Maps and Seasons

Edo-era (early 19th Century) map of the world. Japan 大日本 depicted in yellow in the center. (Kanji read right to left on the map.)

Seasonality is a big deal in haiku. Typically the poet must compose with one of the traditional four seasons — spring, summer, autumn, winter — anchoring the poem. Whereas we mark the start and end of seasons with the solstices and equinoxes, in Japan the seasons are calibrated differently, with the equinoxes and solstices marking the middle of the respective seasons.

  • Spring 春 (haru) : February 5 — May 6.
  • Summer 夏 (natsu) : May — August 8.
  • Autumn 秋 (aki) : August 9 — November 7.
  • Winter 冬 (fuyu) : November 8 –  February 4.

Japanese, following the Chinese, also historically divided the solar year into 24 units, or seasons, of about fifteen days each, called the nijūshi-sekki 二十四節気. Some examples of these are:

  • Risshun (立春): February 4—Beginning of spring
  • Usui (雨水): February 19—Rain water
  • Keichitsu (啓蟄): March 5—Awakening of insects from hibernation
  • Shunbun (春分): March 20— Vernal equinox, middle of spring

And so on.

They then parsed those fifteen day seasons even further, cutting them into thirds, creating even smaller “seasons” called shichijūnikō 七十二候. So, for example, within risshun, the beginning of spring, we have a five day period in which bush warblers start singing in the mountains:黄鶯睍睆. (The translation of nightingale in the picture below is not really correct. The common nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) is an Old World flycatcher while the uguisu (Horornis diphone) is a bush warbler. Earlier translators equated the uguisu’s lovely song to that of the nightingale, but this bird sings by day, not night; nor is it a flycatcher.)

If you want to follow these “seasons” there is, of course, an app for it: the 72 Seasons app: A Year Seen through the ancient Japanese calendar.

















As you can see from the pages I’ve included here, this is a charming app. And by that I mean quaint: attractively unusual; old fashioned — because it doesn’t really do what apps are “supposed” to do. It doesn’t help us organize, or connect, or post, or schedule, or sync, or monitor, or play this or that. It’s more like a chapbook, or an art book that you might flip through while waiting for a friend in their living room. It gives us pleasing design. It teaches us about seasonal fruits, vegetables, and seafood. It gives us a little culture, a little feeling that the “world” is whole and wholly lovely. It really is just a little book, the only difference being that you get the pages in small doses, so you have to wait five days, till the next “season,” for your next several pages.


If it is true that we are living in the Anthropocene, an era of human-induced global warming and concomitant species extinctions, then this app can tell us little about our present condition. It’s stuck on the 35° latitude; stuck in an essentialist mindset which says “this is how the world was, this is how the world is, this is how the world will always be.” Fixed in time and space. And when I say “world” I’m really only talking about that narrow band of Honshu running from Kyoto-Nara to Tokyo-Kamakura.

When looking at something iconic in say, spring, such as the cherry blossom festivals, the earliest blossoms start in the extreme south of Kyushu, in Kagoshima, in mid to late March and then work their way up toward Hokkaido where they may not be out until the middle or end of May. The uguisu may be singing from the brush behind those ume blossoms in February in Shikoku, but not until sometime later in Hokkaido. Even the Chinese calendar upon which the Japanese was based, suffered from some of the same problems: what’s true in the south of China at a given point in the calendar, like when the wheat ripens, or when thunderstorms are most frequent, will probably not be true for the north of such an extensive country.

And that brings me to the title of this post and the map, which is a late Edo-era depiction (c.1840s) of Japan’s view of the world. The country had been closed (sakoku:鎖国) to westerners for a couple of hundred years, and the lack of knowledge of the physical world — of relative sizes of countries and continents; of shapes of coastlines and extent of mountain ranges, and a million other details that make up a map of the modern world — are readily apparent here.

We wouldn’t think of using this map other than as a colorful wall hanging, or as an historical document to learn something about Japan’s limited worldview before the changes that took place under Emperor Meiji. In the same way, you probably wouldn’t use the 72 Mini Seasons App to inform you about what the weather is likely to be tomorrow; or to get an extended five-day forecast.

Weather, climate, and temperature are, of course, all variable, changing with latitude, altitude, proximity to large bodies of water, and a hundred other variables. We would like to believe in the concept of timelessness, and patterns that repeat, season after season, year after year, but our senses tell us that something else is going on.

The Friends of the Pleistocene (FOP) have this to say about what they call the “Fifth Season” of the weather that is the Anthropocene:

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 12.13.25 AM

So, by all means, go ahead and download the app. Just don’t expect it to “do” anything for you. For that you’ll have to go outside and look around. Pay attention.

The Multifaceted Nature of Really Fine Haiku

When haiku are good, or very good, they are multifaceted. They don’t have just one simple translation. In this haiku by Buson 古傘の婆娑と月夜の時雨哉 old umbrella ”ba-sa” it goes — a moonlit night and the first rain of the season we hear the rain hitting the old umbrella — “ba-sa, ba-sa” — an onomatopoeic word that […]

A Drop

From Buson’s Collected Haiku #676:


first rain of the season

down the headgear onto the eyebrow 

a drop

烏帽子, or eboshi, literally “raven’s cap,” now worn almost exclusively by Shinto priests during ritual ceremonies, it was originally donned by young men at their coming of age ceremonies.









It evolved into a heavily lacquered headdress sometime in the late Heian period.











In this haiku, Buson is poking fun at the seriousness of the Shinto priest who is most likely performing his rituals at a small outdoor shrine. It starts to rain — the first cold rain of the season. A drop hangs from the lip of his headdress before falling onto his eyebrow. His dignity and reserve won’t allow him to do anything but “ganbaru” — to hang on; to persevere — until the ritual is over.

To see more of Buson’s haiku please follow him on Instagram @turnipdiary.


Kannushi and miko at the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo” by mrhayataShinto Priest. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

By Samuraiantiqueworld (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

What’s a Bagworm? and What Did a Raincoat Look Like in Japan in 1760?

So there’s this haiku by Buson:


like a bagworm   I’m all right   first winter rain

Another pretty good poet, Bashō, had written this:


first winter rain   the monkey too  wants a little raincoat

And Kikaku, Bashō’s disciple, wrote this:


donning a raincoat     this heron advances      evening winter rain

What all three of these haiku have in common is the central image of the traveler out of doors in late autumn or early winter, with the first, cold rain of the season starting to fall. Raincoats at the time were not much — bunches of straw woven together to hold off the rain.


But the image, in all three cases, equates the man in the straw raincoat with the animal.

Basho — macaque:


Kikaku — heron:


Buson — bagworm:


I’ll be sharing more of Buson’s haiku on Instagram: @turnipdiary. See you there!

photo credit: Jigokudani Yaen-Koen 2008-01-12 138 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Heron 2 via photopin (license)

photo credit: Man in traditional straw raincoat, Japan via photopin (license)