Winter is well and truly upon us, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Wild in Japan had hibernated. Mind you, with fridge-like temperatures in my room when it’s time to get up, frost on the ground, and the occasional frozen puddle on my way to work, hibernation does not sound such a bad idea.
Also, hibernation would mean avoiding the Japanese version of Christmas.
If you’re from the western world, Christmas is probably 90% commercial, with the remaining 10% being a mixture of “goodwill to men”, religious feelings, thoughts going to family and friends, and all that warm and gooey stuff. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the Japanese about that 10%…
To make matters worse, the Japanese have lots of misconceptions about the traditions they are trying to imitate. Many people believe that Christmas is December 24th, and that it is a time for couples to go on romantic dates. WHAM!’s “Last Christmas” is broadcast as a Christmas song (I don’t even think it should be counted as a song!) Chicken is considered a traditional Christmas dish, and KFC makes a killing at this time of year. And the Japanese concept of a Christmas cake is a normal sponge cake, decorated a little differently (and with the price increased accordingly)
So, what better time than now to introduce false holly?
Mention holly, and most people conjure up images of European holly, AKA common holly, English holly, Christ’s thorn or Christmas holly (Ilex aquifolium), which is the type species of the entire genus of hollies (estimated at between 400 and 600 species). Not all of these have the spiky leaves of European holly or even serrated leaves. Nor do all of them produce those red berries. In fact, the genus includes both evergreen and deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers, with a range from the tropics to cold temperate climes.
Some hollies, such as Japanese holly or box-leaved holly (Ilex crenata) and the tarajo holly (Ilex latifolia) are indigenous to Japan, but none of them look particularly like European holly.
Japan is home to a plant which looks as if someone tried to mimic European holly, but was only as successful as the one who tried to mimic Christmas. The plant is the false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus).
The false holly is known locally as hiiragi (柊 or less commonly疼木 or 柊木). The characters used to write the name are interesting as the first and third ones contain the radical “tree” plus “winter”, whereas the second one contains “tree” and “hurt”, no doubt a reference to the spiky leaves.
Although the shape of the leaves is similar, probably with the common objective of deterring larger herbivores, false holly leaves are arranged in an opposite pattern, as opposed to the European holly’s alternate pattern. The fruit is dark purple and appears in summer.
Growing between two and eight metres in height, false holly has found uses as the preferred wood for stone-cutting tools, but more often as a hedge plant. It grows taller than tea or azalea – the two other major hedge plants – and the spiky leaves act as an extra deterrent to intruders. I see a number of these on my way to and from work every day.
In addition to the practical use, false holly plays a part in cosmology. It is said to deter demons from entering a house, especially when planted in the north-east in conjunction with sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica), or nanten (南天), planted in the south-west.
It is also used in Setsubun celebrations (the lunar calendar New Year’s Eve), with leaves nailed to the gate with the head of a sardine head. This “decoration” is known as hiiragiiwashi (柊鰯), which is simply the names of the plant and the fish put together. The smell of the sardine head is said to either drive demons away, or attract them to the false holly leaves, which stick in their eyes and blind them. This site has a lot of information on the subject (in Japanese)
In the Kojiki, Prince Yamato Takeru is said to have been given a false holly eight-span spear, hiiragi no yatsuhiro hoko (比比羅木之八尋矛). Some commenters argue that the hiiragi part of the name was a description of the blade’s shape; others claim that the shaft was false holly; and others suggest the name reflects its demon-conquering powers. Whatever the reason, between the grass-cutting sword and the eight-span spear, Takeru had some nice toys.
The false holly may be a poor substitute for European holly at Christmas, but it is a plant that should be admired in its own right and not be compared to others.