The aesthetics of the lotus-eaters

text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis

It took me a while to realize that the “kaki” (柿) the bright orange colored fruit that seems to flood Japan every autumn is Homer’s lotus, the magic fruit that causes sleep, apathy and oblivion; my puzzlement was caused by the fact that the word “lotus” is used to describe various very different plants among which a water lily-like aquatic plant widely used in Buddhism symbolism. Anyone who has seen depictions of the Buddha might have noticed that he is always sitting on a pedestal made of this plant’s petals and even his stance (with each ankle resting on the opposite thigh) is called “lotus position”, which means the reference can be traced to the depths of Indian mythology.   

The Japanese lotus, though, is something completely different. It comes from a regular tree (which, for anyone interested, belongs to the same species as the ebony) and can be found in such abundance that it has managed to take a lead role in the Japanese diet, both everyday (as a fruit accompanying breakfast or dinner) and celebratory: one of the dishes served in the New Year’s period, a period very special to the Japanese, is “namasu” (膾) which includes slices of dried kaki and of the giant radish daikon (大根) marinated in vinegar until they are lightly pickled. For the kaki to be prepared in time for New Year’s, they are hanged to dry for many days during autumn, adding a different note to Japanese balconies –mostly in the countryside but often in the cities as well.

Still, the most interesting aspect of kaki is that of its symbolism in Japanese culture: having only a very small window of life (it must be eaten when fully ripened, immediately before it starts rotting) and with a very strange sweet and sour taste and an astringent texture, it has become a synonym of the element of “shibui” (渋い) which means restraint in art and life; the subtleness apparent in classical Japanese art, the balance between simplicity and complexity, the combination of natural elements and subdued human intervention and the acceptance of imperfection are all aspects of this hard to describe quality that is so prevalent in classic Japanese aesthetics and that has managed to find its way even in the reality of skyscrapers, neon and J-pop. And maybe exactly because it is so hard to define the, always practical, Japanese refer to the kaki’s taste: one bite is worth a thousand words.

 

Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/

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