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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

Hotaru 螢火蟲

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

“Fireflies were like fairy tales. They appealed to the young, the old, and the imaginative. In a world of detestable insects, these bugs were the exception. They had an adorable way of flying so whimsically despite their butts being on fire.”

Angela Panayotopulos,The Wake Up

Japanese culture is exquisitely attuned to the four seasons of nature, and fireflies have been long been celebrated as a welcome harbinger of summer. Fireflies, known as Hotaru in Japan, have inspired numerous artists and writers....including one of my favourite Japanese singers Shizuoka Inoh - her rendition of Fireflies as a guide to travellers in the dark, and a fairy tale long forgotten by city dwellers:

螢火蟲螢火蟲慢慢飛 夏夜里夏夜里風輕吹 怕黑的孩子安心睡吧 讓螢火蟲給你一點光 燃燒小小的身影在夜晚 為夜路的旅人照亮方向 短暫的生命努力的發光 讓黑暗的世界充滿希望 螢火蟲螢火蟲慢慢飛 我的心我的心還在追 城市的燈光明滅閃耀 還有誰會記得你燃燒光亮

The word "Hotaru" first appeared in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) around 720 A.D., when firefly watching was mainly enjoyed by nobles before spreading to the masses and becoming part of Japanese culture.

I have long wanted to come view the fireflies in Kyoto with my Geisha friends. We know of many spots where we can view them during summer but the opportunity never came. Even though I visit Kyoto as many as four times a year, my visits were never during May, June or least not yet...

Just like in the case of cherry blossoms, the season of the fireflies starts from the south and gradually expands to the northern regions.

Fireflies are often said to be evidence of a pristine natural environment, and my Geisha friends say we can easily see them near a river not far from their teahouse. To appear, they need gently flowing, clean water, no wind, and a humid environment.

The glowing light is the courtship behaviour of fireflies. They glow to communicate between the male and the female. In Japan, fireflies are a metaphor for passionate love in poetry since Man'you-shu (the 8th century anthology), although some people also regard them as the souls of soldiers who have died in war. The two main species of fireflies in Japan, known as the Genji firefly and the Heike firefly, are named after two clans (aka Minamoto and Taira, respectively) who fought the Battle of Dannoura at sea off the southern tip of Honshu in 1185. The souls of the dead samurai were supposed to have transmuted into fireflies of the two different species. It also forms the centerpiece of a charming episode in the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, in which the hero provides his brother a glimpse of a beautiful woman’s face by releasing a bagful  of fireflies in her bedchamber.

Catching fireflies was considered an elegant past time in ancient Japan. The theme of Fireflies and Geishas is quite frequently seen in old Japanese paintings and woodblock prints. In reality, it will be difficult to photograph a Geisha in the forest at night - lighting alone will be difficult to achieve and to capture the lights of the fireflies, I would probably need to do a really long exposure, keeping the lens open for 5 to 15 minutes, and of course a tripod (Something which I dun usually carry)...Moreover, it will be hazardous to walk in the dark damp forest in those high wooden slippers and very expensive silk kimonos...hence I created a composite image. This photo was actually done in a real bamboo forest on a cold and wet evening during winter - as indicated by the snow blossoms on Maiko San's kimono and the kanzashi on her hair. The flower kanzashi in December is either the Mochibana or Maneki. Mochibana is decorating trees with rice cake, while Maneki is a wooden sign board on which a Kabuki actor’s name is autographed and displayed - basically auspicious items to welcome the upcoming new year. I then added in the fireflies. In reality, fireflies literally hibernate over winter during the larval stage. "Rebirth of the Fireflies" is a multi-award winning photo I did for my Geisha friend. It is probably the first/ rare Geisha and Firefly photos.

And for me, it is probably a dream come true to revisit a long forgotten fairy tale...because fireflies are special messengers that whisper in the dark, and every blink of a firefly's light says "Believe"...Believe, because Nothing can dim the light that shines from within...

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