I was walking home when I saw him. An older man with a worn-out hat, crouching down with a bag of wet leaves. He was carefully folding them in small, tight bundles and displaying them in a white foam cooler. I saw a small handwritten sign with ショウブ 100円 (shobu) written out in clumsy letters. No one seemed to be stopping by and neither did I. I've walked past him almost every day during the Golden Week holidays and wondered what this tired old man was selling, but felt too busy to stop.
When my 72 seasons app updated yesterday, it changed to When the First Frogs Call and mentioned the seasonal activity for the next few days would be to bathe with iris leaves, or shobu, 菖蒲 on Children's Day こどもの日. As it happened to be Children's Day, Josh and I went back down our shotengai 商店街 to find the man selling his bundles. We picked up two and he gave us one extra (no charge) as a "service" サービス. One thing I love about buying from individuals here is that they'll often give you something extra or round down the change as a service to you for buying locally. He gave me a big smile and I cried a little later thinking about that smile and wishing he didn't have to sell wet leaves on the side of the road for extra money. I noticed on the way back that a few of the florists in our area were selling iris leaves too and I just hadn't noticed them before.
72 seasons chose a really beautiful haiku for this season.
the iris leaves gather
around her breasts
I loved the imagery of this woman sliding into a hot bath and the iris leaves rushing forward to cover her as the water ripples away. While I don't have the beautiful cedar tub I pictured in my head, I wanted to recreate this scene as best as possible. As I ran the hot water, I unwrapped the little packets to discover we had been given a few sprigs of mugwort よもぎ along with the shobu to help ward off evil spirits. The steam that wafted into the air took on a pleasant medicinal smell as the mugwort hit the water. I put my head back against the tub and thought about this tradition that Japan has been doing for hundreds of years to protect their children and to send evil fleeing from their homes and I felt a tenuous connection to this history even if I'm not Japanese.
The hot water felt good even if I'm not sure how completely I banished bad spirits. When I woke up this morning, the US still had a Republican government and had sentenced so many to a life of sickness and death so I guess it didn't work that well. Nothing is going to fix that evil except good work, perseverance, and loud voices. I encourage all of the Americans reading this to join me next week in calling our senators to tell them if they don't vote no on the upcoming health bill we'll be seeing them at the polls in 2018. But in the meantime, if your heart feels heavy and you feel like crying, it's ok to slide into a warm bath and close your eyes.
If you'd like to read a bit more about the reasoning behind iris leaves and mugwort and some Japanese trivia, this post was informative.