Japan's 72 Microseasons - #61
"Winter Descends Into Cold Skies"
December 7 - 11
Sora samuku, fuyu to naru
”Winter descends into cold skies”
As we move further from the Sun on our orbital journey around it, the skies grow increasingly gray. Overhead, low-lying clouds draw closer, closing the celestial doors of our shared terrestrial home. Let's hunker down inside—things are getting cold out there.
The second kanji character in Kō 61’s name, 塞, is commonly used in words that mean “blocked” (in a physical or metaphorical sense), “occluded” (just a great word), or “to be shut for the night.” These all well represent the feeling of silent stillness1 that comes with the season. However, the character itself has another meaning: a fortress, a structure closed up tight against what’s outside.
Dōsojin (道祖神), the god of travelers, offers not only safety and respite to those who wander the roads, but also protection against outside evils, sickness, or other maladies that could breach past a community’s walls or a home’s threshold. In fact, historically it was his first role as a deity. His other name is Sae-no-kami (塞の神), The Fortress God.
In this way, a closing of doors and being shut inside can be an act of defense, or maybe just a way to keep the warmth in. It is certainly true that winter is the season to celebrate coziness at home2. After all the running around, travelling to be with friends and family, and wrapping up work for the year, there’s no better feeling that settling into your favorite chair with a hot drink, comfy clothes, and a good book3.
As General Winter (冬将軍 | Fuyu Shōgun, whom we might call “Jack Frost”) leads an invading snow front down from the mountain caps into the fields and forests, we begin the sekki known as Taisetsu (大雪, lit. “major snow”). The fleeting snows of the previous sekki grow heavier, deeper, and linger longer. Heavier blankets are aired out, and heated kotatsu tables4 are turned on. Year-end plans are firmed up, and preparations are made for Christmas and New Years: things like reserving osechi ryōri (お節料理5), layered bento boxes filled with traditionally auspicious foods; getting ready for Ōsoji (大掃除), The Big Clean at the end of the year; and deciding which team you’re going to root for during the New Year’s Eve TV program Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦, “red and white team song battle”).
We’ll cover all those a little later in the year when it’s time, but what kicks off all these preparations for the New Year (in Japanese: Shōgatsu koto-hajime | 正月事始め) are not the turning of a calendar page, but this kō’s cold, graying skies6. Things are busy, to say the least. So busy that the last month of the lunar calendar used to be called Shiwasu (師走), a time so full of year-end bustle that even monks (師) are running around (走).
I don’t know about you but, I’m tired just thinking of all of it. Why don’t we take a break with some nice seasonal snacks?
● Seasonal fish
buri, 鰤7, yellowtail
● Seasonal vegetable
daikon, 大根, daikon radish
● Seasonal dish
buri-daikon, ぶり大根, yellowtail and daikon cooked in soy sauce
During the winter months, much of the living world goes to sleep, waiting things out in burrows and hollows. Bare trees are not dead, but paused until the spring, with buds waiting patiently within branches. It’s been a long year of work, and when the work is done it’s time to rest and relax, let next year’s ideas germinate and get ready to grow.
Closing the doors and boarding up the windows as the snow piles up outside isn’t just to keep things out, but it’s to create a nice safe space to hibernate. Pile up your warmest, softest blankets and make a nice little space for yourself to finish the year out in. Only a few weeks to go.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
I think it would be a nice little goal to reach 150 subscribers by the end of this year, so if you know someone who might enjoy learning esoteric tidbits about Japan in this way please feel free to put in a good word — we’re only 10 away at the moment!
There’s a great Japanese word for this: shinkan 深閑, combining the kanji characters for “growing late” and “an empty period”
In recent years, I’ve seen the Scandinavian word and concept of hygge (“a sense of coziness, simplicity, and being present” according to The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well by Meik Wiking
Or Netflix show, or video game, or Twitch streamer
Quite possibly Japan’s greatest invention, which is somehow yet to spread much beyond its borders
If you’re kanji-minded and keen-eyed, you may notice that the “sechi” character it actually just “setsu,” which means “season”—the addition of the honorific O at the start is used in the same way we might say “The Season” in English
The traditional time to start is December 8th in Tokyo, and December 13th in Kyoto—the current and former capital like to quibble on these things
Often translated on menus as “yellowtail tuna,” the buri is actually an amberjack