The tradition of observing the changing pattern of the year is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. All aspects of the landscape are honored, but over the centuries certain plants and natural phenomena have gained special significance.
Parting the Seasons
Moments that seem to capture the transition from one season to another, such as spring snow falling on plum blossoms, are especially revered. These transitional moments, called "partings of the seasons," inspire artists, poets, factory workers and students to pause and reflect on nature's eternal rhythms.
Like other Asian peoples, the ancient Japanese used the lunar calendar, which is based on the phases of the moon. However, the lunar calendar does not account for all the days in a solar year and it cannot predict the dates of solstices and equinoxes.
The lunar calendar's shortcomings caused serious difficulties for the Japanese. They were farmers and forecasting the annual cycles of rain, drought, heat and cold were critical to their survival. Astronomers solved the problem by dividing the year into 28 moon stations or sei shuku, which signaled subtle changes in the seasonal cycle, star positions, wind or weather.
The lunar calendar and moon stations were officially abandoned in the 19th century, but the habit of carefully monitoring natural changes survived. Even though the Japanese people live in one of the most technologically advanced countries on Earth, they maintain their connection with the land, sky, and agricultural traditions of their ancestors by honoring the unique beauty of each of the four seasons.
The highlight of spring is the opening of the sakura or cherry blossoms. The appearance of the blossoms is so important that TV stations chart the progress of the "Sakura Line" from the moment the first tree opens in southern Japan until the last petals fall in the northernmost islands.
People travel great distances to participate in hanami, flower viewing, and to picnic under the trees. Cherry blossom season is a time to celebrate the arrival of spring and to compose poems known as haiku. But because the delicate blossoms' flowering cycle is so short, it is also a time to contemplate life's impermanence.
After the cherry trees finish blooming, the shobu or irises open. The iris is an ancient symbol of male virtue and perfection. The long pointed leaves resemble samurai swords and the flowers' full range of hues from white to purple are considered masculine colors. Although not as important as cherry blossom viewing, many people visit parks and public gardens in late spring to admire iris displays.
Summer is the season to celebrate bamboo and rice, the most revered plants in Japan. Take or bamboo symbolizes strength through flexibility. It is honored for its versatility and many practical uses. The tender young sprouts are delicious and the mature wood is used in projects ranging from light construction to the manufacture of chopsticks.
The powerful and complex symbolism associated with rice or ine includes nationalistic elements. Rice represents Japan's ability to feed its population, resist foreign influence and maintain its independence.
August is tsukimi or moon viewing time. In medieval Japan poets toasted the August full moon with rice wine or sake and allowed its "pure brilliance" to shine upon their faces. Even in today's crowded, light-polluted cities, people gather at dusk to relax on mats and spend the evening watching the August moon float through the warm night sky.
The kiku or chrysanthemum is the symbol of the Imperial family and the most beloved flower of autumn. In Japan, chrysanthemums are not used as outdoor garden plants. They are grown exclusively in pots. Hundreds of exotic varieties have been developed. People appreciate the hybrid forms for the obvious patience that goes into their cultivation. Chrysanthemum shows are popular fall events.
Autumn is also mojimi or tinted leaf viewing season. Families and groups of students and workers travel to the mountains in September and October for leaf hunting excursions, to gather mushrooms known as "children of the forest," and to listen to the humming cicadas or "voices of autumn."
Winter is the time to walk through the countryside and admire the quiet beauty snow gives to rocks, frozen streams and bare trees. In the bitterly cold northern islands, huge bonfires are built from pine branches. The pine tree or matsu symbolizes long life. Burning its branches helps chase away the cold and encourage an early spring.
Just when it seems winter will never end, another parting of the seasons occurs. The ume or apricot blossoms open and the cycle continues. Soon the insects will awaken, the tiny buds on the cherry trees will begin to swell and the icy moon will be softened by the warm mists of spring.