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Myths of Modern Japan 01

By Terri Edwards

Myths Of Modern Japan #1: "In Japan we have four seasons"

Just make a comment about the weather to any Japanese person and you can virtually guarantee that they will say at some point "In Japan we have four seasons..."

The Japanese seem to be unaware that other countries have four seasons too, and that the inhabitants of those countries rarely think this is a point worth mentioning in conversation. It's almost as if having four seasons is something that the Japanese are proud of.

It's certainly true that Japanese culture past and present has always paid very close attention to the changing seasons. For example, house decorations, kimono patterns and haiku poems all have obligatory seasonal references. You wouldn't dream of wearing a pink kimono with cherry blossoms on it in the autumn, or of writing a haiku about snowy mountains in the summer, unless you'd somehow emigrated to New Zealand.

But in modern Japan, observing the season often means completely ignoring the realities of the weather. You'll see women wearing silly little skirts and thin short jackets on freezing cold days in spring, and you'll also see women dressed in multiple woolly layers in September when the temperatures are still way up in the nineties. Trains are heated regardless of the external temperature, which means sauna-like conditions for commuters during late spring and early autumn, and office heating doesn't come on until November 1st, even if it's butt-freezingly cold in October.

However, my main quibble with the phrase "In Japan we have four seasons" is that it is mathematically inaccurate. At the very least, there are five distinct seasons - spring, summer, autumn, winter and the dreaded rainy season (tsuyu) which comes between spring and summer.

The tsuyu is the time when it is impossible to dry your laundry -- even if you hang it indoors -- and when mushrooms start growing in your bathroom. Books molder, leather turns green, and my husband's sweaty T-shirts come out in little black spots all over, especially when he scrunches them up and leaves them in the laundry basket for days at a stretch. But this is probably more than you needed to know on the subject of mould.

While we're on the subject of the rainy season, though -- oh, boy, does it rain. I'm from England, which has a justifiable reputation as a rainy and miserable place - but the average yearly rainfall in Japan is twice as high as the United Kingdom's, and a good deal of this rain buckets down on these islands during the rainy season. The rest falls during the typhoon season -- oops, there's another one. The typhoon season can start anytime during the summer and usually peaks in early September. So that's six seasons already. Vivaldi could have given us two extra movements for the price of four if he'd been Japanese.

Then there's the swimming season, which takes place in July and August only, regardless of weather. You can, of course, swim at other times, but in general only surfers and windsurfers are seen in the ocean out of season. For ten months of the year open-air swimming pools are closed; drained and empty of anything except fallen leaves and muddy rain. Makes you wonder why Japan bothers to have outdoor pools at all, especially as the water is usually dirty and there are no chemical footbaths.

A season also exists for mountain-climbing -- Mount Fuji, for example, is officially open for climbing in July and August. I don't know if there is anybody guarding the mountain to make sure people don't climb at other times, but as there's basically only one climbing route, this might well be the case. Policemen are sometimes stationed permanently at such places. So if you're planning to climb Fuji on your trip to Japan, check your calendar carefully.

In fact, check your calendar carefully whatever you want to do in Japan. Temples, museums, gardens and so forth adhere to seasonal opening times, too, and they will not make exceptions even for foreign tourists who have flown halfway round the world. The seasonal approach to life means that everything you want to take part in will be crowded during the high season and closed during the off-season, but that's something you just have to get used to in Japan, as there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Guide books recommend spring or autumn as having the kindest weather in Japan, which is usually true, but the weather is changeable during these times. Spring is the cherry-blossom viewing season and autumn is the leaf-viewing season. (I've lost count -- is that nine seasons already?). Cherry-blossom viewing is certainly the only time when Tokyo looks remotely picturesque, but it's usually cold, windy and rainy. Leaf-viewing coincides with the end of the typhoon season - so you pay your money and take your choice, basically.

In my opinion the best season for visiting Japan is in summer, if you can stand the sizzling sweaty heat (think New Orleans and double it). Then you'll be able to enjoy the o-matsuri (festival) season (July to September, depending on area), and the o-hanabi (fireworks) season (July and August). And, of course, you'll be able to go for a swim or for a walk in the mountains, should you be so inclined. The best of everything here happens in the summer. Strangely, this is the time when most foreigners living in Tokyo choose to go home for a couple of months, thus missing most of the fun.

Finally, there are seasons for gathering and eating food, such as fish, clams, oysters, mushrooms, and so on. In fact, practically every kind of fruit and vegetable has its season in Japan. Even your local family restaurant chain, such as Denny's, changes its menu four times a year, and offers seasonal Japanese specialities along with the usual spaghetti, pizza and pancakes. The downside of this seasonal attitude towards food is that you can't get your favorite food all year round. But the upside is that, out of season, you have your favorite food to look forward to -- next year.

Article © Terri Edwards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-01-23
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