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.
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.