004: Living by the Japanese Microseason
Reflections on a calendar—and life—split into 72 seasons
I’d spent my entire life in California until nine months ago. Now, being a native Californian and a native Bay Arean has noticeable perks. Nine times out of ten, locals react, “Ay, California!” whenever I mention where I’m from (if I’m abroad, they’ll also flash a surf hand). Uber drivers peer at me through their rearview mirror: “Not many of you here” when the subject come up. It’s a point of pride to be born and raised in California; after all, so many people move to California to chase whatever dream they’re chasing, while I happened into it by genetic lottery.
I moved to New York nine months ago. I moved in January, in the dead of winter. The roads were quiet—I’m told that people leave in winter for warmer climates, like the state I came from. The trees were barren; the view from my one and only window was of dead sticks and an empty parking lot and a lovely, neon, always illuminated McDonald’s sign. The winter chill burned my face during my short bursts outside to get groceries (I quickly learned the importance of “winter skincare,” how naive of me!). In January, February, and March, I prayed for for spring, for weather clemency, for 70 degrees and balmy, for light jacket weather.
Then came summer. New York summers, I learned, stifle you. Sometimes you literally can’t breathe. The air during the summer is lifeless and indifferent and unwavering, the kind that unsettles your stomach because it just doesn’t feel right. No human was made to thrive in a humid summer. (And don’t get me started on the subway and summer trash smells that are uniquely New York experiences.) It’s one thing to read that the temperature is at “sweltering, record-breaking highs” and a wholly other, godless experience to feel it yourself. At least the trees in front of my house bloomed in June, protecting my eyes from McDonald’s arches.
This “weather journey” has been hard for me, not just physically but also philosophically. You see, part of the East Coast’s appeal that I had in my head back in San Francisco was the very romantic idea of living with the seasons. It sounded like a poetic way of being. We’d talk about the seasons often in my tea ceremony classes—Japan, like New York, experiences all four of them. My tea ceremony teacher would tell us to “stoke the charcoal“ to inspire a sense of hearth in the winter and to “wring the cloth slowly, letting the water drip in silence” in summer, to offer a sense of cooling serenity. (Traditional tea rooms, naturally, don’t have AC.)
Quite honestly, I’d thought that living with the seasons would provide some next level atonement to the world around me and my place in it, that it would allow me to unironically sync with Mother Nature and bring her perspective into my daily life. She does, in a sense—I spend a not infrequent amount of time peering out my window, wondering what torture she has in store for me and dressing to my best assessment. Mostly, however, I’ve found myself imprecating the seasons more than enjoying them.
From all of this discomfort, the one relief I’ve found solace in is the concept of the Japanese microseason. Based on the Chinese solar calendar—used by farmers to plot their yearly harvests—the Japanese microseason breaks the year into 24 “major” seasons. It then divides them three more times, offering a total of 72 microseasons, each just five days long. In step with its solar orientation, the Japanese calendar names each major and microseason after the precise moments in nature that they correspond to cyclically (some of my favorites: “Pure and Clear,” “Grain Rains,” “Manageable Heat,“ “White Dew“).
What could possibly change in the weather—or in one’s life—in five days?
The answer is not a lot, but not nothing. A plane can fly around the world. The flowers of an Echinopsis cactus bloom and die within a day. An unbearably hot afternoon can turn into refreshing summer showers the next. A friendship can blossom from a chance encounter. According to the Japanese microseason calendar, five days is enough time in which “swallows start to nest,“ “mist starts to linger,“ “plums turn yellow,“ and “crickets chirp around the door.”
In my own life, five days is barely a unit of time save for the length of a workweek; only in aggregate (say, 25 days, almost a month, or certainly 365) do I feel there’s enough there to measure change. But what if I inspected things a little more closely? For example, I finished a book in the past five days. We received production samples of our new tea offering(!). I celebrated at a friend’s engagement party and discussed with a group of native New Yorkers the best spas around the city (I’d never heard of any of them, but they all seem to have despite not knowing each other until this evening). Today, the leaves on the tree are twinkling against the sunlight in a way they only do in autumn.
Perhaps equally, the clip of a five day season is a reminder of the persistent impermanence that our lives operate with. Nothing lasts forever, and in fact, nothing stays the same for more than a moment. The stifling air will pass (it has), the difficult relationship with heal, the feeling of being stuck (if you’re stuck) will offer something new, if you just wait a little and pay attention.
And this is what I had hoped all along with this cross-country move: to live in a place that reminds me of this, that gives me no other option but to accept it so that I might live this way intentionally as well. As it turns out, “living with the seasons” is proving far more physically demanding than I had romanticized about, but so far I’ve learned to take things just five days at a time.
Further reading about Japanese microseasons, seasonal tea phrases, and color palettes inspired by nature if you enjoyed this: