(Kusaki mo nemuru ushi mitsu doki;
“In the dead night, when even the grass and trees sleep”)
A phrase describing the hushed, eerie early-morning hours. The dead of night. A time so late that not only people and animals, but even plants are asleep; a witching hour when ghosts and monsters may be out and about.
We begin with a compounding of the nouns 草 (kusa), often translated as “grass” but also referring to weeds and herbs of about that size, and 木 (ki), “tree.” Combined, kusaki refers to vegetation in general. This compound noun is followed by the emphatic particle も (mo), “even,” and then the verb 眠る (nemuru), “to sleep.” It turns out that this verb is in prenominal form because it is followed by a noun phrase comprising the noun 丑 (ushi), “cow,” number 三つ (mitsu), “three,” and noun 時 (usually toki, here pronounced doki due to the phonetic influence of the preceding words), “time.”
This phrase refers to the third part of the Hour of the Cow in an old, Chinese-zodiac-inspired system of telling the time. Each of the twelve “hours” that made up this system was more or less two of our modern hours long, of course, and divided into four half-hour segments. 丑三つ時 would be the time from about 2:00 to 2:30 in the morning.
There’s another idiom about “grass and trees”: 草木も靡く (kusaki mo nabiku), in which nabiku is “bow to” or “obey.” This phrase refers to an authority so great that “Even plants bow down” to it. Crossing the two sayings by adding 丑三つ時 after 靡く is considered an error.
On the other hand, replacing 三つ with homophone 満 (“to be full”) seems to be a rare but acceptable occurrence. (I like to think that this is because it was a popular pun, once upon a time.) On a more prosaic level, it seems that some people replace 時 with 刻 without any change in pronunciation or meaning.
Beginner students should take note that this 三つ is not pronounced like みっつ, with the strengthened consonant, in contrast to most modern usage.
(“Daigakusei no toki no baito wa mayonaka made atta. Kusaki mo nemuru ushi mitsu doki ni kaeru to, bukimi nagara mo shizuka de ochitsuku koto mo dekita.”)
[“The part-time job I had as a college student got out in the middle of the night. The way home in the dead of night was kind of eerie, but also quiet and relaxing.”]