Japan's 72 Microseasons - Sekki 18 & 19
Now, where were we?
Well, here we are again, in need of another catchup.1 But how to go about it this time?
Given how nature is always changing, always presenting a new face of itself, and how that very fact is the central theme of this newsletter, it would hardly seem right for me to repeat my tanka trick from last time (at least, not until this time next year).
Instead, what if we focused on an aspect of the Koyomi that we've been heretofore neglecting somewhat? I refer to the bundles of trebled microseasons called the sekki. The sekki, as a quick refresher, are 24 in number and are sometimes called “solar terms” in English. This is because they align with the perceived movement of the Sun, and correspond to it shifting 15 degrees in longitude in position as the Earth moves around it. These are further broken into thirds, which are called in order shokō (初候), jikō (次候), and makkō (末候)—respectively the “first,” “next,” and “last” microseasons in a sekki. They were set down in 104 BCE in China, more than two millennia ago.2
Although our discussions here of the sekki and kō are mainly poetic and dreamy in nature, the system underlying them was carefully measured and recorded—the livelihood and survival of a widespread, large-scale agrarian society depended on a good, reliable calendar everyone could reference.
I personally really enjoy seeing the year’s calendar as a circle rather than the book-like pages we’re used to flipping through and tearing away. In that way, it feels less like a given year is ending than it is just always progressing. After all, it’s not like our lives do a clean reset on January 1st, with crisp blank pages waiting to be filled. We carry over our efforts and plans, our hopes and joys and pains. The wheel is always moving.
But, to get back on topic, the two sekki that have passed during our time apart are numbers 18 and 19, out of the total 24. Those are: Sōkō (霜降3) and Rittō (立冬).
Let's take a look at those in a broad view, and that may in turn help us see the larger pattern for the kō grouped in each one. To liven things up, I'd like to include art from the talented Yuuri Tayama, who this year has been undergoing their own microseason-related project by creating charming, picturesque illustrations for each of the 72, which would all be perfectly at home in a child's well-loved picture book. If you enjoy them, I would encourage you to support their work by picking up something in their Redbubble store.
For now, let’s begin.
霜降 - Frost’s Descent
The last sekki of autumn appropriately signals the coming of winter. Its name, as well as the first kō in its group, refers to the very visible phenomenon of increasingly frosty mornings. In Sekki 18, there are days when you see your breath in the crisp air, the rain can’t quite decide if it wants to turn to snow, and trees change hue, their leaves falling and crunching underfoot.
The colors of nature give one last splendid performance as autumn foliage (called kōyō, 紅葉, in Japanese) dramatically decorates the arboreal landscape. It’s a time that feels restful, like a well earned break at the end of the work day. It’s a great time for a hike, a hot drink, and a nice coat. And, in my humble opinion, the best time to be in Japan.4
Here are the three kō for this sekki:
初候 - First Microseason
October 24 - 28
しも はじめて ふる
Shimo hajimete furu
”First frost falls”
次候 - Next Microseason
October 29 - November 2
こさめ ときどき ふる
Kosame tokidoki furu
”Light rains come and go”
末候 - Last Microseason
November 3 - 7
もみじ つた きばむ
Momiji tsuta kibamu
”Ivy-wrapped maples turn gold”
And as the leaves turn and the frost sets in, we turn towards winter with our next sekki.
立冬 - The Edges of Winter
The first official days of winter in the Koyomi bring with them a surprising amount of fresh blooms. A bit of late-season life to lend vibrancy to the landscape before the muted grays of midwinter. Both mountain “sasanqua” camellias (山茶花5, sazanka) and waterside daffodils (suisen6) flower during this sekki.
For things along the ground, there is life-giving moisture yet to be found when the morning frost melts and the cold rains fall, but among the trees the leaf-withering winds known as kogarashi (木枯らし) begin to blow in from the north. Now, it is not only the early mornings and late nights that bring a chill, but the days themselves. Rittō is a good time to air out winter clothes, dust off heaters, and swap out your blankets for something a little warmer.
Rittō is the paired opposite to Risshun (立春) in spring, with the leading 立 kanji character meaning to “stand” “build up” or “rise.” Here are the three kō for this sekki.
初候 - First Microseason
November 8 - 12
Tsubaki hajimete hiraku
”Camellias first bloom”
次候 - Next Microseason
November 13 - 17
Chi hajimete kōru
”The soil's first frosts”
末候 - Last Microseason
November 18 - 21
”Fragrant daffodils flower”
And that brings us back around to the present. Japan woke up today in a new sekki and a new kō, which we’ll talk about next time. Throughout the country, that mix of late autumn and early winter assures that this year’s over-long summer is firmly behind, and little glimpses of snow forecast what is to come. In the yellowing leaves and whitening mountaintops, the turning of the seasons is starkly visible.
There is a popular Japanese kotowaza (諺, aphorism) which goes “Rainen no koto wo ieba, oni ga warau” (来年の事を言えば鬼が笑う), translated as “If you talk about what will happen next year, demons laugh.” It means that there’s no sure way to know what will happen down the road, that no human can know the future in certainty, or, as we similarly put it in English: “the best laid plans of mice and men do oft go awry.”
As such, I’ll avoid saying anything foolhardy like “things should be calming down for me now,” or “we’ll be back on track from now on,” and instead close out the same way we always have:
See you next kō~
Keep up with the seasons
I do apologize to those of you who signed up for more consistent, timely updates (as promised by the tagline to this project), but hopefully you’ve kept along on the Twitter in the meantime—for those of you still there, any way
Life, as they say, comes at you fast and the last month brought a variety of very large changes (though, almost entirely positive) of house, of body, of direction and purpose, but I still enjoy writing these and hope you enjoy reading them
This system of measuring time via careful study of the Sun’s motion in the sky is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
This can be a difficult one to Google, mainly because 霜降 can also be read shimofuri, which commonly refers to the frost-like marbling in high-quality beef
And if you happen to be there right now, Japan Guide has a great overview of the country’s best spots to go leaf-viewing
The kanji for these contains both “mountain” (山) and “tea” (茶), referring to where it grows and how its leaves were drank as a tea during the winter
The reading used in the kō’s name, tsubaki, is a catch-all word for camellia flowers
The common Japanese word for the daffodil/narcissus flower is suisen (水仙), a kanji character that denotes their isolated growing near bodies of water, but this kō instead names 金盞, which are, confusingly, the first two characters of “marigold” (金盞花)
However, a 金盞 originally referred to golden or metal saké cup, what we might call a chalice—it eventually became a shorthand for golden yellow structures inside flowers like the daffodil, where it was thought the fragrance (香) came from when they bloomed
While on the topic of flower nicknames, daffodils are also sometimes called secchūka (雪中花), which means “flower among the snow”