Japan's 72 Microseasons - #58
"Rainbows Hide in Gray Skies"
November 22 - 26
Niji kakurete, miezu
”Rainbows hide in gray skies”
A winter rainbow is a rare thing, so rare in fact, that in Japan the phrase is shorthand for something miraculous happening. While there is color to be found during the winter months, it’s not often in the pale, cloudy skies.
Kō 58 is the opposite end of the seasonal cycle to Kō 15 from April. As we approach the solstice, the days are shorter and the sun sits lower, and more and more snow and ice lingers. This is also the beginning of the sekki called Shōsetsu (小雪), literally “minor snow,” which naturally precedes Taisetsu (大雪), “major snow.” Gradually, cold drizzles of rain become flurries of snow, and the necessary meteorological conditions for rainbows become scarce. In the terms of the kō: they don’t disappear, but merely “hide.”1
However, “rare” does not mean impossible, and a sudden rainbow on a cold and sunny day is a very welcome surprise. Metaphorically, when used in novels and haiku, it represents an unexpected pleasure amidst dreary conditions.
An equally rare and welcome bit of weather during this early winter period is what’s called koharu biyori (小春日和2), an unseasonably warm and mild day that cuts through the rising chill. A last glimpse of summer, or an early preview of spring.
And while we know days such as those are temporary respites on the journey towards winter, if they continue for long enough certain spring flowers such as sakura and dandelions can mistake the conditions for actual spring and begin to bloom once more. These eager but mistaken blossoms are sometimes referred to as wasure-bana (忘れ花3, “forgetful flowers”) or kaeri-bana (帰り花4, “returning flowers”).
We spoke briefly in Kō 15 about how rainbows are mythologically associated with dragons in Japan. Due to the timing of when their appearances start and finish, which happens to coincide well with the rice planting and harvesting seasons, rainbows—and by association, dragons—were thought to preside over the water used for the flooded fields rice is traditionally grown in. There’s a nice bit of scientific correlation here, given that rainbows require abundant moisture, in the form of airborne water droplets, to be seen. Empty, dry skies don’t provide a good home for dragons or the rain needed to grow crops.
It’s for this reason that the first spring rains have historically been described as “Ryūten ni noboru” (龍天に登る), or “the heavenly ascension of dragons” and likewise the late-autumn absence of rains as “Ryūfuchi ni nemuru” (龍淵に眠る), or “the abyssal sleep of dragons.”
And while America celebrated Thanksgiving this past week, so too did Japan celebrate a similar harvest-based holiday: Kinrō Kansha no Hi (勤労感謝の日), or “Labor Thanksgiving Day.” In the past, this was commonly observed by offering the fruits of your labor to the gods—notably as a ritual called the Shinjō Sai (新嘗祭)5, where the first harvest of rice was ceremonially dedicated by the Emperor to the deities6 representing the soil and skies. The Shinjō Sai is still practiced by the Imperial Family on behalf of the country, and coincides with the modern fixed date for the public holiday on November 23rd each year.7
The sight of a winter rainbow is rare and welcome, but it’s also even more fleeting than usual, sometimes hard to see in the wan sunlight of the season. In Japanese art, another feeling that winter rainbows summon up is that of fleeting loneliness, a glimpse of impermanent beauty fading and soon passed. However, I don’t see any reason that should make one any less thankful to see it. Even a few quick moments of something nice can be appreciated before they’re gone.
Whatever it is your giving thanks for this week, or any other week, here’s some food and decoration for the season:
● Seasonal fruit
ringo, 林檎, apple
● Seasonal seafood
kue, 九絵, longtooth grouper
● Seasonal flower
noibara, 野茨, multifloral rose
As for me, I’m thankful to those of you reading this, spending some of your day to muse about these little bits of Japan with me and think about how nature moves around us. I hope that, wherever you are, your table was full of food and friends.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
The reading of the kō uses kakure(ru), which does indeed mean “to hide” but the original kanji characters instead use 蔵, which means “warehouse” or “storage” and is most commonly seen in the scientific term “occlusion” (吸蔵, kyūzō) and “to be shelved (for a later date)” (お蔵入り, okura-iri, lit. “put in the warehouse”)
It’s fun to imagine a tidy celestial organizer neatly putting their stock of rainbows away on a shelf, to be brought out again in Spring
The characters, taken literally, are “small spring, day, peace” but 小春 is also a traditional name for the 10th month of the lunisolar calendar and 日和 often just means “weather” (usually good)
Similar to English, this term can also apply to people who are “late bloomers”
And this one can apply to a comeback for a performer who had been considered past their prime
As is often the case with older terms the predate modern Japanese pronunciation, there are two names for this: the other is Niname-no-Matsuri
The Emperor would eat it on their behalf, such is how these things usually work
The modern holiday was created during Japan’s post-War occupation by America, with the latter seeking to ban all holidays and practices based in the Shinto religion or mythology—a secular alternative was put forward, and the stated purpose of the new holiday is “to respect labor, to celebrate production, and for citizens to give each other thanks”