Having a length of about 3,000 km, weather patterns vary considerably, from the sub-tropical southern Kyushu (even more so in Okinawa) to the sub-arctic northern Hokkaido. Ocean currents and the mountain ranges running through much of the country also influence the weather.
Whilst the further south you go the longer is the warm part of the year, and the further north the longer the cold part, Japan is mostly a land of four clearly defined seasons. A case can be made for a fifth, the rainy season (tsuyu). As most of Japan’s rivers are short, the longest 370 km, and its lakes fairly small, water storage capacity in many areas is limited, so if the rainy season fails it can soon lead to shortages, and difficult times for farmers. Generally, on the Pacific Ocean side of the country summers are hot and humid, and winters dry. On the Japan Sea side winds are colder, and in winter snowfalls heavy, up to five metres. The north western part of Honshu, plus all of Hokkaido, don’t suffer from humidity or have a rainy season, so there’s no need for homes or offices to have cooling.
In the main population sector of the country, extending from northern Kyushu to central Honshu, the most pleasant times of the year are spring, from around mid-March to mid-May, and autumn, from mid-September to mid-November. The rainy season, heralding the start of summer, extends for about six weeks from late May to early July, the hot, humid days of summer follow from July through well into September, and the cold, dry days of winter from late November through to February.
As an indication of the extremes between summer and winter, it has been calculated that the moisture content of a cubic metre of air in Tokyo increases fivefold, from 3 grams in winter to 15 grams in summer. As a comparison, moisture content in the Middle East is 6 to 8 grams all year round.
Another time of the year exhibiting distinct characteristics is the typhoon season, from late August into October, when typhoons start tracking north from South East Asia through to the Japan/Korea/eastern China region. Okinawa, being closer to their point of origination, is particularly susceptible to typhoons, as are parts of southern Kyushu. As a typhoon approaches, ample warning is given, on all forms of media and by loudspeaker from cars moving through suburbs. It’s most advisable to remain indoors while a typhoon passes by. All public transport is halted and shops closed as typhoons approach, so movement is severely curtailed, as well as being extremely dangerous.
Had typhoons not been a seasonal climactic feature way back in the 13th century, things might have turned out a little differently for Japan. In 1274 the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan, having earlier experienced the annoyance of a delegation seeking Japan’s submission being expelled, led an invasion fleet that was pipped at the post by a typhoon near present-day Fukuoka. Seven years later an army of 100,000 set out to accomplish the task, initially landing at the same location, but then being attacked by yet another typhoon, which did away with most of the troops. About 100 metres of a stone wall built by the Japanese after the first attack, in case the Mongols were able to improve their weather forecasting and avoid a typhoon on a subsequent outing, has been partially uncovered from the sand and can be viewed at a pleasant, treed Fukuoka beachside location.
In Japan’s largely agrarian past, livelihoods depended on each season progressing through its natural cycle, and the changing of the seasons was a major aspect of life from year to year. Many of the customs and festivals that evolved out of these changes are still observed, especially in rural areas regarding those relating to the planting and harvesting of rice, often with a connection to the local shinto shrine. This is an integral and most attractive part of life in Japan.
One age-old activity still pursued and enjoyed in the latter part of summer is firefly viewing, from dusk into the night, along creek or river banks. The concreting of much of the country’s waterway system, and other aspects of urban encroachment, have reduced the number of firefly viewing locations, however on the edges of suburbia good places still exist, and a very pleasant evening can be had picnicking and being entranced by the flickering insects as they dance about in airstreams above the flowing water.
Impact of seasonal changes
Of significance for urban dwellers is how fashions change from season to season, with clothing shops religiously changing stock at the appropriate time four times a year. This is as much a marketing ploy as a step in tune with the general acceptance and expectation of seasonal changes. The interior of many shops changes noticeably from one season to the next, with the nature of the shop display, along with the stock, strongly indicating the season. A great variety of food, electrical appliances and other products are also seasonal, appearing in and disappearing from shops regularly at the same times each year. Vending machines also change over from supplying mostly cold drinks in summer, to mostly hot ones in winter. This is all part of the comforting predictability that is life in Japan.
The changing of the seasons, especially from spring to summer and autumn to winter, is rather sudden, and once a change occurs it seems there’s no turning back, no prolonging of the crisp mornings and balmy evenings of these two shoulder seasons, the most pleasant but shortest seasons of the four. Anything other than mildly unseasonal weather is uncommon, whatever the time of year, making it easy to plan ahead for the season’s wardrobe.
Consequently, twice a year, at the point where there’s a sense of inevitability that summer or winter has really arrived, everyone puts away clothes of the ending season and gets out clothes of the one beginning. The finishing season’s clothes are stored in large plastic containers, and usually dry cleaned beforehand, an urge for cleanliness which has led to the proliferation of dry cleaning outlets in all urban areas. All students change from winter to summer uniforms at this time, as do staff at department stores, this process referred to as koromogae.
