Only In Japan

Thursday, May 10, 2007

4 seasons

It might sound really strange, but most Japanese people are sure that only Japan has 4 distinct seasons. I never really managed to understand why, or to get a decent explanation; if you have a good theory, I'm eager to hear it!

Anyway, the seasonal cycle is very important to the Japanese; probably much more so than in the West. This, I think, derives from the influence of religion on culture: whereas for the religions of the Book, life and the universe move on a straight line from the Creation to Judgement Day, the Japanese religions both describe life and the universe as parts of a cycle. In Buddhism, everything dies and is reborn forever; and Shinto is an animistic cult of Nature, and as such obviously very concerned with the cycle of the seasons.

This importance of the seasonal cycle is visible in many different things: for example, most restaurants offer distinctly seasonal meals and menus, and place an emphasis on using mainly seasonal ingredients. It is common in the West to find any and all fruits and vegetables all year round, even those normally available for only a short period every year, like strawberries; but I don't think that trend will ever catch up in Japan.

Some foods are particularly strong symbols of each season: thus tangerines and hotpots are associated with winter, strawberries with spring, shaved ice and broiled eel with summer, mushrooms and chestnuts with autumn...

Fashion is also very much a seasonal thing. Japanese women have it especially hard! If they want to keep up with their peers, they have to switch clothes, make-up, accessories, and shoes at least 4 times a year. Jeans all year round won't cut it... But if you enjoy looking at women, Japan is paradise: in spring, skirts get shorter and fresh colours reign; summer has everyone dressed very short and colourful, and many women wear yukata (light cotton kimono) to the festivals and fireworks. In autumn, earthen and natural colours are the norm, and boots are everywhere. It's a very nice season! Winter is a bit duller and there is no fixed fashion, but every year the fashion industry cooks something up; also, women feel freer to wear what they really like in winter, so there is more variety than in other seasons.

Each season also has its distinctive festivals and parties:
Spring has ohanami, very popular parties where people gather in parks to eat, drink, and admire the blossoming cherry trees.
Summer has many fireworks, and of course Obon, one of the most important religious events of the year, in which ancestor spirits come back to Earth for a few days and are honoured during various ceremonies. Obon is also a good occasion to relax for Japanese people: all companies close for a few days, and families can spend some time together, go to the beach, or have a barbecue.
Autumn has momiji, which might be translated as "red leaves parties": people go to the countryside and admire the maple trees in their autumnal colours. Of course, eating and drinking are also part of the fun... In September, the Japanese used to have otsukimi, moon-viewing parties, during which friends would meet in the evening, and drink and make poems in honour of the moon. But nowadays, most people live in big cities where the moon is rarely clearly seen, so that beautiful tradition is rarely heard of anymore.
Winter has only one major event: oshogatu, or New Year's Day. It is the year's most important celebration, a time when almost everyone is on holiday, and when families watch TV together for days on end, go to the local shrine, and eat oseichi ryori, traditional food prepared only during oshogatsu. Some people love that time of the year, some people hate it... Pretty much like Christmas in the West, I guess!

Much more could be said about the four seasons in Japan, but of course the best thing is to come and experience them firsthand! And then you will be able to answer one of the most common questions Japanese people ask, "what is your favourite season?"


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