Mar 5, 2021
DURING A SPRING VISIT TO JAPAN, I’d had it with the cherry-blossom tourists choking the streets near my Nakameguro sublet in Tokyo. So I skipped town in search of some restorative ryokan views of Mt. Fuji. I checked into a sea-facing room at Shotokan in Shizuoka Prefecture, where I complained to a friend about the swarms of sakura-seekers. His response floored me: “People are so distracted by tree flowers in snowmelt season that they never see the other cycles.”
The what now? Snowmelt season? I looked puzzled and he laughed. “Did you know Japan has more than four seasons?” he asked. “Of course it does,” I thought to myself, remembering this is a country that writes its own rulebook. Snowmelt in Shizuoka, it turns out, begins in late March, when nutrients from Fuji’s dissolving snow flow into Suruga Bay. That meltwater nourishes and fattens fish. It even makes rare delicacies possible, like sweet pink Sakura shrimp, the only place in Japan you can get them.
My friend in Shizuoka cracked open the door to a new world for me. Rather than forcing all the natural changes of the year into one of four catch-all seasons, the ancient Japanese calendar was divided into 24 seasons called seki. And each seki contains three additional subsections called kō, making a whopping 72 microseasons, each kō lasting about five days.
Like many things in Japan, the microseason system was imported from China. But China’s seasons didn’t match up with Japan’s more temperate, local climate. So the microseasons were rewritten in 1685 by Japanese court astronomer Shibukawa Shunkai, who bestowed especially poetic names onto them. February 9–13, for example, is called koo kenkan su, when mountain bush warblers first sing. Yame hana saku marks the opening of irises June 27–July 1. August 13–17 signals higurashi naku when evening cicadas sing. And evidently rainbows hide November 22–26 (niji kakurete miezu).
Learning about microseasons is like your first time understanding algebra or the space-time continuum. It’s an aha moment that changes your perspective. It’s also one of those Japanese ideas that at first seems totally bizarre to an outsider, but after digesting it for a while, you realize it makes more sense than anything else. Each season reads like a haiku. And each imparts a responsibility on the seasonal dweller to pay attention, humbly reminding them that they’re not the only life-form experiencing change. I don’t think it’s a stretch to contend that as we’ve all become more mindful in the past year or so, microseasons might become a more important guide to our travels in all destinations.
Japan’s obsession with chronological nuances is one of the things that has repeatedly drawn me to it, both as a traveler and a writer. Long before I ever set foot in the country, I was fascinated by haiku poetry, which uses kigo, seasonal words like scarecrow, cicada or oyster to imply a seasonality with graceful and arresting brevity. My Kindle already teemed with haiku masters. I even had a kigo dictionary. But once back in Tokyo, I marched to iconic bookstore Kinokuniya, where I bought a copy of The Japanese Linguistic Landscape by Nakanishi Susumu, an enlightening compilation of seasonal Japanese words like yukimoyoi, signs of imminent snow; usurahi, a thin coating of ice; and fujinami, wisteria blossoms swaying in the wind.
I started thinking about the microseasons of my life, and how a handful of distinct ones marked my own journey. I was born in Massachusetts on December 14, a day described by native naturalist Henry David Thoreau in his 1855 journal as having “melon-rind arrangements of clouds and parallel columns of fine mackerel sky.” I’ll take that. I thought back to my childhood in Florida where early August tide pools trapped traveling stingrays, musty scents from marshmallowy puffer mushrooms filled the Halloween air, and manatees migrated to warm springs the week before every Thanksgiving. During my university days in Vermont, March’s brief maple sap harvest, called sugaring season, was celebrated with plates of cinnamon-and sugar powdered apple cider donuts and the staccato cackles of returning red-winged blackbirds.
Over in Maine where I spent my mid 20s, pesky black-fly season lasted from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day, while the blueberry harvest of early August was often quickly followed by the beginning of soft-shell lobster season and the departure of breeding puffin penguins heading out to sea. And while studying in Ireland I learned about the Poet’s Spring, marked on February first, because only a poet could recognize the early signs of spring. Southern California gives the illusion of being seasonless with its year round sunshine. But a year spent in Los Angeles taught me about the overcast days of June Gloom, October’s crazy-making Santa Ana winds, and the Christmas kale harvest, just in time to detox for Red Carpet Season, ushered in every January.
Switzerland, where I’ve lived for the past decade, has distinct microseasons, too. November’s nebelmeer weeks see alpine valleys fill with fog, resembling milky seas. Inalpe sees cows go up the Alp for summer wildflower grazing every May, while September désalpe marks their descent. The Engadine Valley glitters with “diamond dust” when sunny winter skies fill with floating molecules of crystalized frost. And by mid-February, colorful purple crocus carpet the valleys for just a few days, a reminder that spring is nigh — and brief.
A traveler has his own set of microseasons, which can reveal secrets that another season might not. A friend recently returned from Bhutan describing her October visit as “hot, grey and unbearably humid” while my December visit was cold, blue-skied, and marked by views of chilis drying on tin rooftops. A late September visit to a Puglian cooking school at Italy’s Castello di Ugento Hotel coincidentally fell during both the tomato harvest when Puglians hang-dry their tomatoes, but also during the festivity of Saints Cosma and Damiano, filling piazzas with food vendors. Another September brought me the bamboo forests surrounding Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in northern Thailand, where I stumbled across a strange pink mushroom that throws a net around itself; it’s called a veiled lady. And while visiting Luang Prabang’s morning market with my guide from Amantaka, we stumbled across vendors selling omelets made from red weaver ant eggs harvested in mango and coconut trees only in April and May.
But let’s face it, Japan does microseasons best. Hotel and ryokan staff go out of their way to make them part of guest’s stay, including refreshing the tokonoma, an alcove in rooms where scroll paintings, calligraphy, and seasonalities such as flowers are displayed — lovely accents to an inescapable holistic experience. Embedded in my memories are a January onsen soak with bobbing, gnarly yuzu at Hoshinoya’s Kai Matsumoto; February’s ephemeral snow monsters in Zao Onsen Ski Resort; Toyama Bay’s bioluminescent firefly squid in March; and the late October rice harvest on Sado Island.
In fact, it’s impossible to travel in Japan and not experience a new microseason. My most recent trip had me gagging in awe over the short-lived March ume (plum blossoms) at Tenku, a constellation of five hilltop villas in Kagoshima Prefecture hidden deep in a bamboo forest. And my bartender on a February Guntû sailing made me cloudy sake based cocktail called Lingering Mist based on the February microseason of the same name while we glided across a misty Seto Sea in conditions that lived up to to the name, (with a lingering and misty morning hangover to match). See, microseasons don’t have to be a mantra to meditate on or an observation goal for naturalists to tick off. They can also just get you punch-drunk.