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Beyond the Concrete

Hunting Seasons

The summer of my discontent.

One of the main selling points of tourism in Japan is that it is well known as a country that has four distinct seasons. I think the fact that its geography stretches itself so far north and south also helps.

Winter in Tokyo isn't much worse than November in Vancouver, but if you want to find snow, you don't have far to go. The mountains that run through the middle of the islands like a spine offer a winter climate, sure. But you can also head further north, through the region of Tohoku and further still north, to the island of Hokkaido.

Conversely, in the dead of winter, Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu, was a lovely fifteen degrees.

I remember walking around Tokyo in just a t-shirt with Halloween no more than a week or so away, hoping the ice age Al Gore promised would just hurry the fuck up already.

But spring is spring and autumn is autumn throughout the country, though by my approximation, they are far too short. As the two most pleasant seasons with respect to temperature, I am thus an unhappy person for the majority of the year.

Summer - the abomination of sweat-soaked suits and genuine fear - takes up about five months of the year, lasting from mid-May to mid-October. I remember walking around Tokyo in just a t-shirt with Halloween no more than a week or so away, hoping the ice age Al Gore promised would just hurry the fuck up already. It's disgusting.

These, then, are the four seasons in a nutshell.

And yet, Japan is a country with dozens of seasons. It took living in a place like this for me to realize just how disconnected we are with the actual locality of where we live, beyond the tiny geographies of our daily life. I don't know when the best seasons for whale-watching are. I know with fragile confidence that salmon fishing is good in September, but only because I've been fishing in September. I don't actually remember when the leaves typically change colour, or when the fresh produce from the Okanagan is ripe and picked - except for grapes, sadly I have picked hundreds of those SOBs over the years. At least I know vaguely when the hiking season starts. May to July-ish depending on where? Maybe?

And wouldn't you know, the wretched heat almost becomes tolerable when you're stuffing your face with fresh fruit.

In Japan, there's a reverence for all seasons (even though Japanese people are intelligent enough to hate summer as a general rule; yes that's a jab at all of you melanoma courting idiots). They're usually short, gone perhaps before you even get a chance to visit any of the best spots. Flowers, wildlife, produce, hiking and climbing. The grocery stores sell seasonal produce from specific cities and regions, and with the advancing of the year you move from strawberries and oranges to persimmons to pears to watermelon to peaches to grapes to apples and pumpkins, and then back to strawberries. And wouldn't you know, the wretched heat almost becomes tolerable when you're stuffing your face with fresh fruit.

The following are only a small portion of Japan's seasonal treasures, taken from my own experiences.

Winter

The snow monkeys that fill Jigokudani park in Nagano aren't exactly seasonal. The photo above was taken in May, and though no snow littered the ground and the air was warm, there were still many monkeys enjoying the heat of the hot springs. Still, the best time to catch them there is in the winter, when the snow is deep and the best way to warm up is a hot bath.

Hokkaido is the place to be in February. Snow and ice blankets the country, and though it's incredibly crowded, there aren't many better places to enjoy the winter. There are snow festivals throughout the island, and in my short five day trip there I was able to make it to three - in Sapporo, Otaru, and Asahikawa.

Spring

Spring is the season of sakura. Cherry blossoms. Parks, gardens, and castle grounds are filled with the most iconic tree in Japan for the brief time that they're in bloom. Year round, the trees aren't particularly noticeable, but during hanami - the festival of cherry blossom viewing - they're spectacular. Hanami is almost like the 2011 Stanley Cup run in terms of the excitement generated, only with more drinking and less rioting. And also the thousands of picnickers know that the blossoms will be back next year, which hasn't gone so well for the Canucks. I guess running a gym isn't the same as running a hockey team is it Trevor?

Sakura season is one of the most easily recognizable aspects of Japanese culture, and this is something that the country embraces wholeheartedly.

Summer

I hate summer, but it's unquestionably the season of bounty. Flowers, fruits, fireflies. Japanese summer would be paradise if it weren't for the heat.

Hydrangeas, or ajisai in Japanese, are among my favourite flowers. They're at their most beautiful in June, mostly powder blue, but ranging from creamy white to deep purple. People line up to visit temples famed for their ajisai gardens. The one above in Kamakura was particularly beautiful.

Peaches are enormously popular in Japan. One of their most famous fairy tales is about a boy named Momotaro (literally translates as "Peach Boy") who emerged as a baby from a massive peach like a stripper from a cake. There are peach flavoured sweets and drinks, and peach picking is a common family outing. Only you don't pick the peaches and then take them home. You're limited to the number you can eat in a given amount of time. Take them right off the tree, give them a rinse, and see if you can find the sweet ones. My record at this Yamanashi orchard was six. Side effects include abdominal cramping and a temporary loathing of peaches.

This one took me off guard a bit. I wasn't expecting to find fields and fields of sunflowers (himawari) in Japan. I don't think I've even seen the like anywhere in BC. My guess is that if I showed this photo to someone and asked them to guess where it is, one of their last guesses would be Japan. But July in Yamanashi is a colourful place. Try the sunflower seed ice cream.

Yamanashi is really cleaning up in this group. Half in Yamanashi, half in Shizuoka, Mt. Fuji is only open to climb during the summer months, when Fuji-san's snowy hat melts. It's a good place to escape the summer heat, and if you climb at night the winds will shock your system that's grown used to thirty-five degree weather. Crowds are inevitable and terrible, and you are forced to take the climb one literal step at a time. Don't climb it in shorts. Don't ask me why, just don't do it.

One of the few regrets I have from my trip is that I wasn't able to take any photos of fireflies. I'd never seen fireflies before, as I don't think they're found in any serious numbers west of the Rockies. The experience was one of haunting beauty, and even though it's one of the only scenes I don't have a photograph of, I know it will stay with me forever.

Autumn

Like sakura in the spring, the autumn hype is dominated by the changing colours of the leaves. As with sakura, there are "top ten" lists of the best places to see fall colours, and in particular the red leaves of Japanese maples. The much anticipated yearly event is known as koyo, or momijigari (maple leaf hunting).

Koyo comes at a time when the weather is pleasant. Cool enough to wear a jacket, but warm enough that walking beneath a canopy of red, orange, and yellow is nothing but pleasant. Lines and lines of people clog up the streets and temples of Kyoto during momijigari, but the view is always worth the wait.

The unfortunately inescapable truth of nature hunting in Japan is that all too often the same crowding, swarming mass of people that you find in the big cities take up the hunt alongside you. There's no escaping the crowds, just like there's no escaping the summer heat or the dry air during winter. But the whole beauty of these seasons in Japan is the lessons they teach in patience and the fleeting nature of happiness. Enjoy the moment for what it is, because it won't last.

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