Could you identify the the tall grass depicted in the closeup of the furoshiki in my last post? I mentioned it earlier in that article, and it’s none other than Japanese pampas grass. It’s a mainstay in fall season motifs, often paired with bush clover.
It’s a tall, delicate grass with a lovely ‘tail’ at the top that gives it one of its names in Japanese, obana, which literally means ‘ tail flower.’ And it does look like a horse’s tail, with its chestnut color and gentle swaying as it catches an autumn breeze.
It’s also known as susuki, a name you can remember by associating it with the common surname ‘Suzuki’ and changing the pronunciation slightly so that the first two syllables sound alike.
Here are closeups of two furoshiki cloths with fall season motifs that include both bush clover and susuki.
Its height and the way its delicate tassels shimmer in the light make Japanese pampas grass a fixture in classical verse that has so movingly and vividly captured the essence of autumn over the centuries. This ethereal quality is used to great effect on fabrics like these, which depict night scenes with a luminous harvest moon as the centerpiece.
And the moon plays a central role in the furoshiki below, which also highlights our third grass. Kikyo are bellflowers, and it seems that hair ornament designers are as taken by them as textile artists and poets. Their beautiful purple is the inspiration for the overall color scheme of this charming scene with rabbits jumping in the moonlight:
Look closely and you’ll notice bush clover and Japanese pampas grass, and a pair of rabbits jumping in the moon’s glow. By the time a typically hot and humid Japanese summer starts to wind down I inevitably start to look forward to autumn’s cool breezes and all of its other charms, including these traditional symbols of the season.
As I write these words on a sultry late August Kyoto evening, I’m reminded that another glorious autumn isn’t far away!
The Japanese have long had a keen awareness of the seasons and a sensitivity to the things that make each time of year distinct. So it’s no surprise that so many furoshiki and tenugui and Japanese textiles in general celebrate the seasons in their motifs.
Over the years though, as I’ve discovered more and more designs to include in my shop, I’ve been struck by how ubiquitous autumn designs are. Why should this be?
One answer might simply be that artists have so many symbols to choose from when they create fall scenes. The case could also be made that autumn is closest to the hearts of many Japanese, and perhaps not coincidentally it’s a time of year when it seems that seasonal delicacies are most abundant and savored.
It’s true of course that spring is well represented, but so much of that as far as textile design goes seems to center on the ephemeral cherry blossoms, or sakura as they’re called in Japanese.
Autumnal motifs on the other hand seem to offer more variety. Even though some themes may dominate, these motifs are often made up of a variety of different patterns and scenes in a single composition.
It’s a delight to focus on a design and give it a chance to reveal itself. When it comes to fall season motifs plants play a central role, and there are actually a set number, seven to be exact, that are known as the grasses of autumn that I’d like to introduce this time.
These have had a prominent role in the way Japanese represent and think about the season since classical times and their names are ubiquitous in literature. They are:
This post and the next will focus on the three that in my experience are most commonly seen on furoshiki and similar Japanese fabrics, obana, hagi and kikyo.
You’ll soon see that the term ‘grasses’ is used in a general sense here and includes a variety of plants. My favorite, hagi, is the one I’ll introduce this time. It’s in peak form in early autumn, usually at some point between the first half of September to the first half of October depending on the place.
Below is a closeup of bush clover from a furoshiki cloth. Bush clover leaves grow in clusters of three oval leaflets. This motif depicts the plant in a typical way with some of the leaflets dissected by a vertical line, which reminded me of coffee beans years ago when I first saw a piece of fabric with a similar scene!
Hagi are known as bush clover or Japanese clover in English. It’s one of many plants I’ve become aware of only since moving to Japan. Until I sat down to write this, I wasn’t sure if it’s even found back home in the states. It turns out that it is, but it has mostly been thought of in the US in practical rather than decorative terms. It’s sometimes used as cover for pastures and as fodder for livestock and in fighting erosion, and even in greening up abandoned mining sites. As it’s a member of the pea family and spreads quickly, it’s well suited for such purposes. So if you live in a zone that’s favorable, this harbinger of autumn might be the perfect choice for your garden, as long as you take care not to let it go unchecked.
