Japan’s Rich Tradition of Seasonal Reflection
The Seasons in Japan
Japan is an elongated archipelago situated in a narrow longitudinal corridor. The seasons announce themselves uniformly, though there are slight periodic variations depending on latitude. Nakahigashi is located in Kyoto, where the seasons tend to be very stable; equivalent in length year after year.
More than 1200 years ago the indigenous worldview of the Japanese people, Shinto, gave birth to a widely varied swirl of ceremonies and events directly keyed to observing the change of seasons and the meaning it holds for the order and purpose of life. From their earliest history the people of Kyoto have preserved and practiced those traditions diligently ? learning from them, building on them ? innovating without ever losing sight of their origin and essence.
Here we’ll talk about the four seasons as we see them in Kyoto ? how we see ourselves as descended from all those who worked the land, and for whom the seasonal imperatives forged a path that took form in Shinto ceremonies and observances that wound their way through our history.
January / Mutsuki
- 1st to 3rd
- On the morning of January 1st Kyoto homes make use of a traditional earthen
hearth usually called the kamado ? though Kyoto dwellers have a special
honorific name, O-Kudosan ? to cook that special holiday’s rice, rice being
among the most sacred gifts of Earth’s bounty. They fire the hearth in
the ancient way, with flint, an act that’s said to scare off the “spirit
of evil”. They make a traditional soup called O-zoni (the “O” being a designation
of special honor), which has variously interpreted ingredients but always
includes soft, chewy o-mochi, pounded rice cakes. The zoni is an offering
to the inhabitants of the “world beyond”, first and foremost, but it is
consumed over the next three breakfasts by the family.
- Variations in o-zoni include the ingredients, size and shape of the mochi, and so on, depending on region. In Kyoto round mochi is the thing, along with kashira imo, a large type of taro root, and thinly-sliced daikon, a heavy white radish, whose disks in the mix are symbolic of good fortune.
February / Kisaragi
- The day before Risshun, the first day of spring on the lunar calendar, is called Setsubun. In Kyoto this is typically the coldest period of the year, making that day one on which the anticipation of spring is at its most concentrated. Owing to a very concrete understanding of the abstract concepts of inside and outside the home, and to the symbolic value of Setsubun as being like a “doorway” between two very different seasons, there are acts that signify its importance. People place a sort of wreath decoration comprising holly and a dried sardine’s head at the entrance of their house. They eat a special variety of sushi, ehomaki, solely at this time. And they engage in a playful ritual where they stand at the entrance to the home and toss handfuls of soybeans out into the open. “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!” they shout, “Demons out, good fortune in!” And it’s said that if one eats the number of soybeans equal to one’s years, plus one, it’ll add another healthy year to their life. The Setsubun festival at the Yoshida Mountain shrine in Kyoto attracts tens of thousands of pilgrimages over three days annually.
- 4th and 5th
- The lunar calendar has 24 seasonally designated periods, and Risshun represents the beginning of the cycle. It falls around the fourth or fifth of February, specifically when the sun reaches a 315 degree position in the sky. The night that precedes it was thought of since antiquity as a special portal through which the entire previous year “passes away”, and the days following are the traditional lunar New Year. It’s still rather chilly in Kyoto, but with the sun high against the horizon and the days seeming longer, these days become a meditation on the subtle heralds of spring to come. On these mornings Zen temples post talismans at their entrances with symbols representing the spring and good fortune.。
March / Yayoi
- Hinamatsuri is the Girl’s Festival. Also known as Joshi No Sekku, it appears
to have taken an interesting route from its origin as an ancient Chinese
purification rite. There is a custom followed throughout Japan at this
time, Nagashi-bina, involving floating small Hina dolls, which take the
form of idealized princesses, on a body of water. It’s said to interpret
the scene of ancient Chinese devotees bathing themselves in a sacred river
to drive evil spirits from their lives. The princesses of the royal court
during Japan’s Heian Era, about a millennium ago, prettified the picture
by employing stylized dolls in their place, and the Hinamatsuri was born.
