Like most foreigners in this country I find it tiresome to hear Japanese people bang on about having four seasons as if this was special and unique. Of course, it is not. In an earlier post I tried to explain what I think some of them might mean when they ask if we have four seasons – not that we have them per se, but if ours are like theirs. In many ways British seasons are not like Japanese seasons and I have to admit that I prefer their four seasons to ours. By far.
Japanese winter skies are wonderful, or at least the ones I know are. The sky is often cloudless and so blue it looks photoshopped. The sun shines and rainy days are few. British winters are grey, wet and depressing. They are the inducers of Seasonal Adjustment Disorder. Japanese winters encourage you to match sweaters with sunglasses. Yes, it is as cold inside as out, but for weather alone Japanese winters win hands down.
Spring brings with it slightly warmer weather and of course the cherry blossoms and the custom of hanami. When the cherry blossoms bloom, the country gets pissed to celebrate. Anywhere that the pinky-white petals come out becomes a prime location for an outdoor party. Like Germans at swimming pools in Spanish hotels, people get there early and bag their spot, usually with a blue tarpaulin. It is both acceptable and encouraged to begin drinking before noon, and how can you not love a culture that so appreciates the pleasures of outdoor daytime drinking? There is a park with lots of cherry blossom trees near my house. It brought a smile to my face to walk by it one Wednesday morning and see an elderly chap enjoying a hanami party with his cronies. It was not yet eleven o’clock and he was crimson-faced and singing loudly into a microphone fashioned from a paper cup. And nobody would phone him up the next day and say, ‘You made a right arse of yourself, you know!’ I think that’s great.
But as poets and guidebooks never tire of telling us, the cherry blossoms are fleeting. They fall and it gets slightly warmer, agreeably so through May. But then pleasant warmth turns to sweaty humidity and the rains come. This is the only time of year with weather I don’t like. It rains and rains for about a month from June and into July. It is sticky weather. It is the kind of weather that leaves you coated in sweat from the effort of breathing, and gifts to you embarrassing geography teacher underarm sweat stains. When you shower in the morning, it’s almost not worth using a towel to dry yourself because by the time you get to your feet, the rest of your body is completely moist again. Leave a damp towel on the floor when you head out to work and you will return home to find it is home to a colony of mushrooms.
The humidity doesn’t end with the rains. It lasts throughout the summer, but when the rains stop and it is just blisteringly hot I don’t mind it nearly as much. I think this comes from growing up in a country where, as children, the slightest hint of sunshine would have us breaking out the sprinkler and hosepipe and see us prancing around in the garden with merry shrieks. Men would walk bare-chested through the local parks, eating ice creams and allowing their usually blue skin to take on a reddish, burny pallor. It was probably rarely over 25 degrees Celsius, but growing up in Britain taught me to welcome the sun and never to take it for granted. Thus, no matter how sticky and sweaty I might be, no matter how swampy the inside of my trousers feel, I can’t complain about hot sunny days.
And the unbearable heat brings with it some simple pleasures. There is a waterfall not far from where I live and in summer the river into which it tumbles becomes a popular spot for barbecues. You can sit outside all day, eating grilled fish, squid, pork, eggplant and pumpkin and take regular splashes in the river and under the falls to cool off. Within a minute of coming out you’ll be warm again.
The heat and humidity stay into the evening and night, but stepping out in an evening with the feel of a bead of sweat trickling down my back puts me in mind of being on holiday. It’s the same feeling I used to get on summer holidays to Spain or Greece – a beer on a hot evening and then heading out to the bar. Except, now I’m that old lecherous guy in the corner that people wonder about, instead of a youngster hoping to get a pull.
Even if I don’t actually go to bars much now, that sweaty summer evening feeling still brings with it one of the greatest pleasures in life: a cool beer and a bowl of lightly salted edamame beans. Edamame are baby soybeans served in their pods and they are the perfect accompaniment to beer, particularly when it is served from an ice-cold bottle sweating in the heat of the night.
The country cools in October. Mt. Fuji, which has been largely covered with cloud throughout the summer months comes back into view and you are once again reminded what a perfect mountain she is. The leaves on the trees change to brilliant reds and yellows, snow falls on Fuji’s crown and you know winter is on its way again. You set up the kotatsu and start heating the sake.
I like the events that come with the seasons. The hanami, of course, but there are festivals all the time in Japan. Men dressed in traditional happi, carry large shrines through the streets, to the accompaniment of the beat of taiko drums. People gather to watch and to buy festival foods from the street stalls set up for the occasion: corn on the cob, squid on a stick, yakitori, grilled fish, takoyaki. When it gets dark in summer fireworks light up the sky.
I like the opportunities for enjoying the seasons – skiing on the Olympic pistes of Nagano in winter, rafting on the Nagaragawa in summer, hiking around Mt Fuji in Spring and Autumn. Of course, I could ski and raft and hike in Britain. But I never did. The ski resort was small and icy, and it wouldn’t be half as much fun to fall into a river from a raft in Britain, even in summer. Here we jump off rocks and splash around like children.
I like watching the mikan oranges on the tree in my garden ripen, I like watching lizards climb the walls outside my classroom. I like the sound of the man driving his cart around on winter evenings offering hot sweet-potatoes for sale, even though I never buy anything from him, and I like the peeps and whistles of insects as I drink my beer and eat my edamame outside. I like watching the green tea fields turn into springy green hedges, and I like watching the rice fields fill with water, croak with frogs and then become dry again once the rice has been harvested. I like watching the seasons turn in a way I never noticed at home.
No, Japan is not unique in having seasons, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable.