Today is Setsubun, tomorrow is the beginning of spring (Risshun), and the 10th is the New Year’s Day of the old lunar calendar. This time of year feels like spring is rapidly approaching. While Risshun marks the start of the year in the 24 solar terms based on the sun’s movement along the ecliptic, the old lunar New Year falls on the first day of the “old calendar,” determined by the phases of the moon. When combined with the new calendar’s January 1st, Japan has three different beginnings of the year. While the new calendar’s New Year is fixed on January 1st, the old lunar New Year varies between January 22nd and February 19th, depending on the new moon day, making it different each year. Although Japan’s New Year is almost always on January 1st, in countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, and some Southeast Asian nations, the old lunar New Year is celebrated as the New Year. China’s New Year, known as the Spring Festival (Chun Jie), is well-known in Japan as well. The Spring Festival in 2024 is an 8-day holiday from February 10th (Saturday) to February 17th (Saturday), and many Chinese visitors are expected in Japan during this period.
In the first Nagisa Park in Moriyama City, located on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, approximately 12,000 early-blooming rape blossoms, known as Kanzaki Hanana, are in full bloom. The contrast between these flowers and the snow-capped Hira Mountains on the opposite shore reflected on the lake’s surface heralds the arrival of spring along the lakeshore. In mid-January, the rape blossoms, which usually begin blooming one week earlier than usual, faced a setback due to a cold snap, but they still reached full bloom earlier than usual. Like cherry blossoms, rape blossoms bloom nationwide and represent spring. In the southern part of the Izu Peninsula, at Shimo-Kamo Onsen, both rape blossoms and Kawazu cherry blossoms bloom simultaneously during this season. In many other regions, rape blossoms bloom alongside cherry blossoms from March to April, and even after cherry blossoms have finished blooming, rape blossoms often continue to bloom. The rape blossoms in Yokohama Town, Aomori Prefecture, home to Japan’s largest rape blossom field, bloom from mid-May to early June. Thus, both cherry blossoms and rape blossoms bloom somewhere in Japan for about six months.
On February 3rd, the day after tomorrow, is Setsubun. When it comes to Setsubun, in the past, people used to roast soybeans and throw them towards the window, saying ‘Oni wa soto’ (Demons out). After scattering the beans, they would close the windows. Then, they would say ‘Fuku wa uchi’ (Fortune in) while throwing beans inside the room. This ritual was performed from the innermost room to the entrance, and finally, beans were thrown at the entrance. Afterward, people would eat the same number of beans as their age plus one, symbolizing the dispelling of misfortune for the new year. However, nowadays, the tradition of eating ‘Ehomaki’ (lucky direction sushi rolls) has become more popular on Setsubun. Many households no longer engage in the bean-scattering ritual. The origin of Ehomaki is unclear, but it is believed to have started in the late Edo period in Osaka’s Senba district. It became a custom in some parts of Kansai, and in the 1990s, major convenience stores popularized it nationwide. Now, it’s firmly established that people eat Ehomaki on Setsubun. The term ‘Eho’ refers to the direction where the deity ‘Saitokujin’ (god of good fortune for the year) resides, determining the year’s fortune. Eating rolled sushi facing that direction led to the name ‘Ehomaki.’ The location of Saitokujin changes every year, and this year’s lucky direction is ‘Northeast by East, slightly East.’ On February 3rd, people across the country will enjoy Ehomaki facing this direction. Just imagining it brings joy.
I still remember the first time I ate a summer mandarin. It was when I visited my mother’s hometown around the time I was in elementary school. In the backyard, there was a large summer mandarin tree with plenty of them hanging. I knocked them down with just a pole, peeled off the skin, and the moment it touched my mouth, I spat it out. It was so sour that it made me jump. Even now, as I recall that moment while writing this, saliva comes to my mouth. When I brought them home and told everyone about it, there was laughter. My aunt brought baking soda, and by applying it, we discovered that they became delicious. Nowadays, there is a similar variety called ‘Amanatsu,’ and it’s sweet without needing baking soda. Summer mandarins are said to have originated from a mutation of the Citrus maxima variety that drifted to Aoshima in Yamaguchi Prefecture carried by the Kuroshio current during the mid-Edo period. From this sudden mutation of summer mandarins, the ‘Amanatsu’ variety was born in 1935.
Setsubun is just around the corner. In the mountains and fields west of the Kanto region, a flower known as Setsubun-so, also called the ‘herald of spring’ or the ‘princess of spring,’ begins to bloom. True to its name, it starts blooming around the time of Setsubun, which gives it its distinctive name. However, in the Kanto region, it seems to bloom after Setsubun has passed. Setsubun-so emerges in the dead of winter, its flowers blossom, leaves flourish, and then its above-ground parts wither, entering a dormant phase until autumn. It only shows its face above ground for about three months in a year, and its delicacy and transience make it a beloved and charming wildflower. Setsubun-so has a height of about 10 cm, and its flowers are small, around 2 cm in size. The flowers themselves are quite unique. What appears to be white petals are actually sepals, while the petals are located inside, resembling yellow, rod-like structures that look as if they are filled with abundant nectar. Numerous stamens are found on the inside, and further inside are the pistils. The formal scientific name for Setsubun-so is ‘Eranthis pinnatifida.’ The genus name ‘Eranthis’ has its roots in Greek, combining ‘spring (er)’ and ‘blossom (anthos),’ signifying a flower that blooms in spring. In English, it is sometimes referred to as ‘Spring Ephemeral’ or ‘Winter Aconite.’ The latter name, ‘Winter Aconite,’ includes ‘aconite,’ referring to the toxic plant monkshood, suggesting a winter monkshood. Although Setsubun-so is native to Japan, environmental issues and overharvesting have led to a decline in its natural population. Consequently, it has been designated as a near-threatened species by the Ministry of the Environment.
Otome Tsubaki (the maiden’s camellia), aptly named ‘Pink Perfection’ in English, is a charming beauty. Camellias, originally from Japan, were introduced to the West in the 17th century. Their evergreen nature even in winter and the ability to bloom in the shade made them highly popular. They are affectionately known as ‘Camellia’ in Europe and the Americas. Embraced in the world of art, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera ‘La Traviata’ is particularly famous. Numerous varieties with luxurious blooms based on Western aesthetic preferences were created. Among them, the Otome Tsubaki, originally from Japan, gained popularity when it was taken overseas during the Edo period, earning it the nickname ‘Winter Queen.’ It is characterized by the fact that the yellow stamens that characterize camellias are not visible, and it is called “Sen-e-zaki”. While blooming mostly from March to April, some varieties also flower in November and December. While the sasanqua flowers fall one by one, the camellia flowers fall off together, but this Otome Tsubaki’s flowers have a long shelf life and do not fall off easily, so the brown flowers often remain on the branches.
In the field where the frost has cleared, cabbages are lined up as far as the eye can see. Each cabbage, with its thick and large leaves, is tightly wrapped layer upon layer. Winter cabbage is characterized by its densely packed leaves, and the leaves are fleshy. When eaten raw, it has a firm and crunchy texture, and when cooked, its sweetness intensifies. This cabbage, native to Europe, is one of the oldest vegetables consumed since ancient Greek and Roman times. The wild variety did not form heads as it does now, but records from the 13th century in England mention cabbage forming heads. Introduced to Japan in 1709 by the Dutch in Nagasaki, it was initially cultivated as an ornamental plant known as “Habotan.” It wasn’t until the Meiji era that it became widely cultivated as a food crop, thanks to the introduction of heading cabbage. In ancient Rome and Greece, cabbage was consumed for its digestive health benefits. Today, there is still a digestive medicine called “Cabbagein,” derived from compounds extracted from cabbage.
From Izu comes news that the Kawazu cherry blossoms are in full bloom as seen in the photos. According to the flowering forecast announced by the Shizuoka Prefectural Institute of Agriculture and Forestry Technology, Izu Agricultural Research Center in Higashiizu Town on the 25th, in the case of one-third blooming, Kawazu Town blooms on February 10th and Minamiizu Town on February 9th, which is still 6 days earlier in Kawazu Town and 5 days earlier in Minamiizu Town compared to last year, so the cherry blossoms in the photo are It was in full bloom quite early. Kawazu cherry blossoms are known for their long viewing period from blooming to falling, lasting a month. However, the best time to see them is said to be when they are 6-8 days away from full bloom, as they have a vibrant appearance. While it would be ideal to enjoy cherry blossoms during their full bloom period, predicting the exact timing for Kawazu cherry blossoms is quite challenging. The full bloom period lasts at most around one week, and after reaching full bloom, the petals do not fall immediately, but the vigor of the flowers diminishes as leaves emerge. The annual Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival has been held between February 10th and March 10th since 2015. However, due to the trend of earlier flowering in recent years, the festival has been scheduled from February 1st starting in 2022. Yet, with the rapid warming trend, it is anticipated that the festival’s timing may need to be adjusted even earlier in the coming years.
Due to heavy snowfall recently, Kyoto has turned completely white. One of Japan’s top three gates, the Sanmon of Nanzen-ji, is also covered in snow, creating a world reminiscent of an ink painting. While temple gates are commonly referred to as “山門 (Sanmon),” for large temples, they are often specifically called “三門 (Sanmon),” meaning the three gates of liberation. These gates symbolize the three stages of liberation: Ku (emptiness, not being attached to things), Muso (non-discrimination, not distinguishing based on appearances), and Musaku (non-attachment to desires). In essence, these gates represent the path that those seeking enlightenment pass through to approach the realm of the Buddha. Nanzen-ji is the first imperial-sanctioned Zen temple in Japan, holding a special status among the Kyoto Gozan and Kamakura Gozan, making it the most prestigious Zen temple in Japan. It is said to have been donated in 1628 by Todo Takatora to commemorate his vassals who died in the Osaka Summer Campaign. In kabuki, the actor Ishikawa Goemon is famous for striking a pose and exclaiming “What a magnificent view!” from this Sanmon. The temple grounds feature numerous historical buildings and gardens, including a water bridge reminiscent of a red-brick arch over the Lake Biwa Canal, adding a touch of charm to Nanzen-ji’s historical atmosphere. Visiting the renowned Yudofu restaurant ‘順生 (Junsei)’ is also one of the pleasures.
The Japanese calendar is made up of 24 solar terms, which divide the 360 days of the year into 24 parts, and 72 lords, which divide each solar term into 3 parts (初侯Shoko, 次候Jiko, 末候Makko), totaling of 72. Today marks the last solar term, ‘Daikan’ (大寒), and specifically, the last part, ‘Fukino hana saku’ (欸冬華). It’s surprising how accurate this calendar is. In ancient Japan, there was no precise calendar, and it followed a natural calendar based on natural phenomena. It is said that the adoption of a calendar became evident around 690 AD when the Chinese lunar-solar calendar was introduced. From then until the creation of the Japanese lunar-solar calendar, Teikyōreki, by Japanese hands in 1685, it continued to use this lunar-solar calendar, which was adjusted several times. Although there were attempts to create unique calendars based on the lunar-solar calendar by the Japanese, lunar-solar calendar was primarily used until the calendar reform in 1872. After the reform, it transitioned through the Julian calendar to today’s Gregorian calendar. While the Gregorian calendar may feel like a simple calendar, the old lunar-solar calendar mentioned earlier had a closeness to Japanese life, and I personally find it appealing.