Japan's 72 Microseasons - #72
"Hens Roost In Their Coops" and what's next
January 30 - February 3
Niwatori hajimete toya ni tsuku
”Hens roost in their coops”
Somewhere, in a warm bed of clean hay, sheltered from the cold and wind inside a cozy house, an egg is laid. The final kō of the year, the last before spring, is marked by an apt visual metaphor for new life waiting to break out of its shell.
It may be a surprising final microseason, but I think chickens are a perfect summary for the things this newsletter has encouraged over the year: thinking about the parts of nature that we’ve perhaps become separated from in a modern, on-demand world that operates on a human-made schedule. We’ve become used to commodities like eggs being available to us 24/7, without much thought to the seasonal rhythms and cycle of life that their production naturally follows. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, something to lament and judge, but like with all of our kō thusfar, it’s something to notice and appreciate.
It’s not so long ago that chickens could be found at nearly every house (and for many countries that is still the case), and it seems to be coming back into vogue for the current generation. But have you ever wondered where chickens came from? Not in a “which came first” chicken-and-egg quandary, but ecologically speaking.
The common chicken is a species known as Gallus domesticus, and as its scientific name implies: it is a domesticated species of a bird known as Gallus gallus, or the red junglefowl1. Just as dogs came to be a distinct species in the genus Canis, so too have chickens gradually adapted to our humans homes and lives. They are native to the Indian subcontinent, as well as China and Southeast Asia. You may not be surprised to learn that they primarily live in jungles, but you may be surprised to learn they spend a lot of their time roosting in trees as high as 12 meters off the ground.
Current genome testing points to the first domesticated flocks being raised about 8,000 years ago somewhere in Southern China or the countries that are now Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos. From there, they gradually made their way further afield, brought by Pacific voyagers to Polynesia, and by traders into India. Now, it is estimated that there are nearly 30 billion chickens worldwide, more than any other bird on the planet.
Safe to say, chickens are as important and inseparable to our history and culture as cats and dogs.
This is, of course, no less true for Japan. Chickens have been in the archipelago since at least the Yayoi Period around 2,000 years ago, brought over from the Chinese mainland during the frequent trips made between the two. For much of their history in the country they remained mostly wild, hunted as game birds the same as pheasants until the nationwide ban on meat-eating in the 600s. If they were kept, it was mainly as pets, for cockfighting, or…alarm clocks2.
It wasn’t until after the ban was lifted in the 17th century, that raising chicken for eggs and meat became commonplace3 and the word for them solidified as niwatori (鶏), “yard birds.” Together with pigs, they played a role in the islands’ newly developing meat cuisines and livestock raising, just as cultural exchange with Western countries was on the rise.
These days, chicken remains one of the primary meats found on many Japanese menus, and the popular style of restaurants known as yakitori-ya (焼き鳥屋) focus entirely on grilled skewers of nearly every edible part4 of a chicken. Japanese convenient stores are always stocked with a selection of different flavors of chicken kara-age (marinated and double-fried boneless pieces)5. There are even restaurants that serve raw chicken sashimi for the daring or curious.
On top of the homegrown chicken cuisine, there’s another type of chicken that occupies an important place in Japanese culture: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Through an interesting series of cross-cultural events, it became the de facto meal to enjoy on Christmas in Japan.
Much like world-famous Kobe wagyu beef, there are several carefully selected breeds of jidori chickens that are unique to different regions and known for their flavor. Nagoya Cochin from Aichi Prefecture is likely the most famous, but if you spy the names Hinai Jidori (Akita), Satsuma Jidori (Kagoshima), or Kawamata Shamo (Fukushima) on a menu you’re still in for a special treat.
But then again, this kō isn’t about chickens so much as eggs. Kō 72 is the time when hens begin to get cozy and roost. From spring through summer, a single hen will lay on average 5 or 6 eggs a week. In the wild, they’d stop at around a dozen or however many chicks the surrounding environment would allow them to raise. When raised as livestock, they can produce as many as 200-300 a year if well fed and cared for.
Because chickens won’t naturally lay eggs during the winter6, the sight of them heading into their coops (the toya/鳥屋 part of this kō’s name) was a strong sign to farmers that the worst of the cold was over. It also, of course, meant a fresh supply of eggs soon to come after a couple long months without. Eggs are, after all, a somewhat renewable and easy source of protein that requires little more than feeding and housing a few birds.
For the pescatarian among us, or if you’re feeling like something other than chicken tonight, here’s a few other items in season this microseason:
● Seasonal seafood
madai, 真鯛, red sea bream
● Seasonal vegetable
mekyabetsu, 芽キャベツ, brussel sprouts
● Seasonal sushi roll
ehōmaki, 恵方巻, an uncut roll of sushi eaten on the Setsubun holiday7
Substack informs me this post is officially “too long for email,” so if you’ve made it this far I assume you’re interested to know what’s next now that we’re here at #72 of 72 in the microseason count-up. For starters, I hope you’ll be happy to hear that the regular newsletter and Twitter will continue, so please do continue sharing it around if you enjoy it!
Now that we’ve covered the basic overviews of the microseasons, I’d like to dive into new bits of research and share more artwork and poetry when I find them. If you joined the mailing list partway through, then please look forward to catching up on what you missed; and if you’ve been here for the better part of a year (hi! thanks!) then I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting those posts alongside interesting new extras.
Between this and Kō 1, I plan to send a fun “year-end” wrap up, which will be a bit different to what we’ve done so far. So keep an eye on your inboxes for that soon.
There will also be a new side project that will serve as a sort of companion to 72 Microseasons: pieces of original short fiction that follow a story through the various kō in Japan. I’m still solidifying this, but it will live in its own separate newsletter which I’ll invite you all to when ready.
But before all that, please allow me to extend my utmost thanks to every one of you. Your readership, likes, comments, shares and interest have overjoyed me and provided a lot of much-needed energy and encouragement over the past year. I have never done a writing project for so long, or so publicly, and I owe much of my ability to see it through to your support. So thank you, truly.
Finally, I once again encourage anyone who enjoys my content about the microseasons to check out the online shops for two of the sites that provided an abundance of great writing to kickstart my own research: Koyomi Seikatsu and Kurashi no Hotorisha, which both offer global shipping on lots of wonderful bits of homewares, stationery, and more. In particular, I owe a massive debt to researcher, author, and editor Miki Takatsuki of Lunaworks. Her calm, quiet reflections on the microseasons were a huge inspiration for the tone of this project, which you can carry around with you thanks to a beautiful, thoughtful journal she releases each year.
For now, that’s one year behind, and plenty more ahead.
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
There are 3 others species of junglefowl in the same genus: the grey junglefowl, the green junglefowl, and the Sri Lankan junglefowl (which is the country’s national bird)
This led to one of their first common names: toki-tsuge-dori (時告鳥), the “time signaling birds”
A bit prior to that, it had been discovered that unfertilized eggs don’t actually contain chicks, meaning that eating them didn’t violate the ban
This includes plenty of tasty parts otherwise shunned by Western diners: cartilage, hearts, various innards, and the meat from right under the tail (called bonjiri, or “parson’s nose” in English)
Kara-age usually refers to chicken, but as the old adage goes: you can fry anything if you put your mind to it
Japan has no shortage of fish and vegetable kara-ages out there on top of the ever-popular chicken pieces, and there’s other varieties of deep-fried foods to be had such as the older style tatsuta-age (potato starch instead of flour, more lightly fried), the Hokkaido regional speciality zangi (different marinade and served with dipping sauce), and the well-known classic tempura (no marinade, thin batter made with egg and flour)
With exceptions, of course—eggs laid during winter are called kan-tamago (寒卵), “midwinter eggs,” and said to be very high in nutrition due to the length of their gestation
February 3rd, this year! The holiday at the end of this kō marks the official start of spring (Setsubun is written as 節分, lit. “seasonal division”), and is observed by kids throwing dry beans at adults dressed as ogres to chase them out of the house, accompanied by the traditional protective shout: Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi! (鬼は外！福は内 ！“Ogres get out! Fortune come in!”)
After they’ve been properly expelled, the ehōmaki are eaten facing that year’s lucky direction (the “ehō” in question), and it’s said you can’t stop or talk until you’ve finished it in order to prevent cutting off your luck