Japan's 72 Microseasons - #1+
"Spring Winds Melt The Ice" and the edges of spring
February 4 - 8
はるかぜ こおりを とく
Harukaze kōri wo toku
”Spring winds melt the ice”(This is the second post about this microseason—if you missed the first one, you can find it here to catch up!)
The first microseason of the Koyomi calendar’s year promises plainly that change is coming. From the perspective of a lunisolar calendar1, the Sun is right back where it started, ready for another round. Gradually, the islands that make up Japan are getting closer to its warmth, and little by little the snow and ice will melt away.
It makes natural sense to start your year on the other side of Winter, when Spring is approaching. And for dozens of countries and ethnic groups, millions and millions of people, that is still the case today. While sometimes called “Chinese New Year” due to many folks’ familiarity with the country, the Lunar New Year is marked by the first new moon of Spring2. Even in Japan, which has mostly swapped to the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s greeting cards received on January 1st still wish you a happy 新春 (Shinshun, “new spring”).
That which has slept, withered, or died, once more renews and starts afresh. And that breath of new life comes in on winds from the east, the direction of the open sea from Japan. The direction from which the moon rises on a new year.
These winds aren’t necessarily warm, mind you, but theoretically warmer by degrees. This may not be fully appreciated on the streets of Tōkyō, given an average high of 7.2° C so far during this kō3 doesn’t feel much like Spring is coming, but the kō before it did have an average of 6.9° C in comparison. See? Warmer!
While Tōkyō and many mountainous areas around the country may not much feel like welcoming a new season, one city on the Pacific Coast about two hours north of the capital is kicking off a flower festival. Those who travel to Mito (Ibaraki Prefecture) around this time may feel some of the vernal vibes the occasional warmer wind promises. Each year, people flock to some of the city’s famous parks to see ume (plum tree) blossoms brighten up the chilly skies.
Here’s a nice video from the tourism board, for the 128th annual event. Certainly feels pretty Spring-like.
In our previous time talking about this kō we mentioned that the first two kanji characters of its name are literally “east wind” (higashi kaze), but the calendar’s editor chose to have it read as “spring wind” (haru kaze), which is a bit of double-meaning that the Japanese language loves to play with4. But we didn’t talk about the second two kanji for this kō: 解凍. Usually read as “kaitō” and meaning “defrost” or “thaw,”5 but here we instead have the plainer kōri wo toku (氷を解く), “clear away the ice.”6
It’s a theme we come back to often, but when the Koyomi was adapted for Japan, it wasn’t just the timing of weather patterns and ecological cycles that were changed, but parts of the language itself. This was in the name of understandability for the almanac’s primary audience: farmers. Rendering some of the more obscure kanji characters imported from China into simpler language allowed for a broader audience. What good’s a guidebook if no one can follow it?
What was important to know about this microseason is that soon the soil will soften up and fill with moisture. The winds of change are blowing.
Like many terms tied strongly to the comings and goings of the seasons in Japan, these spring-bearing “eastern winds” show up in plenty of poetry. Perhaps one of the most well known is this waka-style poem by Sugawara-no-Michizane, writing in the 9th century:
東風吹かば / にほひをこせよ / 梅の花 / 主なしとて / 春を忘るな
Harukaze fukaba / Nioi okose yo / Ume no hana / Aruji nashi tote / Haru wo wasuru na
When the east winds blow
you must flower in full,
O plum blossoms
Even without someone to tend to you
do not forget the springThis poem was composed to a beloved tree at Michizane’s home in Kyōto. However, it was meant as a farewell—he was being forced to leave the city as a political exile due to being viewed as a threat by the powerful Fujiwara clan7. His message, then, can be taken to mean that even though the harsh cold of a sudden, unexpected snowfall can make it hard to imagine, the days of spring will still come.
Life will go on, and even if we’ve lost someone or something important in the winter, we mustn’t forget to bloom.
As we’re taking another trip around the Sun together and more and more of you seem to be showing up to read about the microseasons, I’d love to know what you’d love to read. I put together this quick, anonymous form with a few questions about future content. If you have a minute, feel free to tell me what you’d like to see in this new year.
See you next kō~
As a quick refresher, a “lunisolar calendar” (太陰太陽暦, tai-in tai-yō reki) tracks its month changes based on cycles of the Moon, but then has additional adjustments in the length based on the Sun’s position relative to Earth
A fully lunar calendar winds up about 10 days short of Earth’s orbital period at 354 or 355 days in length—the most widely used lunar calendar is the Islamic calendar, used for religious observances and which has its New Year falling on July 7th this year (it takes 33 years for its placement to fully reset)
Personally, I think celebrating the New Year in a different spot, a different season each year is kinda cool
Technically, for 2024 that’ll be on February 10th, however every few dozen years, the start of Risshun lines up with the new moon (called a 立春正月, “Risshun New Year”) and is considered to be super extra lucky—the next one will be in 2038 if you want to plan anything special
It also kicked off with a sudden and heavy snowstorm (nice video here, to appreciate from a comfortable inside spot)
It also lines up with Spring’s position on the circle of Chinese directional cosmology: due East
In this way, “east winds” came to refer to spring weather in general and the various happenings of the spring months like the arrival of young mackerel (sawara), which are swept in on a sawara-kochi (鰆東風).
And also “extract,” as in a computer file from a zipped folder
This same 解く can be used for any kind of “clearing up,” such as a puzzle, dispute, or suspicions, and has a general meaning of “undoing” something
Following his death in exile, a series of sudden deaths, storms, and misfortunes befell the Fujiawaras as well as the city of Kyōto, leading to the popular myth that his vengeful spirit had cursed the clan—these ghosts of nobles and academics that die due to injustice are called Go-ryō (御霊, “honorable spirits”)
The Emperor ordered a shrine built in his honor and for his position to be posthumously reinstated, but that didn’t seem to fully cover it so he was later deified as the kami Tenjin, lord of storms and scholarship
Michizane’s woeful tale seems to have been the inspiration for the character of the same name that appears in the popular manga and anime series Jujutsu Kaisen