Even though it is still cold, today is thought to be the first official day of Spring in the ancient lunar calendar. It marks the beginning of risshun; one of the twenty four seasonal points sekki. Psychologically, the image of a warm wind blowing from the east that starts to gradually melt the ice that formed on lakes and ponds over winter, is a great relief.
When I reflect on my three decades of life in Kyoto, I am keenly aware of how my way of seeing has evolved to be ever more acute. Coming from underpopulated Australia (which at twenty two times the land area of Japan has space to burn), to one of the world’s most densely populated countries has been an unparalleled training for my eye. Climatically speaking too, there was a huge contrast of having grown up in a coastal city where the weather was an endless riff on the theme of summer. In Perth Western Australia, we are blessed with over 300 days of sunshine a year. We can look up to an azure sky in October and be more or less assured that the same view will re-emerge daily on repeat until the beginning of April with the only variable being a temperature gradient. Moving to Kyoto at the tail end of summer 1989, I was constantly surprised at the strong contrasts provided by seasonal change. Indelibly engraved is my first experience of Kyoto’s autumn, where a brocade of colored leaves burnished hillsides before lying in outrageous carpets of red, orange and yellow swirls. All this for someone who was used to a never ending palette of grey-greens furnished by the indigenous landscape of Eucalypt trees. Once the romance of the falling leaves had subsided, nothing prepared me for the rapidly plummeting temperatures where I began to see my frosted breath inside my small room of a shared old Japanese wooden house, fortified only by a dodgy kerosene heater. That first bone chilling Kyoto winter was tough so even the faintest breeze from the easterly direction was more than welcome! So at the beginning of my long sojourn in the imperial capital, the much vaunted beauty of the four seasons was greeted as a mixed blessing. It was only after I started to encounter some of the poetic seasonal ramifications that appeared in my study of the tea ceremony, with its delicious seasonal wagashi traditional Japanese sweets and the changing form and color of the tea bowls that my curiosity was fostered.
The ubiquity of nature in Japanese culture cannot be ignored even in our twenty first century highly urbanized society. Seasonal references appear not only in the arts but in many aspects of daily life including the fish and vegetables that are most delicious shun in that particular moment even as far as the limited edition beers at the local convenience store.
It has been posited by leading academics such as Haruo Shirane from Columbia University that the oft-mentioned Japanese “harmony” with nature does not actually correlate with a real closeness to primary nature due to climate and topography. Rather, it is a result of close ties to “secondary” nature as constructed as early as the 7th century in aristocratic society. In an attempt to compensate for some of the more severe aspects of winter and summer in the Kyoto area, an idealized “secondary” nature emerged to take many forms and in genres as diverse as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, gardens, painting and poetry to name a few. Particularly important was the waka, the thirty one syllable Japanese classical poem which became a fundamental form of social communication for the urban aristocracy. Due to the widespread use of waka, nature as well as the atmospheric conditions of the four seasons became heavily encoded.
Some of these poetic associations were indigenously Japanese while others derived from ancient Chinese references. From the mid to the late Heian period (10-12th century), waka poets placed increasing emphasis on annual observances, atmospheric conditions and even the time of the day. Seasonal topics formed a complex system of representations providing a rich cultural “vocabulary” to be used for a wide variety of aesthetic purposes. Such details are clearly enumerated in poetic seasonal almanacs called saijiki which also became indispensable for understanding the later popular poetic form haiku. The precision and detail contained in the saijiki which systematically categorized almost every aspect of nature and the majority of human activities was also reflected in the ancient calendar originally derived from China and then adapted for Japan by the Shogun’s astronomer in the 1600s. The existence of these almanacs and of the calendar is direct evidence that the seasons had become one of the fundamental means of organizing the world and life in general.
The traditional calendar divides the year into twenty four major divisions sekki based on observations of occurrences in the natural world. It starts with the beginning of spring risshun in early February until the end of winter daikan at the end of January. The 24 divisions are each split again into three for a total of 72 micro-seasons kō that last around five days each. There is something ineffably charming about the poetic immediacy of seeing a year progress in five day units. Additionally, whilst these divisions may be based on actual observances of nature, the phrases that are used to describe the 72 micro-seasons are also in line with a set of philosophical correspondences that the ancient Chinese saw in the physical world.
In creating a blog that documents my life in Kyoto, I decided to honor the gift of “deep seeing” and “micro-observing” that immersion in Japan has taught me. As we take the time to re-establish a deepening connection with nature, not just the grandeur of spectacular marvels but rather the simple things: the quality of afternoon sunlight shining through maple leaves, the sound of rain…we return to a rhythm more closely attuned to the world that immediately surrounds us. How we partition a year is of course somewhat arbitrary, but the smaller steps afforded by the structure of the “72 micro-seasons” seem to offer a lyrical vehicle to enjoy slowing down and appreciate life as a series of moments. Another of the gifts of Japan has been my growing sense of gratitude with a steady realization of the interdependence of all living things. I invite you the reader to slow down with me and enjoy each moment as unique and impermanent.
“Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson