Seasons and seasonality

Some people like to tell you that there are 4 seasons in Japan. I’m not sure how rare this is, but last year I was teaching a heap of people from Colombia and they seemed not to have seasons there? They gave the impression that it’s pretty much mild there all year round.

The people with the ‘There are 4 seasons in Japan’ phrase also ask how many seasons there are in Australia, which is 4 or 2 depending where you live.

In the north it’s tropical, so I don’t know if they actually call it 2 or 4, but there’s basically wet-hot and dry-hot. In Melbourne, we know all about seasons. We have them all in one day. Some guy even wrote a song about it. We also have this thing that happens in summer where one day it gets to 40 degrees and the next day it only gets to 20, but it’s still summer.

The thing is, in Japan, there are kind of 5.5 seasons. There is autumn/fall, winter, spring, the rainy season, summer, and typhoon season. Typhoon season is the 0.5, because it’s often a bit of a non-event: in some years, and some places, there are no typhoons. For those who get them, though, they’re definitely an event. But the extra 1.5 on top of the better-known 4 somehow don’t count.

Outer Melbourne in the last few days of autumn

Outer Melbourne in the last few days of autumn

The seasons here are much more apparent than in Australia, because Australian trees are generally evergreens. I can only speak for the cities I’ve lived in (Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide) and we still get excited about seasons, especially spring, but in Japan, no matter whether you’re a city- or country-dweller, it’s a bigger part of life to be in touch with what nature is doing. Seasonal activities are popular pastimes, e.g. hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing parties), summer festivals, autumn leaf-viewing, New Year rituals and naked-men-in-the-snow festivals… wait, every season has its own festivals, actually.

It’s true for most places, I guess, that we associate particular events with the season we know them as coming in, e.g. for me in Australia, Christmas means summer, berries and barbeques.

Sanma time! = Autumn

Sanma time! = Autumn

However, if you say ‘autumn’ to a Japanese person, they will probably say, ‘Chestnuts, sweet potato, persimmons, pumpkin, sanma (Pacific saury/mackerel pike), and Halloween.’

Pumpkin pudding flavour, limited time only

Pumpkin pudding flavour, available September-October

Many products are seasonal here. In autumn, you can buy pumpkin flavoured breads, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin tart… and they’re not available at other times. The locavore in me is a fan of this. I think in a lot of Western countries, we have an increasing expectation that we can get whatever produce we want whenever we want, e.g. Navel oranges are usually the best eating oranges, right? No seeds, really sweet. They’re a winter thing. In summer we get valencias, which are great juicing oranges, but aren’t always sweet and have seeds. But these days, you can get navel oranges all year round, except that in summer when they’re out of season, they’re imported from California. I think a lot of people wouldn’t mind waiting. I wouldn’t, anyway. Navel oranges are one of the things that make winter winter. There’s plenty of great summer fruit.

Supermarket display in October: persimmons aplenty

Supermarket display in October: persimmons aplenty. Never seen an imported persimmon in Japan.

Japan is only selectively seasonal: generally if something can viably be commercially grown in Japan, it is. But if there is a big demand for something, they get it wherever they can. Most of the beef in the shops is imported from either Australia or the US, and I think this is because people want cheaper meat than Japanese beef, which is seen as premium. Bananas, kiwifruits, some cherries, and all tropical/exotic fruits are imported. Asparagus is available at the moment, in the middle of autumn, imported from Australia. Locally grown fruit, meanwhile, is a luxury. Apples and pears are $1.50 or $2 each, peaches are $2.50 to $3.50 each, and a bunch of grapes is about $7. With the exception of pears, known as ‘la furansu’ (France), all these fruits are oversized. Japan seems to be of the opinion that fruit tastes better if it is bigger, so they prune their apple trees a lot and end up with huge apples. The bigger it is, the more you can charge for it. Apparently the Esashi apples from where I used to live, in Iwate, have been sold for something like $100 an apple.  That being said, Japanese Fuji apples are way better than Australian Fujis in both flavour and texture, in my opinion.

Edamame, which actually translates to 'stick bean'

Edamame, which actually translates to ‘stick bean’

The cheapest way to get fruit and veg is to grow it yourself, and in all the (inaka/country) towns I’ve lived in, gardening and fruit growing are popular pastimes, particularly among retirees.

Growing your own is also a good way to get things that are expensive, difficult or impossible to buy, like quinces, pomegranates, and passionfruit. IMG_1259People’s gardening pursuits are much more visible here than where I’ve lived in other countries. Maybe this is due to the lack of space out the back? In my current town, there are some vegetable gardens down near the river that are rented out or something: I guess people don’t have space, so they find space somewhere else. Either way, there are some very prolific plants and things around.

It’s definitely something I like about Japan, the seasons. I’m not saying I always like the weather – in fact, complaining about the weather is one of my favourite ways to start a conversation with Japanese teachers. But it keeps things interesting, and it’s fun when there’s always some new ice cream flavour to try.

Plus, the weather right now is beautiful: warm days and cool/cold nights. It’s apple season. Chestnut-flavoured coffee has already come and gone (!?). Winter is coming. Autumn, you’re a winner. Thank you.

Purple sweet potato crepe! Who is this grinning foreign moron?

Purple sweet potato crepe! Who is this grinning foreign moron?


2 thoughts on “Seasons and seasonality

  1. I love this discussion about seasonality! As someone to whom the weather and its variations mean a great deal, I really get the feel for the change of seasons and the associated changes in local produce. Must be the farm girl in me still!! As for the purple sweet potato crepes- they look amazing- more like playdough than crepe filling????


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