Reno Suno ♦ July 31, 2018
Until I moved to New York I didn’t realize how much Japanese people appreciate seasons. Japan is a unique country that has four distinct seasons. Since the olden days, we have recognized the change of a season through trees, flowers, insects, vegetables, fruits, fish, and anything around us. Even in this advanced world where you can have anything at any time, the cycle of seasons have never changed, and there are things that you can only see at a particular period of time in a year.
Japanese have enjoyed the seasonality in many ways, although nowadays it is not appreciated as much as before because people take it for granted. In the small country, you can feel locality more than anywhere else. For example, July has been known for the best season for Hamo, pike eel. The pike eel is widely known in the west region of Japan especially around Osaka and Kyoto due to its limited availability. It is indigenous to Awaji Island, known as the first island of Japan according to ancient Japanese literature, located in the Seto Island Sea. Despite a distance from the Awaji Island, the pike eel is a signature fish in Kyoto in July. Since Kyoto is far from sea, it was not always easy to get fresh fish in Kyoto, especially back in the day when fish were delivered by traders on foot. However, pike eel naturally keeps its freshness longer than other fish, which made it a possibility for cooking in Kyoto. It is said that pike eel became one of the symbols of the traditional Gion Festival in Kyoto as the peak season of the pike eel coincides with the festival schedule.
Also, pike eel have a lot of small bones, and require a technique to remove them. So skillful chefs in Kyoto developed a way to cook the pike eel, and that technique has been passed down.
While the widely known pike eel is associated with Kyoto during the Gion Festival period, there are other local ingredients that have never spread outside their indigenous areas of Japan due to their limited availability. Unless you are from an area or you have lived in that region for a certain period of time, you may never know what they are. Thanks to online shopping, we can order just about anything from just about anywhere, but there are still some things that you cannot get unless you travel to them.
The pike eel is just an example of how seasonality is an integral part of life in Japan. When it comes to dining in Japan, the concept of “shun” plays an important role. This is an idea that every food should be eaten at its peak season because that is the time when the goods are in prime condition with a lot of nutrition. Interestingly, a body also desires what is “shun” at that time. For example, a watermelon is “shun” in summer when you want to cool down your heated body. In Japan, at local grocery stores, we enjoy shopping things at “shun” from different regions.
You can feel seasonality not only in food scenes in Japan. Acknowledging the season is a polite way to start your letter or email by mentioning how you are enjoying the season. Before a cherry blossom season, which lasts only for a week or two in Spring, you will say “Finally we are almost there for the blooming of the cherry blossoms. I cannot wait for it.” This sentence makes your letter sophisticated and makes a reader happy.
Knowing seasonality is important in Japanese culture, and feeling a season and enjoying what is only available in that period can make your stay in Japan more joyful. I would like to introduce tips of how and where you can feel seasonality in this blog going forward.