seasonality in japan
As I’ve mentioned briefly before, the Japanese have a love affair with seasonality and the progression of the seasons throughout the year. This is not unique to grown Japanese, or just certain subsets of the population, but rather a very widely observed cultural trait. They are taught an appreciation for the changing seasons straight from the womb just through exposure to the way that their parents, and Japanese society as a whole, reacts to it. Seasonal foods and milestones are celebrated and cherished as they come; abandoned and forgotten in favor of what the next season brings; fondly missed as time continues to pass; and finally eagerly anticipated as they come around again the next year.
This can be observed in the foods that are popular at different times of year, the activities planned among groups of friends, and the products released by most major brands. For example, in the early spring it seems that everywhere you turn; from Starbucks, to the supermarket, to your neighborhood cake shop, to the convenience store candy shelves, everything is suddenly sakura (cherry blossom) flavored as the population gears up for hanami (flower viewing) parties. In the summer watermelon, peaches, and shaved ice prevail, and many outings revolve around setting off fireworks after dark.
(from our small 4th of July celebration of our cultural heritage this summer)
When I first moved to Japan I found the constant stream of kikan gentei, or limited edition, flavors and products to be quite maddening. My first winter here I fell in love with a particular matcha flavored chocolate truffle called Melty Kiss and was completely miffed to find that they were only sold from around December through February. I waited patiently for their return all through the next year, but when December rolled around again I was disappointed to find that matcha was not in the Melty Kiss lineup that year. It had been replaced by raspberry, which was not nearly as good.
Although experiences like this still happen, I’ve actually come to love the brevity and impermanence of it all just as much as the native Japanese around me seem to. Rather than being frustrated that specialty items are only available for a short time, it now causes me to appreciate and savor the good ones more while they last. It makes them far more special than if they were available without some kind of limit.
This appreciation of the seasons and willingness to adapt to the passage of time is one of the most refreshing aspects of living in Japan, and something that I wish would spread back home to the states; where the focus among the general population seems to be more on getting exactly what you want, whenever you want it, seasons be damned, than on appreciating what the different times of year have to offer.
Right now we are just heading into a delayed autumn, and I already have mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and chestnuts on the mind. I got very excited just the other day when I heard my first yaki-imo (roasted sweet potato) truck going down the street outside my apartment. Nothing quite says autumn like hearing the familiar call of the yaki-imo song as the trucks pass by.
Unfortunately, despite having autumn on the mind full-time, in reality we are still experiencing late summer weather here in Tokyo. So for now I’ll just have to content myself with the slightly more temperature appropriate seasonal specialties.
Häagen-Dazs Dolce Fondant au Chocolat in all its multi-layer glory.
What do you think about the emphasis on seasonality in Japan vs America? Do you have any favorite seasonal specialties?