Japan enjoys all four seasons: spring (“shun”), summer (“ka”), fall (“shu”), and winter (“to”).
The country’s natural environment provides just the right amount of rain and exactly the right temperature to yield the fresh-and-delicious foods unique to each of the four seasons, including the rice and vegetables essential to the Japanese lifestyle. Yet the four seasons bring us more gifts than just food: each is rich in distinct scenery as well. Indeed, the entire landscape of Japan is decorated with gorgeous views that change through the seasons.
This is the season when the bare winter trees burst into brilliant green.
In Japan, spring is a time when people tend to take new steps in life. An example of this is that the new school year begins during this season. People take great pleasure in both daytime and nighttime “flower viewing” parties, often accompanied by sake-sipping. The buds burst into bloom (“sakura-zensen”) as the weather grows warmer, starting from the southernmost part of the country and gradually spreading to the northernmost. There are many well-known cherry blossom viewing spots in place such as Tokyo and Kyoto, drawing many sightseers who come out to witness the mesmerizing beauty of these blossoms.
The hottest season of the year, summer is also the time when the days are longest.
Summer is considered upon us when the peak temperature of the day rises to 25 degrees Celsius or more. When the mercury hits 30 degrees or higher, this is regarded as the height of the summer season. Japan gets so hot in the summer that temperatures may not fall below 25 degrees at any point during the day or night. Such nights are likened to tropical nights. Because it significantly influences the growth of rice plants, this heat is essential to the Japanese lifestyle, which depends on rice as its staple food. To keep cool in this blazing heat, Japanese people spread water on their gardens, place bamboo blinds on their windows, and even hang wind chimes, which make soothingly cooling sounds.
As we head into autumn, subsiding summer heat gives way to cooler morning and evening temperatures.
Fall is the time to harvest the crops carefully tended from spring through summer. The specialties of the mountains as well as seafood are also at their peak during the autumn months. Since many foods taste delicious during this time, the Japanese people speak of fall as “the season when everybody has a good appetite.” Also, as temperatures become more comfortable, the vibrant green leaves of the trees begin to change color, a time known as “koyo” (literally “crimson leaves”). Since two-thirds of Japan is covered with forest, the views of the trees are quite striking.
Winter is a time for snow festivals as well as for year-end celebrations around the country. It is also a time when people busily prepare for the coming year. On New Year’s Eve, people eat “New Year noodles” while listening to the New Year bells, believed to dispel the 108 worldly desires mentioned in Buddhism. Other old traditions include eating osechi, which is New Year cooking, ozoni soup, and more. Over the first few days of the New Year, people also make their first visit to the local shrine (“hatsumode”) to pray for good health and a prosperous year.
Then the cycle of seasons begins anew.