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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

A Farewell to Japan

Two years and change. That is how long I have been living in this wonderful country, a land filled with natural beauty, timeless culture, and endless history. The time I have spent here has flown by and I feel that I have yet to even scratch the surface of the photographic possibilities that Japan has to offer. There are many areas, especially in the southern regions, which I have yet to explore. One day though.

However, as a parting gesture, I would like to introduce my readers to the Japanese traditional seasonal calendar which breaks the year into 24 seasonal divisions and 72 micro-seasons. Since arriving March of 2016, I have noticed that there are distinct changes throughout nature more frequently than just Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. It's been fascinating to observe and maybe this is why it has also felt like the time slipped by so quickly.

The images I will share in this article will be from mostly the Tohoku region (northern Honshu Island) since that was my primary stomping ground and I want to highlight the beauty that can be seen far from the southern tourist trails. There will also be more detail images as beauty in Nature comes in both large and small packages. Overall, this should give you more information on the seasonal changes throughout Japan and a plethora of pleasing photographs as I share some of the everyday beauty found across this country.

Location tip: These dates are obviously not set in stone as Nature does not run on a calendar schedule. Also, the dates are more a general guide to the mid-country area. Winter sets in a bit earlier and stays a bit longer up here in the North, while the southern islands never see snow.

Beginning of Spring (Feb 4 - 18th)

East wind melts the ice | Bush warblers start singing in the mountains | Fish emerge from the ice

In the Japanese alps, Tohoku region, and Hokkaido, the land is still encased in Winter's spell. This is the best time to visit for winter wildlife photography and winter sports for this reason.

Rainwater (Feb 19 - Mar 5th)

Rain moistens the soil | Mist starts to linger | Grass sprouts, trees bud

Snow is still very present in the mountains and Northern prefectures, however, the southern prefectures and along the coastal areas start to see changes where rain is more likely than snow.

Insects Awaken (Mar 6 - 20th)

Hibernating insects surface | First peach blossoms | Caterpillars become butterflies

Both years I have been in Japan, March was typically the month I would travel back to the U.S.A. Here, in northern Japan, it is still winter and there is still much skiing and snowboarding to be had.

Spring Equinox (Mar 20 - Apr 4th)

Sparrows start to nest | First cherry blossoms | Distant thunder

Cherry blossoms typically don't start until the mid/late April for the Tohoku region due to lingering cold. However, Kyoto does normally have their first cherry blossoms by the first week, thus illustrating this calendar was created more for the more populous southern Honshu region.

Pure and Clear (Apr 5 - 19th)

Swallows return | Wild geese wild north | First rainbows

Overnight it seems, Winter finally releases its hold on Tohoku and spring growth burst forth. Mountain passes open allowing the adventurous access to areas that have been closed for months.

It is during this time in Aomori Prefecture that the Katakuri flower opens as the harbinger of spring. These flowers have been prized by the Japanese for centuries as they are long lived, blooming only once reaching the age of 7-8 years old, and they provide starches, similar to corn starch, that can be used in cooking.

Grain Rains (Apr 20 - May 4th)

First reeds sprout | Last frost, rice seedlings grow | Peonies bloom

It is during this time that the cherry blossoms in the Tohoku region bloom. The wild horses who live on Cape Shiriyazaki as prefectural National Treasures, heavy with foals, start giving birth. And Lake Towada, the largest caldera lake on Honshu Island, is free of ice (though still very cold). The peonies in this region are still behind and typically open at the beginning of June.

Beginning of Summer (May 5 - 20th)

Frogs start singing | Worms surface | Bamboo shoots sprout

Canola flower fields blanket the hills in yellow. Bright spring green highlights the canopies over hiking trails and streams that are full of snow melt. The last blooms of the wild mountain cherries can be found during this time as well. Even Hokkaido is starting to turn green by this point.

Lesser Ripening (May 21 - Jun 5th)

Silkworms start feasting on mulberry leaves | Safflowers bloom | Wheats ripens and is harvested

Poppies and peonies burst onto the scene in full color under gentle rain showers. In the Tohoku region, there is not much wheat production as it is almost exclusively rice, with small plots of various fruits and vegetables grown for home consumption.

Grain Beards and Seeds (Jun 6 - 20th)

Praying mantises hatch | Rotten grass becomes fireflies | Plums turn yellow

A unique celebration takes place the second Saturday in June each year in Morioka City: the Chagu Chagu Umakko Festival. It is where prefectural farmers dress their horses up in radiant robes and hundreds of bells, leading them 15km from one temple to another to have them blessed for good health. The sound of the bells is unforgettable and was actually selected as one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan in 1996.

Summer Solstice (Jun 21 - Jul 6th)

Self-heal withers | Irises bloom | Crow-dipper sprouts

The last remnants of snow have finally melted away from all but the highest peaks in the country. Tohoku enters the rainy season as the foliage starts maturing into shades of dark green. Mt. Fuji also opens for climbing the first of July.

Lesser Heat (Jul 7 - 22nd)

Warm winds blow | First lotus blossoms | Hawks learn to fly

With continued rain, Tohoku stays cool even during July. As I write this, we have had over a week of rain and the temperatures have been in the upper 60s/70*F during the day with only a few days in the 80s. Between showers, the various animals move about their lives, as the landscapes flourish.

Greater Heat (Jul 23 - Aug 7th)

Paulownia trees produce seeds | Earth is damp, air is humid | Great rains sometimes fall

This short window typically embodies the summer weather here in Northern Japan. Hot and humid, its a great time to explore the ravines and gorges that have shaded paths and cool waters. Hope for a breeze though otherwise it can be stifling with the hum of mosquitoes.