Rabbits are also a symbol of autumn and often are shown with autumn grasses, as on the textile below:
If you look you’ll notice bush clover along with another of the seven grasses-can you name that one as well? No worries if you can’t-that’ll be the focus of anther post!
When I came upon this antique fireman’s hanten(jacket) from the Meiji(1868-1912) or early Taisho(1912-1926)period, it prompted me to do some research on these rugged, well crafted and often whimsically decorated coats. It also prompted me to open my wallet, but that’s another story!
Sashiko hanten like this are called ‘hikeshi banten’ in Japanese, literally ‘fireman’s jacket.’ Its heavy cotton was meant to absorb a good deal of water to help protect its wearer from the fire. After being soaked in water, they were worn with the plain side facing out, with the design as the lining. It must have been quite heavy with all that water weight added to this thick fabric!
In the days before electricity came into widespread use, it was all too common in Japan for fires to break out on account of candles and lanterns, and as Japanese houses are traditionally made of wood and paper, it’s not hard to imagine how formidable and common a foe fire was in the daily lives of the citizenry.
As such, the role of the fireman in the community was vital and the rudimentary tools that they relied on along with the factors mentioned above stacked the odds in favor of the fire more often than not. Firemen were therefore seen as courageous men of valor and honor who would without hesitation sacrifice themselves in the interest of coming to the aid of their community.
After the fire was put out, the firemen would take off their jackets and wear them inside out to to show off the elaborate designs that had been hidden from view until then. To see firemen wearing their jackets in such showy fashion was to know that the danger was past and they had come through the battle unscathed, or at least well enough to fight again.
They’d then walk through town on the way perhaps to a local drinking establishment, attracting the gaze of admiring townsfolk appreciative of their courage and envious of their distinctive jackets, in a victory lap of sorts.
The theme of the work is referred to as ‘Hi no tamashi ni mukao wakamusha’ in Japanese, which means ‘A Young Warrior Confronts the Spirit of the Fire.’
These are always a pleasure to come across, and if you’re interested in seeing a range of intriguing motifs, a quick net search should yield interesting results.
If you’re hunting for a gift for the Star Wars fan in your life, there are of course a zillion choices. And that’s the problem! But if the giftee in question has an affinity for things Japanese as well, then the choices get narrowed considerably.
And to my mind, in the realm of Japanese gifts for Star Wars fans, prime candidates are a line of made in Japan fabric cloths called tenugui that have lively and fun Star Wars themes that also incorporate various aspects of Japanese culture.
Aside from the cool factor, Japanese Star Wars tenugui cloths are quite light and compact when folded. Accordingly, you won’t pay much for shipping if you buy them online, and the so-called ‘free shipping’ that many sellers offer won’t mean inflated pricing for the tenugui itself to cover their own high shipping costs.
And of course in turn if you plan on sending a tenugui to someone, you won’t get dinged much for postage. And since these are flat, wrapping them for mailing is a cinch.
What is a tenugui?
I’ve answered that question at length in a separate post, in case you care to delve into the particulars-it’s a good read if you’re thinking about buying a tenugui and are curious about not just these designs, but the fabric as well.
Along with a long, rich history in Japan, tenugui cloths have certain distinct characteristics that you should be aware of before you make a purchase.
And you can pass along your new knowledge along with your gift, to give it some context and enhance its already considerable charm. Everyone loves a good story after all, and people who are into Japan and its culture will appreciate knowing more about these very Japanese textiles.
Though these fabrics were used as hand towels and headbands in the past, these days they are most often used as decor and look great on walls.
Having said that, these designs also do make great headwraps, similarly to how bandanas are used in the west, though the shape is a bit different, so please keep that in mind as well.
People who practice martial arts sometimes wear them during workouts, etc. and I’ve heard of folks who cover their heads with tenugui when they’re doing yard work.
