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seasonality in japan

October 10, 2010

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 It had been replaced by raspberry, which was not nearly as good.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?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2010 5:22 am

    One of the questions I always got as a foreign exchange student was if we had four seasons where I came from. :) Like only Japan has four REAL seasons. Spring and fall are kind of finicky where I live, but they do exist, which seemed to surprise people!

    I feel like we tend to celebrate our favorite seasons. My boyfriend’s favorite is fall, so we go crazy with bringing out harvest decorations and usually end up having two Thanksgivings, a “fake” one for practice, then the real one with family. A lot of people here wish it was winter all year round because they’re all Tahoe ski bums. I really like late summer because I get too cold in the winter, and watermelon is my favorite fruit.

    • October 13, 2010 1:00 pm

      That seems to be one of the default questions ingrained into the minds of Japanese people. The thing is, Japan doesn’t even really have four proper seasons itself. At least, not Tokyo. We get about a week or so of cherry blossoms and leaves changing separating the loooooong winter from the looooong summer on either side of the year, and it’s all punctuated by moments of RAIN RAIN RAIN or TYPHOOOOON! >_>

      Fall is probably my favorite, too. And I love love LOVE and miss Thanksgiving. If I manage to make it home in fall and winter my parents always throw together an early or late thanksgiving dinner.. and I always try to do something here. Usually that has meant the Thanksgiving buffet at the New Sanno hotel w/ Eric’s old Waseda group. But last year I bought an overpriced turkey (a whole 3.5 kg-er >_>) and pulled off a whole thanksgiving dinner myself for five of us expats. Not sure what I’ll be doing this year, but it’s going to have to be something!

      Late summer is nice, too. I love the relief of lower temps and the anticipation of the coming fall. :D

  2. October 13, 2010 5:21 pm

    As with everyone in the blogging world, apparently, I love pumpkin. Pumpkin everything. The two things that I wait for all year are Pumpkin ice cream from Mitchell’s and the Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks. I think fall is probably my favorite season in general. Thanksgiving is really the final part of the year that I enjoy. I’m not a fan of winter at all, as I don’t really care for Christmas and the consumerism and fake good will in America around that time of year sort of makes me want to shoot myself.

    I think America definitely celebrates its seasons. I just don’t think we do it in our own way. Some people wait all year for Christmas cookies and holiday parties. Others can’t wait for BBQs and the beach in the summer, while others yet are waiting for flowers to bloom and baseball season to start in the spring.

    Then there is me. The person who likes the season where everything begins to die.

    Awkward.

    • October 14, 2010 3:16 pm

      That’s because pumpkin is awesome. It really amuses me how I lose all desire for it once spring rolls around, though. It’s absolutely seasonal in that sense for me.

      I do think Americans are mostly aware of and do mark the changing of the seasons, but it seems to be with a completely different mentality than the way in which the Japanese do. My personal observation is that most Americans look forward to specific aspects of a season that they have a particular interest in. Like, to draw from your examples, BBQs, baseball, or Christmas cookies. The Japanese, on the other hand, are more about celebrating the uniqueness of the seasons themselves, and go out of their way to enjoy the activities that are associated with each of them as they come.

      Thus, the American perspective would be more one of “I can’t wait for fall so I can eat pumpkin again!” whereas the Japanese perspective seems to be more one of “Oh, it’s fall again.. I could sure go for some pumpkin!”

      Being abroad really makes you appreciate and miss Christmas a lot more. It hit me especially hard this last year.

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