TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Eating UGUISU MOCHI In Anticipation of Japan’s Most Famous Sound of Spring

Japan's spring songster

Japan's spring songster

While the plum blossoms have burst open providing us with the encouraging SIGHTS and SMELLS of early spring, we have yet to hear the CALL, which in Japan has traditionally signalled the fact that spring has arrived in earnest — the cry of the male UGUISU (鶯), or bush warbler. The Japanese have long heard this distinctive chirp, which is actually a mating call, as HO-HOKEKYO (法 法華経), which also happens to be the name of one of Japanese Buddhism’s most famous sutras, The Lotus Sutra. Hear the actual sound here.

The sudden appearance of this melodic expression of avian yearning has been an inspiration for some of Japan’s greatest spring poems, though the bird itself is quite plain, with dull brown feathers, and is in fact a little difficult to spot.

Uguisu Mochi

Uguisu Mochi

Since the Edo Period (1600-1868), the Japanese have anticipated the first calls of the bush warbler, which is often translated using the more poetic sounding NIGHTINGALE, by eating a traditional sweet (wagashi) called UGUISU MOCHI (鶯餅). These are slightly oval-shaped rice cakes, sprinkled with green soy bean powder and filled with bean-paste, which are meant to suggest, rather abstractly, the birds of famous song. For me, it is ironic, however, that the green soy bean powder (in the Edo Period green tea powder was actually used), makes the sweets more reminiscent of the beautiful MEJIRO, or Japanese white-eye, than of the dull colored bush warbler. Since few people can actually recognize the UGUISU by sight, I guess that nobody takes note of this .

Uguisu Mochi

Uguisu Mochi seems to more closely resemble the MEJIRO

Uguisu Mochi seems to more closely resemble the MEJIRO

Uguisu Mochi will be on sale at WAGASHI SHOPS (traditional Japanese sweet shops) through mid-March. They can be bought individually, or as part of a set containing other early spring treats such as sakura mochi and yomogi mochi. This year I bought mine on the ground floor of Tsukuba’s Seibu department store at the HON-TAKASAGO-YA (本高砂屋) wagashi counter.

Spring wagashi set

Spring wagashi set

There is one more point I’d like to make. In Japanese culture there are certain traditional pairings of flowers and birds — with one of these being UGUISU and PLUM BLOSSOMS (梅にうぐいす ume ni uguisu). Because of this, the bush warbler and plum tree are often depicted together as a spring motif in Japanese arts and crafts. The fact is, however, that you will not very likely see UGUISU on a plum branch, as these these shy birds are usually taking shelter amid bamboo groves and woods. Within the next few weeks, however, you are more than likely to hear its famous call.

UGUISU- The bush warbler

UGUISU- The bush warbler



4 Comments

  • Abe says:

    Thanks Avi
    I checked about uguisu and mejiro in internet. They support your opinions, with the reasons of their colors, diets and wariness. I remembered that I found wild mejiro first time. I had never seen mijiro until 14 years ago, when I came toTsukuba from Hokkaido. I was very excited to see the birds, which could be seen only in encyclopedia. Although I heard the sound of uguisu, I have nerver seen it in Hokkido.

  • Avi Landau says:

    Thanks for your comment Abe-San.It is interesting how the UGUISU has become GREEN in Japan, in the same way that the GREEN light on traffic signals have become BLUE.

  • Heather says:

    Thanks for the info! I’ll have to have a look at my local wagashiya for uguisu mochi. I think I’ve been hearing one of them recently in the trees near my apartment. Had (frustrating) fun last year trying to see the little bird making such a funny noise. Now I know what it was! Thanks : )

  • Andrea says:

    Thanks….I heard this small bird singing its big song when I arrived at Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto in late March. I was entranced, and asked a Japanese man the bird’s name. He said ‘uguisu’. We couldn’t really see the bird. As we were listening, a group of elderly Japanese ladies came along and they all stopped and went ‘Oooooh!’ excitedly when they heard the song, so I guessed it might be a harbinger of spring. It was wonderful to see the ladies’ sheer pleasure at hearing the uguisu.