Whenever boredom threatens, something in the Good Hood brings back the verve. Tonight it’s fireflies! June is firefly season in Japan and in my neighborhood, hidden away in the backstreets of Himeji city in western Honshu, word spreads fast: riverside is the place to be.
On the old bridge at the end of my street, where the Semba River cuts a swathe through the Good Hood, kids leap and squeal at tiny specks of golden light floating on the night air. ‘Smokin Joe’ Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who lives up the street, keeps his hair on. He stands on the bridge watching this aerial courtship with the air of a man who’s seen it all before. And to the light show he adds the glowing tip of his cigarette.
Healthy rivers attract fireflies. It’s a barometer of clean water says my old friend, Ono-san, who bundles me and her three elderly best friends into her Toyota minicar and carries us upcountry one night. For an hour she hugs the bends and straights of Hyogo prefecture’s Ichikawa River, until the paddylands turn to valleylands and farm hamlets disappear behind forest. We arrive at a tributary called the Okabe River and search its banks. Search for quite some time.
“Watch out for snakes,” says Ono-san.
“What about fireflies?” I ask.
“Still too light,” she replies.
“But I can hardly see you, ouch!”
The three ladies giggle like schoolgirls. So we stop and wait. We wait some more and they giggle some more. Then from out of the forest and across the water sweeps a cloud of blue and yellow sparks. Something mystical, otherworldly, thousands of tiny pulsing lights dipping and diving, floating and wheeling on the cool night air. The women squeal; the entire Okabe is quickly festooned in fairy lights.
But just as quickly as it begins, the show ends. A cloudburst sends down raindrops that’d fill a shot glass, splattering our backs and smacking the river’s surface. Dragon’s teeth mountains loom overhead, sheeted with rain. The fireflies retreat into the forest, the ladies retreat to the minicar. The smell of the land rises, damp and vegetative.
The Honshu hinterland offers spectacular firefly viewing in June. If you’re out and about, look for hand-painted signs with the hiragana characters ほたる, or “Hotaru.” Also keep an eye out for large groups of people in pyjamas pacing the watercourses and creeks. These are locals, people who know best (but not better than to walk around at night in their pyjamas).
Back in the Good Hood, it’s time for nostalgia. Ikeda-san, my 80-something-year-old neighbor, recalls the hot June nights of his childhood when he’d sleep outside with a mosquito net slung across him. He’d catch a jar full of fireflies, set them free inside and fall asleep to their pulsing glow.
Night-time colour is something we get a lot of in Himeji; the Yukata Festival comes to town this month! But let me tell you about that next week...
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!