Between August 2nd and 7th, millions of visitors flood Aomori City for the Aomori Nebuta Festival. A wondrous display of giant paper floats lit from inside and droves of high energy dancers, all set to the deep thrumming beat of takio drums. This is one of those events you cannot miss if you are in the country during these dates.

Beginning of Autumn (Aug 8 - 22nd)

Cool winds blow | Evening cicadas sing | Thick fog descends

August is the time for festivals throughout Japan. Besides Golden week in early May, August holds the next biggest holiday for the Japanese people, called Obon. Celebrated for over 500 years, its a time to honor one's ancestors. Many people travel home to be with family during this time and transportation and accommodation costs skyrocket. Even with the additional costs, many used this time to get out into nature, so camp spots are crowded and its the busiest time on Mt Fuji. Unless you would like to experience Obon, I suggest not traveling in Japan at this time of year. Even though I have my own vehicle, I find the roads are crowded with traffic far from the usual highways during this time, so I have stayed home mostly.

Manageable Heat (Aug 23 - Sep 7th)

Cotton flowers bloom | Heat starts to die down | Rice ripens

First off, I love how one of the seasonal dividers is called "Manageable Heat." Like, sure its a bit warm, but not too bad. Anyway, the weather starts drying out and, as the Japanese say, the heat becomes manageable. More and more, the days are picture perfect for exploring. In the Towada-Hachimanti National Park, late blooming alpine plants provide subsistence for caterpillars, while the relatively clear skies lend themselves to casting beautiful golden hour light.

White Dew (Sep 8 - 22nd)

Dew glistens white on grass | Wagtails sing | Swallows leave

A special event takes place each September at the Misawa Air Base, Misawa, Japan. The base hosts a bi-national air show with US forces and the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF). For those interested in aerial performances, this is a great opportunity. As temperatures start to drop, the winds seem to die down some as well, leading to wonderful mirror-like images.

Autumn Equinox (Sep 23 - Oct 7th)

Thunder ceases | Insects hole up underground | Farmers drain fields

Rice harvest is well underway in the Tohoku region at this time. Autumn is starting to creep in at the higher elevations as well. Yet, the coastal areas remain pleasantly balmy.

Cold Dew (Oct 8 - 22nd)

Wild geese return | Chrysanthemums bloom | Crickets chirp around the door

By far my favorite time of year in Tohoku. The true autumn fully appears in all shades of reds, orange, golds, and yellows. In reverse of Spring, Winter's coming is rarely delayed and tends to make an appearance quite quickly, with some of the mountains experiencing their first sticking snow fall at this time.

With such vibrant colors and many of the softer, "messier" vegetation now withered, this is my preferred time of year to play with intentional camera movement (ICM). The results can be a stunning array of impressionistic images, such as these.

Frost Falls (Oct 23 - Nov 6th)

First frost | Light rains sometimes fall | Maple leaves and ivy turn yellow

As the autumn colors move down the mountain sides, the river bottoms join in the season with their own beautiful displays, punctuated by waterfalls and rapids. Its during this time, hikers and backpackers must be prepared for full winter conditions in the Tohoku region as snowstorms can appear early.

Beginning of Winter (Nov 7 - 21st)

Camellias bloom | Land starts to freeze | Daffodils bloom

The beginning of November brings chilling temperatures and a browning of the landscape. Until the snow starts falling, many areas are just barren trees and soil. This is another time of year I have traveled internationally out of the country in search of better photography locations.

Lesser Snow (Nov 22 - Dec 6th)

Rainbows hide | North wind blows leaves from trees | Tachibana citrus tree leaves start to turn yellow

In the northern areas, this is still too early for snow in the lower elevations. only the mountains really start turning white with the first coat of snow for the season. To the south, this is a prime time to visit places like Tokyo or further south as they are typically still seeing fall colors.

Greater Snow (Dec 7 - 21st)

Cold sets in, winter begins | Bears start hibernating in their dens | Salmon gather and swim upstream

Halloween through the winter holidays is a time I have used to travel, work side jobs, and generally stay out of the field as its bitterly cold, still moist, and not all that aesthetically pleasing outside in the northern area. Traveling during this time to the south, places like Kyoto are past prime fall colors but still have so much to offer the traveling photographer.

Winter Solstice (Dec 22 - Jan 4th)

Self-heal sprouts | Deer shed antlers | Wheat sprouts under snow

New Years is a big holiday for the Japanese. Like Golden Week in May and Obon in August, the days leading up to and just after New Years see mass travel within the country. A big tradition is to watch the first sunrise of the year. For us, its an easy drive to the coast where, for once, I was not alone when shooting sunrise along the Pacific coast here.

Lesser Cold (Jan 5 - 19th)

Parsley flourishes | Spring's thaw | Pheasants start to call

The snows have set in for good in the Tohoku region and skiing/snowboarding is in full swing. Japanese powder snow is magical as it blankets the land and creates a pillow top surface for those just learning to ski or board.

Greater Cold (Jan 20 - Feb 3rd)

Butterburs bud | Ice thickens on streams | Hens start to lay eggs

Much like the Lesser Cold period, this is prime time for snowfall and winter sports. Roads can be a bit sketchy and winter storms can drop many inches of snow with little to no warning. This year I was lucky to have a small break in the snow showers just as the full blue moon eclipse took place.

And that brings us back to the Beginning of Spring. I know this was a bit lengthy, but I hope you enjoyed the visual walk through a year of seasons here in Japan. Next time you hear from me, I will be back stateside with all new adventures starting in Las Vegas, Nevada!

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