Saturday, October 09, 2010

ホトトギス

In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (rapidly becoming a Saturday staple) today's great discovery. Behold... the Toad Lily (tricyrtis 'sinonome')!

This flower might strike you as at best an oddity, but it has great significance for me. You see, in Japan it is a rare and auspicious Fall flower, with the rather more interesting name (though still a mouthful) hototogisu. What's more, in its gawky way it provided entré to Japanese intellectual life for me.

Shortly after I arrived in Tokyo in 1992 for my year as a Japan Foundation-supported research fellow at Tokyo University, there happens to have been an article about this rare flower in the newspaper. I marveled at the flower's rather unbeautiful mug and stumbled over the name a few times; a Japanese friend taught me that the emphasis falls gently on the third syllable. The next day, in a little vase on the desk of the assistant of the Ethics Department, there was one. "Hööööee..." I said, "hototogisu deha nai ka?! [Isn't that ... hototogisu?]" Lucky for me, it was. And it was a big deal. Within an hour, the entire institute had heard about the strange American who knew the name of the hototogisu. In vain did I protest that this was the only flower name I knew in Japanese besides sakura - the damage was done, and I was in.


The best part about encountering this flower today was that it found me as I was walking with an old old friend and his wife. How old? We haven't seen each other since we were undergraduates at Oxford (he on junior year abroad from Carleton) in 1984-85. I think we've aged well!

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