It originated in Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shrine where, right on temple property,
is a small inlet of the waters flowing beneath Kyoto. Considered to be
consecrated, it is referred to as the Mitarashigawa. The settings of unearthly
beauty and exquisite accessories that today represent the observance of
this peach-blossom festooned festival began around the turn of the 17th
- The fare served during contemporary Hinamatsuri celebrations is bara-sushi. Unlike typical sushi, raw fish is replaced with dried, along with kampyo (dried gourd), shiitake, koya-tofu (which has been somewhat “freeze-dried”, giving it a special, spongy texture that let’s it absorb the flavors of the spices it’s seasoned with). These ingredients are topped with thin strips of nori seaweed, and small strips of egg omelet and pickled ginger.
April / Uzuki
April is the month when Kyoto truly shows off its colors. The entire region is aflutter with cherry blossom festivities, and visitors pour in from all over Japan to view the subtle variations and attractions at all the famous sites. The Somei Yoshino cherry blossom blooms along the Tetsugaku no Michi ? the Philosopher’s Walk, as well as alongside the river Kamogawa and the canal adjoining Lake Biwa. At the Heian Jingu shrine the cherry blossoms are of the variety Benishidare, Ninnaji and Bokusenji temples each boast their own respective varieties, Omuro- and Usuzumi-sakura. It’s a beauty competition wherein the selection overwhelms.
It is again the aristocracy of the Heian era, just about one thousand years ago that is said to be responsible for today’s ubiquitous and fervent observation of cherry blossoms; but in fact farmers had practiced hanami, tree-watching since time immemorial as a means of divining the season to come from their animistic world view, and foretelling the harvest to be reaped. The word sakura means “cherry blossom”. The etymology of the word breaks down to sa, which represents the spirit inhabiting the rice stalk, and kura, the “throne of the divine”. Thus, the sight of the cherry blossom was viewed as welcoming in the spirit of the rice, the presence of which portended prosperity and good fortune in the form of the Earth’s great bounty.
Cherry blossoms vary in both color and shape, ranging from white to pale scarlet, and sporting two or five petals per blossom. Beginning at the end of March, the Somei Yoshino type appear across the city, but in Maruyama Park one finds the “Weeping Cherry”, the Shidare-zakura. A month later you’ll see the Omuro-zakura arriving at the edges of town, and soon after the blossoms begin to appear on the mountain known as Kitayama. It is as if the spirit of the cherry blossom joins a gradual procession from the center of town to the outskirts, and up along the mountainsides.
May / Satsuki
Kyoto’s microclimate is the result of its being enclosed by mountains on three sides. In May, the most temperate month, one can feel the verdant greenery on the breezes that flow off the mountains’ surfaces as leaves burst on the awakening branches that clothe them. These winds usher in the Aoi Matsuri, the “Hollyhock Festival”, with its accompanying Shinto ceremonies and rituals. Other markers start to appear, such as the noryo yuka, small outdoor dining alcoves on the banks of the Kamogawa, that remind people of their position on nature’s annual course through the world, and summer’s approach.
- 2nd and 3rd
- The number 8 was filled with meaning for the ancients. The 88th day out from the start of spring (Risshun) is called Hachijyu-hachiya, “Eighty Eight Nights”. In itself it seems insignificant, but because of the regularity of Kyoto’s seasons, it is always around this time that the morning frost changes to dew, and that means the time for sowing seeds is at hand. At tea farms the essential first pruning is done, as all of the initial buds have opened. But the visual reminder is the character for the number eight itself. It’s this [八], and it looks like a handheld fan unfurled. It’s said that if you take time on this day to ponder the moment, drink tea, perhaps fan yourself in anticipation of the coming summer, it will add to your days on the Earth.
- Along with the Gion Matsuri and the Jidai Matsuri (the “Festival of the Ages”), the Aoi (Hollyhock) Matsuri rounds out Kyoto’s “Big Three” festivals. During the Heian era, when Kyoto’s culture was being formed, the word “matsuri” was basically synonymous with Aoi Matsuri. And around 567 CE the festival came to be celebrated with the running of a horse garlanded with bells, rung to quell the wrath of the deity mediating the harvest which, historically, had been plagued for some time. The festival took on, in a sense, a life and death dimension. The mood is more subdued today. Mackerel, a fish that signifies plenty and good fortune, is shared three ways: over vinegared rice, seasoned only with salt and vinegar, and wrapped in bamboo leaves. It’s the sharing, the joining of friends and family, that is the focus of the big three festivals today.