For the visitor to Japan, this reliability of the weather according to each season is a big help in knowing what clothes to bring at any time of the year. Thus, in spring and autumn fairly light clothes plus a jacket or sweater will be adequate; in the hot and humid months of summer, light clothes including short sleeve shirts are enough; in winter, a sweater and jacket or coat will be necessary. A thin waterproof coat and umbrella will get a lot of use during the few weeks of the rainy season.
With many households, the re-arranging of personal wardrobes is only part of the changes that occur inside the home at the start of summer and winter. To both help create an impression of coolness or warmth, as well as achieving an actual temperature difference, various items of furnishing are changed and used according to the season. Thus, warm winter slippers provided to all guests as they enter the home give way to thin summer ones, thick woolen rugs and other floor coverings are replaced by those of bamboo or thin fabric, and sofa covers, table place mats, drink coasters and other everyday items receive the same treatment.
Whilst the main beneficiaries of this practice are the home’s occupants, the resultant cooling or warming effect gives a sense of welcome to guests more so than if the environment remained static year round, a feeling that all effort has been made to combat the elements and add to the comfort of everyone who might spend time in the home.
It’s only natural that food and beverages provided to visitors also change according to the season, Japanese dietary habits having always closely followed the seasons. Autumn is the time for kaki (persimmon), with their warm and friendly colour gracing every meal table and doing their best to offset the harsh reality that winter is around the corner.
A leafless persimmon tree, its dark, gnarled branches brightened by the strong orange blotches of its bountiful fruit, is a common sight in many a suburban Japanese garden at this time of year. In addition, the nation’s abundant supplies of mikan, a small citrus fruit that is a mix of mandarin and tangerine, can provide further culinary cheer into the colder weather, along with whatever kind of Japanese cakes are popular in the region. In the warmer months visitors can expect to be treated to slices of chilled water melon (suika) or other kinds of melon.
Nature and the seasons
The most visible signs of seasonal change in Japan are the blooming of cherry blossoms in spring and changing of the colour of leaves in autumn. These phenomena occur in the manner of a weather front moving northwards with, especially in the case of cherry blossoms, weather reports indicating on a daily basis how the front is proceeding and where the peak viewing locations are.
The observation of both these workings of nature is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche and a much-observed custom, the blooming of cherry blossoms being the most eagerly anticipated event in all of Japan each year.
Plantings of cherry blossom trees have, over the decades, always been undertaken in massed groupings, with dozens or hundreds of trees planted together in a park, along riverbanks or in other open areas. The effect of all these trees blooming together, against the mild blue sky of a languid spring day, can be truly spectacular.
Everyone makes a point of going somewhere where they can view a good display of trees in full bloom, walk beneath them and audibly delight in their soft hues and delicate beauty. In addition, a high percentage of people, including virtually all office workers, attend at least one cherry blossom party, held beneath one or a cluster of trees, either during the day or at night. Such gatherings might comprise groups of friends, colleagues or families, enjoying a picnic lunch.
The peak viewing locations, those parks with the greatest concentrations of trees, take on a boisterous, party atmosphere, especially at night, with electric lights strung through the trees illuminating the whole park. Karaoke equipment, with television screens and full amplification, supplemented by plenty of food and drink, mostly sake, shochu and beer, can turn some parks into full-blown festivals.
The time when the blossoms are at their best is usually brief, just a few days, and even this can be cut short by wet or windy weather. The shortness of this window of opportunity can often create pressure on would-be revellers, who are keen to secure a good location when the blossoms are at their best. For all Japanese this is probably the happiest time of the year, and hence a good time to visit, the distinctly Japanese sight of cherry blossoms and the universally positive reaction to warmer weather gladdening everyone’s hearts.
The mass planting of flowering trees and bushes is a common theme in Japan’s parks and other public places, such as roadside hedges, through which the seasons make their presence felt on a year round basis. Chronologically, Japanese plum (ume), with their deeper red blossoms are the first to appear, followed by cherry blossoms (sakura). Next are azaleas (tsutsuji), second only to cherry blossoms in the extent to which their massed planting is used to create explosions of colour in all urban areas, with rhododendrons used too.
At about this time can also be seen excellent displays of wisteria (fuji), their light purple fronds gracefully hanging from the tops of twine-enshrouded pagodas. As the rainy season unfolds and the weather becomes warm and moist, hydrangeas (ajisai) begin taking full colour, their forceful blooms lasting through summer, with irises also making their presence felt.
Gardenias, often used in park hedges, and camellias (tsubaki) provide colour into the winter months, followed soon by bulb plants. Other plants commonly found in both public and private gardens are maple (momoji), cypress (hinoki), cedar (sugi), pine (matsu) and bamboo (take), which of course grows naturally as thick forest. As earlier noted, a common sight throughout urban areas in late autumn into early winter also is a persimmon (kaki) tree in a private garden, laden with ripening fruit.
This featuring of flowers is symbolic of the Japanese love of plant life since ancient times, when all kinds of objects occurring naturally were considered to be a representation of god (kami), the basis of the shinto religion. Flowers have also been a constant theme in works of art, including paintings and designs on ceramics, pottery, lacquer ware and clothing.