January 20th is one of the significant days recorded on my 2019 Japanese eco-calendar. It is described as the ‘Coldest time of the year’, known as Daikan (Great cold). This period covers January 20th to February 3rd and is the final of the 24 major divisions (sekki) of the traditional Japanese calendar. In Kyoto it was raining on the first day of Daikan in 2019 and the temperature reached 11 degrees celsius. Elsewhere in Japan the conditions would differ considerably, as I discovered in the winter of 2018 when I travelled from Okinawa in the south-west to Hokkaido in the north-east (see here). Wherever one finds oneself, paying attention to these finer changes in the seasons and natural world brings us closer to the elements around us. At an even finer level the 24 divisions can be split into 72 ko that last around five days each. As an example, the first five days of Daikan are called ‘Fuki no hana saku‘ (Butterburs bud). This attention to detail to the environment has many merits.
It has been a mild winter so far in Kyoto, snowing lightly twice, and incredibly calm. This is the first time I have experienced several weeks in a row where there has been virtually no wind. To me it seems quite remarkable. Perhaps this is normal, and perhaps with the coming of the ‘great cold’ the wind patterns will change. They certainly did, as did the temperature! See my addendum below for an update written a week after the post appeared.
Depending on the season and year it can get very windy in Kyoto. In September 2018 a major typhoon (Number 21) caused considerable damage, especially to the forests surrounding the city. I experienced some of the impact during a pilgrimage to Mt Atago in October 2018.
At the start of Daikan last year I was flying from Naha in Okinawa to Narita airport then traveling onwards to Kyoto. I had spent the first few days of that trip in the sub-tropical part of Japan to experience the different expressions of winter (which I call a world of ice and fire) in this environmentally diverse country. In Okinawa the temperatures were warm and Spring was definitely in the air. Cherry blossom festivals were being advertised in late January and I saw my first Sakura flowers there on the 18th of January. In the snowier and colder parts of Japan such as Hokkaido and the Sea of Japan side of northern Honshu the weather in January is another story.
The diversity in the weather and the varied response of plants and animals is to be expected considering the geography of Japan. The elongated shape of the country, the extensive coastline, the mountain ranges, and proximity to continental Asia all contribute to the different environments/elements experienced in different parts of Japan at the same time of year. The 24 sekki and 72 ko in the traditional calendar were developed in the Kansai area around Kyoto. Consequently the descriptions do not apply everywhere in Japan.
What can and has been applied across Japan is the careful observation and recording of the fine-scale changes in the environment. It is something Japanese people have been exposed to from an early age. Many events were held this year to mark the start of Daikan, including a large group of young karate students in Fukuoka practicing on the beach and putting their feet in the water! In Kyoto specially made tea sweets were served at Murin-an to mark the ‘most frigid’ of the 24 seasons in the traditional calendar. While I have written about the finer seasonal divisions before, it has only been since staying in the one place for several weeks that has ‘bought the message home’ so to speak.
On January 26th, five days after writing this post, Daikan lived up to its name in Kyoto and surrounding areas. As the following image shows there were snow squalls throughout the day and the wind-speed picked up to 27 km an hour. Such a contrast to the almost two months of previous calm weather.
Japanese poetry is another tradition that incorporates seasonal changes and fine-scale observations of the environment. One Haiku website has the title ‘The Five Hundred Essential Japanese Season Words‘. It contains very detailed information on when certain words can be used. The traditional calendar and seasonal words for poetry were both created when Japan used a lunar calendar. Both record the start of Spring (and the start of the 24 sekki in the calendar) as February 4th. This is when the plum blossoms start to bloom, as captured in the header for this blog. Taken on February 3rd, 2015 in Kameoka near Kyoto, the full image of this stunning flower is shown below. While the official calendar in Japan now uses Gregorian dates, the cycle of the seasons continues regardless.
Japan is celebrated for its four seasons, with the blooming of the cherry blossoms particularly anticipated. I first wrote about this fascination in 2017 in my post ‘Space, time and flowers’. The predictions for the 2019 Sakura season were released on January 10th by the Japan Meteorological Corporation and the blossoms are expected earlier this year. In Kyoto they say that the cherry trees will be in full bloom on April 2nd. As illustrated in this current post, there is much more to the appreciation and understanding of the seasons in Japan. It’s a reminder to observe and enjoy what’s around us in each and every moment whether it’s the ‘Great cold’ or the ‘Manageable heat’.