June / Minazuki
June is the heart of the rainy season, and it pours daily. But surprisingly, its poetic name is Minazuki, the “Drought Month”. The reason is the rice planting. In the old world when farmers all took to the field for planting they diverted water from the local streams to flood their paddies. The streams suddenly ran dry, and it is this image that gave rise to the name “Drought Month”. That tone extends across much of Japan during this time, with many accompanying religious ceremonies, customs, and pageants that celebrate the time of planting, a task that is approached with due solemnity and cautious hope.
- At the grand Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine the Otaue Matsuri, the Shinto festival of the planting season, is celebrated with a ceremonial replanting of rice shoots into sacred soil. In ancient times a young, female novitiate of the shrine would lead a sacred dance, dressed in full religious garb, while another thirty young maidens carefully planted the early seedlings, the underlying tone being one of vitality and fertility. Today the festivities are more playful than ponderous.
- Red beans, perhaps because of their color, are said to ward off evil. White is the color of rice and its pounded confection-like counterpart, o-mochi (the “o” being honorific). Red and white are the traditional colors of Shinto, and therefore of the indigenous worldview of Japan. Minazuki is both the name of the month and a special confection eaten then. It’s red beans sheathed in a triangular envelope of white mochi. And it’s delicious, but strangely, it started as a “make-do” in lieu of something more precious. There was an ancient Kyoto ritual involving bringing ice, an intensely rare commodity, to the imperial palace in a ceremony called Himuro no Sekku. Common folk could never in their lives hope to possess actual ice, but minazuki were a fine and sweet substitute, and potent symbols of good fortune to boot. It’s believed that by eating minazuki on June 30th, the date when the first half year terminates (called Nagoshi no Harae), you can release yourself from all misfortune suffered in the prior six months and spend the next half year in good stead, safety, and solace.
July / Fumizuki
Summer in Kyoto can be unpleasantly hot and humid, the downside of being in a basin, shielded by mountains. The placid climate most of the year takes on the character of steamer with the lid on, and even in shade the perspiration flows.
But July is a month-long festival nonetheless, with the Gion Matsuri running from the 1st to the 31st. It’s another of the great festivals that visitors travel from far and wide to see, and the town becomes abuzz with joyful energy.
- From 1st to 31st
- The Gion Matsuri or Gion Goryo-e, as it’s officially known, is one of the
largest festivals held in Japan, and historically, likely the oldest, with
a known history that dates back 1100 years. In 869 CE infectious disease
plagued the populace. In response, it appealed to the ancient salutary
Indian Buddhist demigod Gomaya Griva Deva Raja also known as Gavagriva,
and in Japanese Gozu Tenno.
- Gomaya Griva Deva Raja then became one with a rather ferocious and malevolent Shinto deity known as Susano no Mikoto who holds custodianship of storms and seas, and is closely associated with the oftentimes wild storms of summer. His shrine is the Yasaka Shrine, located in Kyoto’s Gion district. On the night of the 17th an event occurs called Jinkosai, when the spirit of the shrine inhabits the smaller vessel known as the mikoshi (technically a “divine palanquin”). This smaller vessel, though still so large it requires a procession of stout men to carry it on their shoulders, is circulated through the district. The goal is to mollify the angry god, to soften him and make him smile. So the local community groups come together, dressed in traditional finery, to parade the mikoshi and regale it with song and dance. Kyoto’s townspeople have been carrying on this tradition unfailingly despite upheavals, fires, and other sorts of distractions and disasters. These gatherings ? 23 of them on the 17th, 10 on the 24th ? parade through a town that’s been transformed into a living repository of traditional arts and crafts ? so much so that these events have come to be thought of as the “moving museum”. It is this that best characterizes the feeling of the great Gion Festival.
- The Gion Matsuri draws to a close with a sort of sub-festival called Nagoshi Matsuri. Throngs of supplicants file through the shrine’s torii, or ceremonial gate, which has been outfitted with a circular thatched portal. The evil and ill-will, the things that tarnished the soul over the prior half year, are thereby stripped from them, and they go forward cloaked in a sense of well-being and health.
