Many people measure their year in four seasons; others, just two. In ancient Japan, the total came to a whopping 72, with each lasting about five days, all together making up 24 larger divisions known as sekki. While this may sound confusing, these 72 microseasons are meant to express the passing of the calendar year as a soothing, poetic journey that draws your focus to the subtle shifts of the natural world. Rather than simple descriptors like “summer” or “wet,” these 72 kō instead have names that translate into mellifluous phrases such as, “Dew glistens white on grass,” “First peach blossoms,” or “Bush warblers start singing in the mountains.” These titles originally arrived from Chinese sources, but the Edo period’s first official astronomer, Shibukawa Shunkai, rewrote them in 1685 to better fit the Japanese climate.
Last year, the Utsukushii Kurashikata Institute released a free mobile app for iOS and Android that pairs every day of this ancient system with beautiful illustrations and traditional Japanese texts. “72 Seasons – A year seen through the ancient Japanese calendar” is a no-frills, no-fuss program; it’s no productivity tool for you to record upcoming tasks or events. It simply presents a way to measure time without having to worry about precise dates — just observe the adjustments in temperature, wildlife, and the creatures around you. With 2017 on the horizon, now seems like a particularly fitting moment to look at the days to come through this fresh perspective.
Designed with an interface that resembles a Japanese scroll, “72 Seasons” shows you one microseason at a time, updating about every five days so you really have to take the seasons as they arrive. Each comes with seasonal words, foods, activities, and illustrations often drawn from ancient Japanese texts or prints as well as explanations for their significance in Japanese culture. “The Bear Retreats to its Den,” for instance, which spans December 12 to 16, presents the Japanese artichoke as a seasonal vegetable and the sea cucumber as both seasonal fish and word. And the plump slug, as the app explains, is a favorite subject of haiku poets; one included example: The sea cucumber/speaks of its anguish/to the jellyfish.
It sure feels like we are all the sea cucumber as 2016 draws to an end. But checking in with the slow-paced “72 Seasons,” even once in a while, may help us avoid unnecessary stresses and become more like the jellyfish — which, as the app describes, is “freely floating without concern for being eaten.”
h/t Spoon & Tamago