Being from Victoria, a city that seems to have only two ranges in weather (rainy season warm and rainy season cold), I think that it is Japan’s four seasons that I have come to appreciate the most over this past year. The seasons here, after all, represent more than a change in the weather.
In Japan, there are two ways to note the changing of the seasons: fruit in the market and time-honored traditions (at times these are one and the same). As though on cue, at the first sign of a leaf changing colour or the heat relenting even in the slightest, supermarket shelves have an overnight metamorphosis. So it is that Summer makes an entrance with an inexhaustible supply of watermelon (suika) and peaches (momo); Autumn with pears (nishi) and apples (ringo). Psychedelic displays of oranges (mikan) and parsimmon (kaki) distinguish Winter, and with the coming of Spring the almost reverent cherry (sakura). Never before have I witnessed such an acute sense of “shelf life.” Like so many things Japanese, the shift takes place with swift and understated ease, leaving otherwise ignorant consumers (such as myself) well informed that a new season is upon us.
With the knowledge of a new season come all the many traditions that distinguish one season from the next. Overnight, the summer matsuri fireworks and Yukata (summer kimono) are replaced with Cosmos festivals and ever-intrusive gaudy Halloween paraphernalia. Blink your eyes and the rice harvest parties have come to an end and, low and behold, there is the mikan encroaching upon the nishi’s turf. Blink your eyes twice and it’s spring- with no end to hanabi parties, complete with Sake and beer, Onigiri and bento’s, whilst reclining under a soft pink spray of Sakura blossoms, composing Haiku’s an reflecting on the transience of life.
If I wasn’t already aware that autumn was here from the exuberantly priced four dollar pears in the supermarket, the flourish of activities here in Niyodogawa would otherwise enlighten me. Autumn is by far a favourite season in Japan. After the heavy typhoon rains and a humid summer, the weather is mild and the view is vibrant. It also marks one of the busiest times of the year, the least of which include school events, (Cosmos) flower festivals, Shinto celebrations (specifically, Kagura performances), rice harvests and general pre-winter preparations. Needless to say, life is busy and exciting.
The annual Undokai (sports festival) was recently held by each of the eight schools in which I teach. Each Sunday, from September to October, the students, teachers, parents and townspeople gather (rain or shine) for the biggest showdown of the year.
Allow me to set the scene:
You can hear the Undokai before you see it. Here in the mountains, the resounding instrumentals of canned-marching bands echo through the valley. The students rally onto the sandy field, knees uniformly rising at a 90 degree angle and falling again- little soldiers in the making.
Girls in white t-shirts, hands at their sides; white knee high socks and navy blue cotton shorts cut just above the knees. Matching sneakers. Boys with the choice between long pants of shorts (boys wear pants… not girls, of course). Matching shoes spaced at equal distances. The White team falls to the left and circles the field; the Red team mirrors them to the right. They come together in the center and stand rigid as the Opening Ceremonies begin.
And even the mild “tweet” of a whistle is enough of a command for everyone and they knowingly space themselves out a rigid meter apart for the well-worn warm up. The music is comedic to my foreign ears, even after having heard it at every sporting event throughout Japan over this past year. But still, even now, the hypnotic and melodic cries of “ichi, ni, san, shi…” bite into the air as poetic pirouettes, Swan-lake back-stretched arms, and elliptical overhead-stretches are shadowed by the congregation. The warm-up melody is better known than the National Anthem; each member of the congregation- young and old, fit and unfit- lift their arms and let them fall as the music rises in a staircase melody and tumbles with cacophonic conformity.
The Undokai is, in so many ways, a metaphor for Japan itself. It is taken with absolute seriousness, and yet, the events these kids participate in are some of the most ridiculous things ever imagined by human beings. If strapping a basket onto a child’s back and then sicing children armed with hackey-sac balls after him isn’t amusing, then watching four students form a human horse with their bodies so that they can charge their mount at other jousting students should be.
The staff are especially creative when it comes to PTA events: I had the pleasure of ramming myself against my male counterpart in an attempt to pop a balloon between us (yes, it is a terrible as it sounds) and then sitting on him to try and pop a second… I will stop there.
The staff and students prepare for these events for weeks on end, entertaining already amused spectators with half-time-shows ranging from dare-devil gymnastics to traditional and not so traditional Japanese dances (Monica and I were especially amused by the My Big Fat Greek Wedding-inspired dance and the Mickey Mouse club dance, to name a few).
With the Undokai celebrations out of the way, October marks the beginning of Bunkasai Culture Festival preparations (which is a hyperbole for singing one English song during the Music festival). I had the pleasure of learning and participating in the acclaimed “Momiji” serenade, a song about the changing colours of Autumn maples and the beauty in seeing a leaf caress the water as it flows downstream. If not more revered than the Sakura, the Momiji are indisputably the centerpiece of fall and deserve all the reverence they receive.
Thus a new season is upon us. The Momiji "koyo front" is slowly moving southwards from Hokkaido, shrines are fervent with activity and I find myself ever enraptured by Japan.
Because a harmonious connection with nature has always been particularly important to the Japanese, observing the distinct seasons of the year is as much apart of Japanese culture as any tradition. In many ways, as it becomes more and more infused with Western culture, it is the keeping of the customs and traditions used to observe the arrival of each season that convey the spirit and beauty of Japan.