It’s still quite hot in Kyoto, but the gentle breezes carrying the song of crickets in the fields hint at the approach of autumn. This is the season of O-bon, when our world coincides most closely with the world of those we are connected to who have stepped into the beyond. Gozan no Okuribi is the ceremonial bonfire that marks its end, and represents the utmost expression of the seasonal traditions of Kyoto.
- This day was known in olden times as Tonomu no Sechi. “Tonomu” is the new rice sprout, and while today the day is known as Hassaku, its essential meaning remains. It’s a day when people give thanks for the new harvest of rice, to celebrate the cycle it’s a part of, and to prevail upon the powers that be for another abundant crop. The associated festival is the Hassaku Matsuri. The focus of all the Shinto shrines in the region is the same, to entreat the deities to give their blessings to the crops. The sight of fields filled with bending rice stalks heralds autumn.
- Japan’s philosophical heart is divided between the precepts of the indigenous Shinto religion and Buddhism, which came to Japan just around fifteen centuries ago, but inculcated itself into the fabric of culture completely. The Gozan no Okuribi bonfire is commonly thought of as the Buddhist O-bon. For this ceremony gargantuan Chinese characters are formed on five mountainsides, and at precisely 8:00 p.m. they’re set ablaze in a specific order, beginning with the character “dai” [大], meaning “large” or “great”. This ceremony is said to date from Japan’s Muromachi era, around the 14th century CE, when the practice of Buddhism grew beyond the confines of the elite to the people of the land. The apocryphal story of this practice’s origin states that once there was a fire at the Jodo Temple that sits at the foot of Mount Daimonji. The principal deity of the temple, the Buddha known by the Sanskrit name Amitabha, leapt to the summit of the mountain to escape it and his footprints spelled out the character for great. The Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi took this sign in light and determined that it should never be extinguished, and so the sacred tradition continues year after year. Seeing it inspires the contemplation of a paradise that exists for those who pursue it in earnest.
Hot days give way to cooler nights and slightly chilly mornings as September begins. Now the heads of the rice stalks are in heavy bloom and red dragonflies swoop among them. Chushu no Meigetsu is the harvest moon. On that night people bathe in its strong glow while partaking of the season’s offerings: nogi, a sheaf of native grass; dango, rice pasta dumplings with sweet red bean filling; and seasonal crops like the taro root and other local specialties. This is a preamble to the harvest celebrations to come, and has served as an ongoing seasonal acknowledgment of the importance of agrarian culture.
- There’s a strong numerological element attached to the ancient beliefs, and certain dates, because of their numerical place in the cycle, conveyed either positive or negative associations. The 9th was one such “charged” day, called sekku. At first considered a bad omen because it was the largest odd integer in a given set, it later took on a positive, even celebrated association. The name went from choyo no sekku, which referred strictly to its number, to kiku no sekku, invoking the chrysanthemum, a symbol of Japan that holds vast, sacred meaning. On this day people decorate their houses with the flower, and perhaps drink sake infused with chrysanthemum, and they implore the deities for health and longevity. These days there are fewer choyo festivities across Japan, but one tradition that is celebrated at Kyoto’s Kamigamo Shrine continues to capture the country’s imagination. There the priests offer lengths of kikunose-wata, a special cotton that has been bathed in the fragrance of the chrysanthemum, overnight. Another part of the festivities is to have young boys from the local “parish” engage in the traditional sport of Sumo wrestling (which, it is not widely known, has its origins in religious practice as well). They call it karasu-zumo or “Crow Sumo”, and again, it’s not so much about athleticism as about contemplation of the earth’s wondrous cycle of change, and the hope that our care and respect for it will be regarded beneficently and rewarded with good health and triumph over evil.
The month’s traditional name, Kannazuki, has the ominous meaning “godless month”, or “month of the gods’ absence”. It’s because during this time the eight million(!) gods in the Shinto pantheon are said to convene elsewhere, in Izumo, Tottori Prefecture. Thus, in Izumo the month is conversely referred to as Kamiarizuki, “the month of the gods’ presence”, and includes ceremonies to welcome the gods on the beach known as Inasa no Hama. Residents of Tottori have their own complex take on tradition, holding a diverse variety of autumn rites and festivals that celebrate the bounteous harvests. The multifarious events spotlight much of what Japanese people have come to hold dear as the fruits of nature: flowers, sake, tea, rice and more.
