlike in the west where we bear all and shout a thing from the rooftops, mystery and intrigue are revered. In Japan, one prefers to hint than proclaim. A whisper, a glance, an innuendo is far more tantalizing and mesmerizing than anything fully exposed. And so we look closely and sense that spring is standing just there in the wings, watching and waiting for winter to leave the stage.
On February 4th I’d usually head out to look for fukinoto, the little green bud that captured my attention all those years ago on my first foraging expedition in Japan. But it’s an auspicious day and if you look closely, it offers something unexpected and delightful, a fresh experience in which to revel in the feeling of awakening, rebirth, and newness. As morning matured, clouds that had cloaked the sky in perpetual gray for days lightened to white and parted revealing glimpses of blue in the distance. Just a few days earlier, I had visited my Kaiseki teacher and as I gathered my things to go, his wife encouraged me to walk over to a 70 year old weeping plum tree in the yard of an abandoned home across the way. Pick a few flowers, she said. You can float them in tea and enjoy the fragrance. I gathered a handful, took them home, and arranged them in a bowl on the counter where they perfumed the room for days. If I could just capture that fragrance in an elixir, oh what early spring cocktail could I conjure! I thought, holding onto the essence of that aroma gloomy day after gloomy day. So when the skies parted on the first day of spring, it kindled a burning urge to revisit that gorgeous tree and alchemize something magical from its flowers. With a basket in hand and a camera slung over my shoulder, off I went.
The transition from spring to summer, then into fall and finally winter feels as natural and navigable as boulder hopping across a stream or canoeing across a placid lake. But the shift from winter into spring, from the season of the harshest weather to the season of the most delicate new growth, feels nothing short of astonishing to me, like walking on water or parting the seas. Plum trees blooming at the end of winter are emblematic of that great, magical stride. And for all of the strength they display to send forth flowers in the severest season, the petals of those flowers are tissue thin and so very delicate. To stand under a weeping cherry tree in bloom is mystical, as if to find yourself inside a pale pink starburst fireworks display ignited by the divine. As I filled my basket with blossoms still damp from the morning rain, I imagined a pre-spring cocktail in which their intense floral essence shines though offering us a literal taste of the season to come. Once home, I fashioned a blossom syrup and preserved a handful of buds a la sakura shiozike for a garnish. Now it’s time to get stirring and shaking! Keep and eye out over on Instagram for the results.