Japan,” they say, “has four seasons.” It’s a popular aphorism here, and they toss it out a lot. When they come across a bit of seasonal scenery that’s especially breathtaking, for example. Or, conversely, when the weather’s being a real pain in the ass. And sometimes simply for the hell of it, like when they hear a foreigner talking about the weather and they want to remind him that he’s not from around here. What people mean by this is not that Japan puts its pants on one leg at a time just like every other country in the world. Just the opposite. They mean that Japan has four distinct seasons. And they’re damned proud of it.
Doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, right? Spring, summer, winter, fall: these events aren’t big secrets. Everyone everywhere understands the difference between the seasons. In America, for example, we have advertisers to help remind us that spring is when we have Easter and Mother’s Day, summer is the Fourth of July, fall is for Thanksgiving and the quarter-year build-up to Christmas. Winter is basically just a hangover that’s made worse by having Valentine’s Day in the middle of it.
In my hometown on the coast of South Carolina, we have two seasons, which are bookended by minor variations on them. Pick a day of the calendar year at random and plop somebody down into Charleston on it, and he’d probably be hard-pressed to nail the season. The only two sure giveaways are dogwood and azalea blooms in spring and the soaking wet parbroil of late summer. Absent either of those environmental cues, you’re as likely as not to guess wrong by half a year. Autumn is a slow exit from the torture of August that ends with January, and winter is a multiple personality disorder. There’s no time of year when an 80-degree day is absolutely out of the question, and precipitation comes in a single variety.
But Japan, as I’m reminded so often, has four seasons. When I arrived in August, I was dismayed to find that summer here, at least in my corner of the country, is almost indistinguishable from the summers I grew up with: suffocating heat, endless rain and crushing humidity. But then autumn arrived, a paroxysm of color that works its way up the spine of the country like a shiver, squeezing out an impossible range of golds, reds, yellows and oranges as it moves north through the long line of mountains from Okinawa to Hokkaido, exhausting the landscape with its force. It was an entirely new experience for me. I’ve spent the last three months in the first authentic winter of my life, one in which snow is an everyday occurrence, and peaks that previously had lain at the edge of my awareness suddenly seemed to tower above the horizon on all sides, sparkling in white splendor like vast skyscrapers that were erected overnight. World-class ski slopes lie a 30-minute drive away, and I have a new appreciation for the challenges of riding a bicycle on ice-and slush-covered sidewalks.
In a little over a month, Japan will be in thrall to its most ostentatious season. Springtime here is about one thing: the cherry blossom, which has over the course of a thousand years or so become a cultural symbol without equal. Take the hyperbole that accompanies the annual cherry tree bloom in Washington, D.C. and multiply it by a factor of ten. According to the Japanese, the blossom of the cherry tree, called sakura, encapsulates the universe and the answers to everything within it, and at the same time pretty much every Japanese aesthetic principle worth knowing about. For a week, the whole country goes on holiday, during which the entire population devotes itself to the ritual of hanami – cherry blossom viewing. This I’m told they take very seriously. The ritual involves picnics, blankets on the grass, portable karaoke machines, and huge quantities of sake. It’s a countrywide party for a tree. Where else, I ask you, does that sort of thing happen?
When I arrived in Japan seven and a half months ago, I had little expectation of seeing two seasons, much less four. But here I am, thoroughly enmeshed in what feels at times like another person’s life, a blue-eyed foreigner in a sea of strangers. A month ago I moved into a new apartment in the center of the city. From one bank of windows, I have fifth-floor views of the old Fukui castle ruins across the street and its huge encircling moat. The ancient stone walls bristle with a crosshatch of snow, and a skein of ice glistens on the water. My street, a wide avenue named Sakura Dori, bisects two columns of hundreds of cherry trees, about to wake from their long sleep to a spectacle of self-indulgence in their honor.
In April, too, a new school term starts, and native English speakers across the country have themselves been the subject of a lot of loving attention lately. The talk among all my foreign friends is of interviews, new teaching contracts, salary negotiations, and work visas. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., a recession comes like a thunderhead, home prices continue their freefall, and a presidential election season flogs the airwaves.
The school where I’ve been teaching part-time since September has asked me to stay and take a full-time teaching position there, with a salary and benefits not too far from what I earned in the U.S. But it would require me signing a year contract. I may also have an opportunity to move to Osaka for a similar gig there. Nobody in the U.S. is falling over themselves wooing me with job offers at the moment, but that’s not to say I wouldn’t be able to find something if I returned. Journalists are useful during recessions, too. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my friends and family back home in the U.S. Yet I’ve been in Japan less than a year. I’ve seen three seasons here, and though I’ve traveled some, I’ve seen just the smallest part of a fraction of the country. I’ve never stopped feeling like an outsider, but if you want the truth, I often feel like an outsider at home in America, too.
I’ve never been the sort of person to make lists of pros and cons – I’m more of an intuitive decision-maker, the kind who shoots from the gut. But lately I’ve been tempted to break out the notepad. It’s an entirely new season in my own life, different from anything I’ve ever experienced, and I haven’t the slightest idea what to expect from it. I’m not a believer in destiny or religion, so unfortunately I can’t count on either the Fates or God to tell me what I should do. Does everything in this world happen for a reason? Nice thought, but it’s a crock of baloney. This one, I’ve got to figure out on my own.
Maybe I’ll find the answer in a cherry blossom. Then again, maybe I won’t.