Ah, to be in Japan, now that spring is here… or fall… or winter…
The fours seasons in Japan are fondly admired and quite distinct. Each is regarded in as a step in an endless cycle, each one bringing its own food, festivals and sights. From the hanami picnics of spring to the ski-and-onsen trips of the frigid winters, or the beach parties all over the archipelago, Japan’s seasons are yet another reason for the Japanese – and for visitors – to explore the many seasonal facets of Japan.
The Japanese insist that their four seasons are particularly unique, and while that may smack of chauvinism to some – and fair enough – it’s also a fact that, like everything else, the seasons are a bit different in Japan. After all, there are cherry trees blooming every spring all over the temperate world, from northern Spain to Washington, DC, but there is nothing quite like the cherry blossoms in Kyoto or other parts of Japan.
So let’s start with spring (haru), when the Japanese love of nature is repaid in kind by a natural display of color that is hard to match. Not only are the cherry (sakura) trees sprouting their famous and much-beloved colors – TV stations track the march of the bloom as it moves northeast across Japan as though it were a hurricane – but the other flowering trees so beloved of the Japanese – plus plums (satsuma) and dogwood (Hanamizuki no ki) – are also blooming this time of year, and a walk around Kyoto, in particular, is almost dizzying in its delightful mass of colors. Cherry petals collect in the city’s small canals, pile up in drifts against buildings and float through the air like snowflakes, leading to the phrase sakura fubuki, literally “cherry blossom snowstorm.”
The sakura blossom underlines the ways in which the Japanese see the passing of seasons as a metaphor, not just a meteorological event. The fleeting beauty of the sakura blossoms is widely seen as a metaphor for our own, human insignificance and temporary existence. It’s not a heavy thing, but the Japanese acknowledge this in their celebrations.
The Japanese celebrate with hanami, a picnic under the blooming trees that is addressed elsewhere. When visiting Japan in the spring, be sure to be prepared for any weather, including wind, rain and cold: Japan is, for the most part, a northern country, and a rainy one at that. Spring can bring just about any weather.
Summer (natsu) in Japan is hot and humid, with the exception of far-northern Hokkaido island, so be prepared to sweat. Tokyo, in particular, can be oppressive simply because of the massive number of cars, buildings and people, all of which create even more heat. In addition, June, most of which is still technically spring, is also the rainy season (tsuyu), so be prepared with an umbrella at least.
But the Japanese make the most of their humid summers, and for many, summer boils down to fireworks (hanabi): The Chinese may have invented them, but the Japanese have a passion for fireworks that can result in some of the most spectacular and uniquely-artistic fireworks displays possible. The annual fireworks (hanabi taikai) held on the Sumida River in Tokyo draws more than a million people every summer, as it has since 1733! Then there’s the beach, a plentiful commodity in an island nation. One popular game in summer is suikawari (literally, split the watermelon), a game that turns even the most timid office worker into a sword-wielding samurai. Summer in Japan also means baseball, and rice fields so green, they seem almost electric.
Autumn (aki) comes to Japan the way spring comes in, with winds, foliage changes, and the added element of typhoons (hurricanes in the Western hemisphere) which can cause considerable damage in the archipelago. The landscape is sheathed in a riot of colors, this time the dying of the leaves, particularly of Japan’s ubiquitous maples and their koyo (red leaves). The hills around the country are seemingly draped in color, especially the maples, which are of course world-renowned. But there are also chestnuts (kuri) and persimmons (kaki). As the weather cools, if it’s clear, the tradition of moon-viewing (tsukimi) lingers, though it’s nowhere near as popular as hanami. One popular place to see fall colors is Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, but one need do no more than be in nature to be overwhelmed by the beauty of Japan in the autumn.
One other thing about Japanese autumn is that many vegetables, mushrooms and fish come into season then, and a phrase often used is shokuyoku no aki, which literally means “appetizing autumn,” or “Autumn is the season for eating.” Indeed it is.
Finally, winter in mountainous Japan means, among other things, skiing in the Japanese Alps, and plenty of action for the numerous onsen that are dotted around the archipelago. Nagano and the surrounding mountains are world-class ski areas, but the prices aren’t: 3000-5000 yen ($30-50, fewer in euros) will get you a lift ticket for the day, a fraction of what skiing in the US costs. And then there are those onsen afterwards.
There’s also the Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) in Sapporo every February, which draws thousands of tourists to Hokkido to see its magnificent ice sculptures. And of course, Fuji-san never looks quite as majestic as when it has a mantle of snow and the air is clear and crisp. The area known as Shirakawa-go, along the Sho river in Gifu, draws crowds with the beautifully-lit, snow-covered houses of the area.
Ultimately, the four seasons in Japan are just another part of an overall sensibility that has the Japanese as sensitive to their environment as ever, appreciative of nature and always ready to celebrate their good fortune at being born in this beautiful country.