- The Jidai Matsuri, or “Festival of the Ages” has a notably short history
of just 120 or so years. Nevertheless, it’s possibly the most popular of
the “big three” festivals. It was established as a commemoration of Kyoto’s
status as the nation’s capital over the roughly 1100 year stretch from
794 CE through the end of the 19th century, with only a brief interruption.
The festival truly sets the autumn scene in Kyoto most comprehensively,
with its color, events and overall character.
- This period marks the culmination of the Gion Matsuri in the form of the Shinko-sai, a ceremony played out at Kyoto’s Heian Jingu shrine, among Japan’s holiest, with strong ties to the imperial household. At noon between two and three thousand celebrants dressed in authentic costumes representing the period from the Heian/Enryaku eras (around the 8th century CE) to the beginning of the Meiji era (1863 to 1912) gather at the site of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, whereupon the sanctified, phoenix-topped mikoshi are carried in processions from the Kenrei Mon gate through town to the Heian Jingu shrine.
November / Shimotsuki
Now the warmth gives way to cold day by day, and with every rain the chill descends. Shimotsuki is the “month of frost”. As it proceeds the mountains take on an increasingly redder hue until they look afire. The sight of the sacred temples against the fiery mountains at the height of the tourist season has come to be the classic scenic view of Kyoto. At this point the complexion of the celebrations is 180 degrees different from that of the spring.
Later in November the approach of winter feels more acute. Farm families and food makers begin activities associated with the season and the long time indoors, like pickling and brewing sake.
- The national harvest ceremony, Niiname-sai, involves the emperor (who himself was traditionally regarded as a divinity). He presents rice, sake, and other harvest treasures as offerings to the deities, then ritually partakes of these things, all as an expression of thanksgiving. Across Kyoto, at different locations, people participate in the Hitaki ritual fire ceremony, wherein new crop rice stalks are given up as a burnt offering before each of the city’s many shrines. Gratitude is the theme, and hope is raised for the household and the health of its members, for happiness to come, and for good fortune to rain down on the world.
As the leaves dry and their color flees, and they gather in profusion beneath our feet, we look up to see the mountains clothed in the tones of winter.
The month’s traditional name, Shiwasu, is most apt. It breaks down to shi-, a teacher or scholar, and ?hasu, to run. What it suggests is that even the most genteel of townsmen are running about frantically. That’s because from the 13th, the day called koto-hajime, the ”beginning of things”, the Gion district springs to action with preparations for the New Year’s celebration. The bustle intensifies along with the excitement and anticipation.
- 7th to 10th
- Its origins are hazy, but during this time the Buddhist temples hold daikontaki. Daikon, the large white Asian radish has become a bit better known in the West, but the daikon that appears in Kyoto during this time is not typical. It’s exclusive to Kyoto and exceptionally large. It’s called shogoin daikon, a name that conveys a connection to the sacred, and appropriately, it’s associated with a number of special health benefits, said to impart long life and ward off neurological and muscular deficiency. These special daikon, as well as everyday varieties, are cooked in enormous kettles, measuring a meter in diameter, and people come from far and wide to enjoy them. In the midst of the cold winter’s chill it’s easier to relax and enjoy Kyoto’s scenery with a steaming bowl of vegetable stew that could only come from this place.
- 21st to 22th
- The winter solstice brings the shortest day and longest night of the year. According to traditional medicinal prescription, this is the time to bath in water steeped in yuzu, the Japanese citron, in order to cleanse oneself both physically and metaphysically. Another food that many believe has salutary benefit is the pumpkin known as kabocha. Eating it is said to allay stroke, paralysis, and other neurological maladies. In fact the “rule of thumb” is that if one eats the seven foods that contain the sound of the consonant “n” doubled it will bode well for success in life. In the Japanese language this would include ninjin (carrot), renkon (lotus root), and ginnan (gingko nuts). Like many traditional remedies, the more science learns about these foods, the more they find agreement with the ancient wisdom on them.