Celebrating The First Day Of Spring According To An Ancient Calendar

japan ancient calendar image

(Image from Chibichoromedia)

Living closely attuned to the seasons was the key to survival for people since ancient times. In Asia, the calendars used to be lunisolar, meaning the cycles of the moon and the sun where both taken into consideration. For farmers in Japan, this calendar was also helpful as a guide to remember what to expect next. Today, February 4, marks risshun, the first day of spring according to the ancient calendar, introduced from China and Korea around 604 - over 1400 years ago - and adapted to local needs and desires as well as holidays, occasions & events since then.

japan clock image

(Image of telling time in ancient Japan by Anthony J. Bryant)

The principal method of telling time is actually rather easy. The day is divided into twelve rôkoku or koku ("hours" for want of a better term, although one koku is equal to two modern hours) and is given the name of one of the animals from the zodiac. For example, the Hour of the Horse, or Uma no koku, corresponds to 11 a.m. — 1 p.m. on a modern clock.

japan ancient calendar space image

(Image from oyazi19seiki)

Time, for the ancients, and for farmers in particular, was clearly cyclical, not linear as it tends to be today. The Gregorian calender was introduced here in the 1870s, but time still tends to bend slightly differently. For example, 2009 is the 21st year of Heisei, as we count the years since the current emperor ascended the throne (I'm still having difficulties remembering my year-of-birth (Showa 41) according to this way of counting!).

risshun first day of spring-japan

(Photo from the Shimin Runner blog)

Some of the ancient names, such as Shunbun, Geshi, Risshū and Tōji, are used in everyday life in Japan, to note the spring equinox, summer solstice, autumnal equinox and winter solstice.

Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara discuss how difficult it was to understand the leap year, and the troubles it caused the nobles in Japan in the 17th century...

Risshun with 24 solar terms, or Lichun in China falls on different days, as time, of course, is more flexible than we usually like to admit. After all, it is only a construct of the mind. When we try to develop a more sustainable lifestyle, we need to disregard the seconds, minutes, and hours... and learn to appreciate a more slow lifestyle.

risshun sake image

(Image from Japan Prestige Sake Association)

If you write poetry or letters, you may want to try to include a local reference to the changing seasons. It will be much appreciated here. And if you like sake, Japanese rice wine, you can find many varieties that play on words related to the changing seasons, as an event to rise a toast. Japan Prestige Sake Association has very little information in English, but their Japanese website celebrates today's risshun, and there were many TV programs too about local food and drink for the upcoming year today.

setsubun japan image

Ha! Got you! Scram!! If this sounds very complicated, don't worry. Kids love this time of the year. There are games and they have lots of fun even though it is still very cold. The day before spring is called setsubun (a friend of mine calls it setsu-bunny just to get it right) when you throw beans out of your house, as a way to throw out demons. Then you eat the same number of beans as your age, for bringing good luck into your life, for the year to come. This of course, supermarkets and convenience stores all over Japan are promoting around this time of year, selling the beans (clearly labelled as being not genetically modified) and masks - as a lunar New Years Eve as it were:

Setsubun achieved the status of an imperial event and further took on symbolic and ritual significance relative to its association with prospects for a "returning sun", associated climatic change, renewal of body and mind, expulsion of evil, symbolic rebirth, and preparation for the coming planting season.

Written by Martin Frid at greenz.jp

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