Tag Archives: seasons

Lucky Seven

6 Jan

Hi blog.

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for several years now, but I always miss the season.   My wife and her family don’t follow this particular custom, so I can’t personally relate to it.  In fact, I only heard about it a few years ago (on the TV news, no less).

The custom I’m referring to is making and eating rice gruel / rice porridge using the “seven herbs of spring” and eating it on January 7th.  The word “herb” needs to be used in its widest nuance, since the Japanese word is “kusa”(草 or 種), literally “grass”.  This word covers grasses, herbs, vegetables and even flowers.  (Most Japanese are blissfully unaware of this, and will gladly talk about eating grass, when in fact they mean wild vegetables!)

Anyway, the “seven herbs of spring” – haru-no-nanakusa (春の七草) – are boiled together with rice to make a gruel dish known as nanakusa gayu.  The number seven is derived from Chinese cosmology – there are seven “herbs” for summer and autumn too, and the seven gods of good fortune make their appearance at this time of year.

There is a song for recalling the ingredients.  The traditional names for the seven herbs are archaic, and some differ from modern names.  Also, there are regional variations for both the ingredients and the exact date for the dish to be made.  The accompanying chant for chopping the herbs is also subject to regional variation.

I’m not big on folk songs, so I’m not 100% sorry that we don’t carry out this custom at home.

Anyway, here is a rundown of the seven herbs of spring:

Photo and traditional name

Modern name


seri (芹)


same Oenanthe javanica, or Java Dropwort.  Not to be confused with the similar-looking but poisonous Mackenzie’s Water Hemlock.

nazuna (薺)


same or sometimes penpenkusa  Capsella bursa-pastoris, shepherd’s purse.

gogyo (御形)


hahakogusa (母子草)  Jersey cudweed, Gnaphalium affine.

hakobera (繁縷)


hakobe (蘩蔞)  Chickweeds of the genus Stellaria.  Long used in folk medicine.

hotokenoza (仏の座)

koonitabirako (小鬼田平子)  Nipplewort Lapsana apogonoides.  Not to be confused with henbit dead-nettle (Lamium amplexicaule), which is also known as hotokenoza.

suzuna (菘)

kabu (蕪) This is a turnip.  Only the leaves are used for the gruel.

suzushiro (蘿蔔)

daikon (大根)  Giant Chinese radish.  Only the leaves are used in the gruel.

*All the above photos courtesy of Wikipedia.


I’ve even seen the seven herbs sold together as a set for making the gruel.  Maybe one day I’ll try making it, but on a cold winter day I’d rather have a big curry!

Happy New Year!

4 Feb


Happy New Year!


“Huh?”, I hear you ask.

Let me explain.  February 3rd is Setsubun, literally “division of the seasons”.  On the lunar calendar, this was the end of the kan – the coldest part of the year – and folklore holds that from now the weather will get warmer.*  (For more information, see “24”)

Setsubun kit sold from the supermarket – demon mask, dried soybean plant and false holly.


New Year’s cards often have the word “risshun” (立春) – literally “rise of spring” – on them.  This stems from the fact that, prior to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, Setsubun was the division between the old year and the new year.  February 4th (or roughly there about) was the first day of the new year.


So, Happy New Year!


* Unfortunately, no-one has told the weather that it is supposed to be getting warmer.  More cold weather – including fridge temperature maximums –  and snow have been predicted for this week.


3 Jun

The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition of “season”:

“a period of the year characterized by a particular climatic feature or marked by a particular activity, event, or festivity”


It’s easy to think of the number of seasons as four, or maybe two for tropical regions.  A little more difficult to imagine for members of modern-age consumer societies is a 24 season calendar.


This calendar dates from the Warring States period of China (c 450 BC-221 BC) and was later adopted in the Chinese sphere of influence (Japan, Korea and Vietnam)

It divides the year into 24 solar terms (which can then be further divided into 72 pentads), each reflecting a natural phenomenon, and synchronised with seasonal change.  It appears to be a guide to agrarian activities, given some of the names.


The Japanese name for the 24 season calendar is nijushisekki (二十四節気).  The terminology in this calendar derives from Chinese, but as it is designed around the climate of northern China, the Japanese added some extra dates, known as zassetsu (雑節) to help match it to the Japanese climate.  The names of the 72 pentads or shichijuniko (七十二候), of which I will not go into detail, also sometimes differ, further reflecting the different climatic experiences.


Here are the 24 seasons with the major zassetsu (excluding setsubun)


Starting date

 (±1 day)




February 4 Risshun (立春) Beginning of spring This is New Year’s Day on the lunar calendar.  Convention holds that the coldest weather has now passed, so it is the beginning of spring.
February 19 Usui (雨水) Rain water Winter is the driest season in Japan, but rain tends to fall around the end of February.  Also, snow and ice on the mountains begins to melt.
March 6 Keichitsu (啓蟄) Awakening of hibernating insects As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, “insect” is not always the most accurate translation.  The Japanese version of the third pentad of this season mentions the metamorphosis of caterpillars into white butterflies. (菜虫化蝶)
March 18 Higaniri (彼岸入り) Beginning of Higan Buddhist memorial rites.  Associated with peonies.
March 18~ Shanichi (社日) Shrine day Also known as Shunsha (春社), a Shinto festival, in which prayers for good crops are made.  The date is not fixed.
March 21 Shunbun (春分) Vernal equinox The Japanese version of the second pendant has it that cherry trees begin to blossom.
March 24 Higanake (彼岸明け) End of Higan Calculated as three days after the equinox.
April 5 Seimei (清明) Clear and bright In China, this was a time to visit and maintain ancestral graves, a practice which is reflected in the Japanese mid-summer O-bon.Weather tends to be fair.
April 17 [Haru no] doyo (春の土用)   Doyo are the 18 days prior to the start of the four main seasons.
April 20 Kokuu (穀雨) Grain rain Time to prepare the fields for grain crops.  The rain helps the grains to grow.
May 2 Hachijuhachiya (八十八夜) Eighty-eighth night The 88th day of spring.  Tea is harvested around this date, and rice seedlings are often planted.
May 6 Rikka (立夏) Start of summer Folklore says frogs begin to sing.
May 21 Shoman (小満) Grain full Barley fields turn yellow-green.
June 6 Boshu (芒種) Grain in ear Apparently this actually refers to the planting of seeds of rice and barley, although in reality planting occurs much earlier.  The Japanese first pentad says that praying mantises emerge.
June 11 Tsuyuiri (入梅) Beginning of rainy season. Of course, the beginning of rainy season varies by year and location, but this date is used as a guide for farmers.
June 21 Geshi (夏至) Summer solstice Most of Japan is in rainy season.  Summer solstice in the Northern hemisphere.
July 2 Hangesho (半夏生)   Calculated as 11 days from the solstice.  In many areas farmers take five days off from work.
July 7 Shosho (小暑) Minor heat The rainy season draws to a close – conventional wisdom says it finishes on July 20th.  Temperatures rise.  Cicadas begin to sing.
July 20 Tsuyuake (梅雨明け) End of the rainy season Also marks the official opening of Mt. Fuji climbing season.
July 20 [Natsu no] doyo (夏の土用)   The best known of the doyo – many people associate doyo with this day only.  Eating eel is a tradition.
July 23 Taisho (大暑) Major heat Fine weather as temperatures continue to rise.
August 8 Risshu (立秋) Start of autumn Supposedly the hottest time of the year has passed, marking the decent into autumn.  One kind of cicada begins to sing.
August 23 Shosho (処暑) Limit of heat The last of the summer heat.  Rice begins to ripen.
September 1 Nihyakutoka (二百十日) Two hundred and tenth day Calculated as the 210th day from the eve of spring.  Noted as a changing point for the seasons and the season for typhoons.
September 8 Hakuro (白露) White dew Dew forms as the air cools.  Both the Chinese second pentad and Japanese third pentad mention swallows returning south.
September 11 Nihaykuhatsuka (二百二十日) Two hundred and twentieth day Calculated as the 220th day from the eve of spring.  A time to be aware of typhoons.
September 19~ Shanichi (社日) Shrine day Also known as Shusha (秋社), counterpart to the March festival.  A thanksgiving and harvest festival.  Again, the date is not fixed.
September 20 Higaniri (彼岸入り) Beginning of Higan Buddhist memorial rites. Associated with bush clover and spider lilies.
September 23 Shubun (秋分) Autumnal equinox Water disappears from rice fields, according to both the Chinese and Japanese third pentads.
September 26 Higanake (彼岸明け) End of Higan Calculated as three days after the equinox.
October 8 Kanro (寒露) Cold dew Chrysanthemums bloom and crickets stop singing.  Geese migrate.  Dew looks like it will freeze.
October 20 [Aki no] doyo (秋の土用)   The autumn doyo.
October 23 Soko (霜降) Frost decent Frost forms and leaves begin to change colour.
November 7 Ritto (立冬) Start of winter The first signs of winter appear as daytime becomes noticeably short.
November 22 Shosetsu (小雪) Minor snow Tiny amounts of snow fall.  Certainly snow has already started in northern Japan, but not around Tokyo.
December 7 Taisetsu (大雪) Major snow Snow falls in larger amounts.  Bears go into hibernation.  Japanese amberjack is in season.  The Japanese third pentad says that salmon return to the rivers.
December 22 Toji (冬至) Winter solstice The shortest length of daylight and the sun appears at its lowest in the sky. According to the third pentad, deer lose their antlers.
January 6 Shokan (小寒) Minor cold The coldest part of the year sets in.
January 17 [Fuyu no] doyo (冬の土用)   The winter doyo.
January 20 Daikan (大寒) Major cold The coldest part of the year.  Some schools of budo hold special training known as kangeiko (寒稽古).


Memorizing the 24 seasons, let alone the 72 pentads, seems a mammoth task.  I’m sure Vivaldi is glad he didn’t have to compose The 24 Seasons!

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