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Japan and its Seasons

Cherry blossoms in Japan – images of the annual blooming season are world-famous and attract many visitors, even though nowadays, the spectacle of pink petals can even be admired as far away as Bonn. But it is not just the blossoms that make o-hanami so special. It is the entire ensemble.

Text · Stefanie Kobayashi

Japan’s original religion, Shintoism, is characterised by a belief in the powers of nature. Translated literally as “Way of the Gods”, it essentially honours and thanks all the spirits, gods and forces of nature – the kami who are supernatural beings that inhabit all things, by bringing small sacrifices. In this context, records dating back more than 1200 years mention celebrations that observe the spring blooms. And even though peach (momo) and plum (ume) both bloom before cherries (sakura), it is the cherry bloom that marks the beginning of the rice growing season and is therefore welcomed with ceremonial gifts laid at the roots of the trees. The imperial court adopted this custom and hosted banquets with plenty of sake served underneath the blooming cherry trees and since the Edo period (1600 – 1687), even the common people began celebrating hanami.

So, while the weather outside is slowly warming up and the pink blossoms are beginning to open, Japanese people are drawn outside, away from their Winter routines, to greet the new Spring, while at the same time many thousands of tourists stream into the country to witness the spectacle. Thanks to Japan’s various climatic zones, the cherry blossom season moves from the South in approximately mid-March towards the North, where the blossoms take until the end of April, sometimes even May, to open. Many regions of Japan have special locations where the celebration is particularly beautiful to behold, for instance with the picturesque volcano Mount Fuji in the background or on Miyajima Island, with its Torii Gate surrounded by water, or in front of Himejijō, the brilliantly white castle at Himeji. However, to really get immersed in Japanese culture, it is particularly the parks in Tokyo like Ueno and Yoyogi that are popular and where the spectacle turns into a celebration each year.

Armed with picnic blankets, people secure one of the fought over places underneath the cherry trees, unpack their o-bento – an entire lunch compressed into a small box – plenty of beer and sake and then set out to have a good time – and some even drink themselves into oblivion. Because it is so beautiful.

Even though many Japanese tend to be rather shy and introvert, or at least polite to a fault, such celebrations can get pretty noisy – and Japanese like to party. Many of the celebrations are meant to honour the aforementioned gods and consequently, every season holds corresponding feasts (matsuri) according to which it is easy to organise a holiday in Japan.

Once the very short-lived cherry blossom has become a symbol of transitoriness, other flowers begin to bloom and those who like to look at nature’s beauty will love Japan. Of course, nature here at home is no less beautiful, but do we even still really look at it? On holiday in foreign places, we tend to be more relaxed and open to new colours, smells and impressions, which we soak up as if every day needed preserving in our memories. In the aforementioned Ueno Park in Tokyo for instance, peonies take over as main attractions from mid-April, and not only delight visitors with their gorgeous blossoms but also with the touching way the locals protect them from the already powerful rays of the sun with paper umbrellas.

Not far North of Tokyo, surrounded by mountains, lies the town Chichibu with its adjoining national park Chichibu-Tama-Kai, which is a pleasure to nature lovers in any season, even in Winter. On the way there, a visit to the town of Kawagoe is also worthwhile. The town is nicknamed Small Edo, due to its old warehouses. In October, a matsuri with parade floats takes place here, a tradition dating back to the 17th Century.

But to go back to the topic of Spring. At the beginning of April, there is another rather curious celebration in Kawasaki, not far from Tokyo: The Kanamara Matsuri. Here, they celebrate the “Festival of the Steel Phallus”, where the gods are asked to provide fertility and safe births, something that is probably a good idea in a country with serious population ageing. This festival, too, goes back to the 17th Century, when prostitutes held solemn parades through the streets during the cherry blossom season to pray for good business and protection from syphilis. To top this all off, there is a curious story about this shrine and this festival, in which a virgin was possessed by an enamoured demon with sharp teeth. Well, you can probably imagine where this demon took up shop and what he consequently did to two young men… until he cracked his teeth on a steel phallus!

Early Autumn brings typhoon season and last year, these were formidable. Last October, monster typhoon Hagibis made landfall not far from Tokyo on an unusual course and with its 1400 kilometres diameter, it could have swallowed up the entire island of Honshu. Fortunately, it lost a lot of energy before reaching land and dropped from category five to two, which still brought enough rain to turn rivers into raging torrents in mere hours. Tokyo came very close to being partly flooded, but the gods seem to have been merciful. Instead, other prefectures were hit that seem to be regular recipients of such bad luck: Chiba, Fukushima and Nagano had to cope with water up to the house roofs.

Towards the end of October, temperatures drop to around 20 degrees Celsius, returning the climate to more comfortable levels. This is a time to go into the forests and to feast on their fruits – it is astonishing how many delicacies Japanese manage to turn chestnuts into. But you can read about the amazing food in Japan later. The maple leaves turn bright red, a phenomenon that like the cherry blossom moves across the country from South to North. The formerly imperial city of Kyoto is once more overrun with visitors and offers up an explosion of impressions: Old Japan with its sights combined with the natural spectacle, all in a very small space. Ancient wooden temples from the 8th Century can also be admired in Nara, which at that time used to be the country’s capital. Here, one can truly delve into Japan’s history, while keeping a close eye on the very tame stags. These are so used to the many tourists that they consider everything – even travel papers – edible.

For hikers, the Kii peninsula south of Nara and Osaka offers up a network of seven pilgrim’s paths: The Kumano Kodo. It is said that the mountains of Kumano are a sacred area that the gods dwell in.

On a quest for spiritual enlightenment, cleansing or self-discovery, one hikes on paths that in part are paved with huge stone slabs and form steps – constructed many hundreds of years ago, before modern machinery was invented to make this kind of work easier. As a tourist attraction, it is possible to rent traditional pilgrim’s garments to walk small portions of the path, so wrapped in multiple layers of fabric, donning a curious hat and primitive, sorry, traditional footwear, constructed like flip-flops.

Apart from that, the natural surroundings through which one walks here is truly outstanding, well worth seeing even if one can only walk small portions of the entire pilgrim’s path, and mostly the tracks are more or less deserted because most travellers and tourists prefer to be dropped off by bus at the most significant temple complexes. But be aware, the notorious fishing village of Taiji is located not far, at the southern edge of this region, which became infamous for its dolphin massacres publicised in the documentary The Cove (2009). Between August and April, this place remains the venue for dolphin hunts with some attempts of secrecy. It is a bitter realisation that not everything in Japan is beautiful – some local restaurants even still advertise the marine mammals on their menus.

But generally, once you get out of the large cities, past rice paddies and small villages where one can still spot a few historical houses or small shrines, the rivers suddenly turn crystal clear and the plants brilliantly and refreshingly green. Go and see Kamikochi. And easily accessible only an hour from Tokyo, the peninsula Izu boasts seven waterfalls and amazing rock formations, with fields of wasabi and craggy coastline, the ideal local recreation spot.

Natural hot and often healing springs, so-called onsen, that occur in certain regions, are a great pleasure for both locals and visitors and therefore popular holiday destinations. Of course, there are strict rules for their use, but every travel guide knows them. Pleasant and refreshing in any season, these hot outdoor baths are particularly enjoyable when the air turns cooler. You are probably familiar with the pictures of monkeys bathing in the snow? You can observe these relaxed snow monkeys with their typical red heads near Nagano at the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Interestingly, these animals have taught themselves to dive, to retrieve seeds and nuts from the pool’s bottom. But when it gets cold in Japan, it is even more rewarding to relax yourself in some hot springs with their temperatures of between 35 and 45 degrees, and those who like being surrounded by snow should make their way north. In January and February, numerous snow festivals take place, like for instance the Yokote Kamakura Matsuri, which does not actually happen in Kamakura – another town well worth seeing featuring a gigantic Buddha, only half an hour from Tokyo – but in Akita Prefecture.

The Kamakura huts are traditional snow huts, that illuminate the town of Yokote together with countless snow lanterns. Hoards of snow monsters that in heavy snowfall and icy winds seem to climb up the mountains can be admired at the Zao Onsen ski resort.

At Tateyama, a mountain near Toyama, the amount of snow that accumulates over the Winter months is so enormous that it takes approximately three months to clear the roads; it is an astonishing sight to see the up to 17 meter high snow walls that turn these roads into a white corridor. And of course there are plenty of light festivals during the Winter.

In the end, it is impossible to describe Japan’s diversity in a single article. Should you consider visiting this country, plan on spending a bit of time, because it is worthwhile to stray off the beaten tourist tracks. And do not worry about the language, more and more Japanese speak English and the Internet will help you on your quest for nice accommodation, and in time of need, you will be able to make yourself understood using hands and feet.

Sure, you may encounter some curious situation due to communication problems, but if you take it with a bit of good cheer, these are often the memories you will keep for the rest of your life. Just one word of warning: If you attempt to order a bottle of sake with the few words of Japanese you picked up from your guidebook, you may end up with a bottle of schnapps, because the word sake also means alcohol. Nihonshu would be a better choice, to toast the seasons. Kampai!