A natural, lighthearted blend of cultural references
I did a double take when I first saw these star wars tenugui designs, and then of course it made perfect sense- George Lucas after all, has always cited Japanese cinema as a major influence. So this mashup is far from a random pairing.
As you might imagine, there’s a sense of irreverent fun running through these motifs. Some of the designs also incorporate classical kanji character sayings that when referenced in this context take on a fresh and lighthearted tone.
Here are some photos that I took myself of cool tenugui from this collection. All are made in Japan of 100% cotton with traditional dyeing methods and are officially licensed Star Wars products.
Click on a tenugui title above any of the Star Wars tenugui photos to see it on amazon.
It looks like these storm troopers mean business! So far, so normal. Look closely at the sky behind them though and this tenugui’s Japanese accents will come into sharper focus for you.
First of all, you might notice the waves on the right, which are stylized in a traditional way, almost appearing to have fingers, curled as if they’re beckoning you.
If you’re a Japanese textile aficionado, you might well also pick up on a reference to traditional fabric dyeing techniques in those clouds.
Look closely and those clouds are made up of a pattern that resembles shibori, Japanese tie-dye. Though it’s just a representation of that classic look and not the real thing of course, it adds a subtle, elegant reference for those in the know.
The fearsome looking cloud on the left looks like a ‘nyudogumo’ or thunderhead cloud, a fixture of Japanese summers. It’s got to be hot and humid out there-no wonder those storm troopers are peevish!
This tenugui features C3P0 in a philosophical mood, and who can blame him?
In this scene, after all, as he stands with R2D2, the sakura cherry blossoms are at their peak and petals are blowing in the breeze.
It’s just the sort of moment that over the centuries has inspired so many to wax poetically about the ephemeral beauty of life.
Cherry blossom viewing parties, known as hanami, are a fixture of early spring in Japan. They celebrate this transience with frivolity and fun along with food and drink served potluck style on blankets under the blossoms.
Darth Vader caught in a contemplative moment, hoping that a delicate cherry blossom petal will waft its way into his outstretched, gloved hand.
Four kanji characters, pronounced gyoku seki kon kou, are written in the traditional vertical style on the right.
They constitute a classical expression which refers to a mix of disparate elements that aren’t often seen together, and are valued differently. Rocks and jewelry, for example….or Darth Vader and cherry blossoms, in this case!
C3P0 and R2D2 are seen here indulging in one of the highlights of a trip to Japan-a hot spring bath. This one’s especially inviting, as it’s outdoors with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji in the fading light.
That’s a drawing of a ‘noren’ split curtain with the stylized mark of a public bath on it at the top of the tenugui, with steam coming out of it. You’ll see such noren curtains in front of onsen, as well as sento, which are public baths meant for everyday use.
Onsen like the one depicted are thought of as a special treat in that they’re often in scenic countryside locals away from the hustle and bustle of cities.
They’re also known for their spring water, which is often promoted as having medicinal properties, depending on the locale and the lore surrounding it.
These two are clearly up on public bath etiquette, as they’re taking care not to let their small bath towels get in the water! You can perch your towel on your head as R2D2’s doing.
And when you’re out of the bath, perhaps walking from one bath to another, your towel will likely come in handy, especially if you’re the modest type!
Darth Vader and Yoda square off with traditional Japanese waves.
The kanji characters written vertically are pronounced riki sen fun tou. that refers to a desire to fight with all your might, to give it all you’ve got.
This classical expression has a long and rich history and is most associated with battles in feudal times when there was little if any mercy shown to the vanquished and losers often didn’t have a chance to fight another day.
With the stakes so high in this epic clash between Darth Vader and Yoda, this sentiment seems entirely appropriate!
A triumphant Darth Vader emerging from a wall of flames. Above him is a classical expression that conveys a sense of being in high spirits, full of power.
The second of the four kanji characters literally means ‘fire’ and this design clearly takes its cue from that! The kanji characters are pronounced ki en ban jyou.
May the force be with you in your search for something (inter)stellar. Star Wars tenugui might be just what you’re after!
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