top of page
  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

Updated: Mar 21

This concept, known as "Shichijūni Kō" in Japanese, is a unique calendar system that has its origins in China. Rooted in Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy, this concept reflects a profound sensitivity to nature, its changes, and a desire to live in harmony with its rhythms. A way of life and 72 sources of inspiration in photography.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

In the intricate realm of Japanese traditions unfolds a unique concept that mirrors a deep and poetic understanding of time. This meticulous division of the calendar year transcends mere temporal measurement to celebrate the changes and constants of nature.


Each of these 72 seasons, lasting about 5 days, opens a window onto the impermanence of life, a key notion in Buddhist philosophy that resonates profoundly within Japanese culture.


Introduction

The art of photography finds in these ephemeral seasons an endless source of inspiration. Minimalist photography, in particular, with its pursuit of simplicity and its ability to capture the essence of a moment, naturally harmonizes with the symbols and rhythm of these 72 seasons.


By focusing on the subtle manifestations of each season, the minimalist photographer engages in a silent dialogue with time. They explore the fleeting beauty of landscapes, details, and textures that characterize each phase of the year.


The convergence between the concept of the 72 Japanese seasons and minimalist photography thus appears as an intriguing path to explore to broaden the reflection. By examining how this unique approach to time enriches photographic practice, we delve immediately into a contemplation of impermanence, a value inseparable from beauty and simplicity that puts into perspective how we, as photographers, immortalize the world around us.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

In this article, I revisit the origins and development of this concept in everyday life in Japan. I also consider the underlying philosophy of this fascinating calendar that finds possible resonance in minimalist photography, hoping that these texts can help to further expand our field of inspiration.


Origins and History

The origins of the 72 seasons trace back to ancient China, inspired by "Lunheng," a text written by the scholar Wang Chong in the 1st century. This concept was introduced to Japan around the 6th century alongside Buddhism and other Chinese cultural influences.


In ancient China, the changing of seasons was vital for agriculture, and it was crucial to predict and understand these transitions to optimize planting and harvesting times. To this end, the calendar was divided into 24 periods or terms. The concept of the 24 solar terms, known as "Jieqi" (节气) in Chinese and "Sekki" (節気) in Japanese, was developed to mark the seasonal changes and significant climatic phenomena of the year. These 24 terms were then subdivided to create the 72 seasons, allowing for an even more detailed and nuanced understanding of natural cycles (see below).


Thus, the 72 seasons of Japan find their roots in this ancient Chinese system of dividing the year, which was in turn influenced by observations and philosophies developed over centuries. This system was adapted and modified to match the climate, geography, and cultural sensitivities of Japan.


To better understand the origins of the 72 seasons, it's important to explore the historical and cultural context in which they developed, as well as the role of Wang Chong's text.


My library: Lunheng - The Complete Essay of Wang Chong

The Lunheng and Wang Chong

Wang Chong (27–97 AD) was a Chinese philosopher from the Han Dynasty known for his critical and skeptical work, the Lunheng (論衡), or "Balanced Discourses". In this text, Wang Chong examines and refutes many superstitions or popular beliefs of his time, based on observation and reason.


Although the Lunheng is not a text about the calendar or seasons per se, Wang Chong's empirical approach influenced how natural phenomena were studied in ancient China and understood by the Japanese upon the introduction of this concept.


Therefore, the connection between the Lunheng and the system of the 72 seasons in Japan is not direct. However, the spirit of observation and the emphasis on empirical experience in Wang Chong's work reflect the underlying principles of the meticulous division of the year into segments reflecting precise changes in nature.


Ki or Kō

To be precise about the terminology of words, it is necessary to make a distinction regarding the term "" from the expression "Shichijūni Kō," which is commonly translated as 72 (Shichijūni) seasons (Kō). However, the term "Kō" actually means "division" or "subdivision". The word for "season" in Japanese is "Ki" and corresponds to the second kanji of the word Sekki (節気). When we talk about the 24 Sekki, we should literally understand it as "24 seasons". Similarly, when talking about the 72 seasons (Shichijūni Kō), it would be more accurate to translate it as "72 subdivisions". But for simplicity, we agree to refer to the "Kō" as "seasons".


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

Adaptation, Philosophy, and Values

At the heart of the 72 seasons system lies a philosophy that values harmonious coexistence with nature. This approach recognizes the beauty and significance of every moment, encouraging a respectful appreciation of natural cycles and the subtle changes that mark the passage of time.


Each season, or "Kō", is characterized by changes in fauna, flora, weather conditions, and agricultural activities. These five-day periods reflect an intimate understanding of nature and are often accompanied by festivals, rituals, and specific culinary practices (see below).


Each season also carries a poetic name that evokes a symbol of natural change at a specific moment. For example, at the beginning of spring, a season is marked by "the singing of birds in the mountains," announcing the return of spring. Later, another season celebrates "the appearance of bamboo shoots" in the middle of summer. Yet another is characterized by the "blooming of camellias," heralding winter.


So, this calendar encourages a mindful and conscious life, where observation and reflection on the natural world are valued. It demonstrates that, for the Japanese, nature is not static but in constant evolution, and that humans are an integral part of these natural cycles that they must respect.


Topaz Photo AI: Get the most out of your photos with artificial intelligence. Increase resolution and reduce noise. Standalone software and Photoshop or Lightroom plugins. Try it for free here.

The 72 Seasons and Impermanence

The concept of the 72 seasons is closely tied to the notions of impermanence and change, two fundamental principles in Japanese culture and philosophy, rooted particularly in Buddhist teachings. This relationship highlights the beauty and transience of nature, fostering a deep appreciation for ephemeral moments and the continuous cycles of life.


By dividing the year into five-day segments, the concept brings to light the subtle and constant changes in the natural environment. This focus on the minutest details of the transition between seasons underscores the ephemeral nature of these states and encourages an awareness and appreciation of nature’s constant evolution.


Impermanence and Change in Buddhism

Buddhism, which has had a profound influence on Japanese culture since its introduction in the 6th century, emphasizes the concept of "Anicca".


Anicca (in Pali) or Anitya (in Sanskrit) is a fundamental principle of Buddhism that denotes the impermanence of all things. According to this concept, everything in the physical and mental universe is in constant change; nothing is permanent or static. Anicca is one of the three universal characteristics of existence, the other two being Dukkha (suffering or dissatisfaction) and Anatta (the absence of an unchanging self).


This teaches that everything in the universe is constantly changing, and no state is permanent. This understanding leads to an appreciation of the present moment and a recognition of the value of each experience, however fleeting it may be.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

The Cycle of Life

The acknowledgment of natural cycles through the 72 seasons also mirrors the Buddhist understanding of the life cycle, encompassing birth, death, and rebirth. Each season signifies a phase in the overarching cycle, marking birth, growth, decline, and rebirth. This repetition serves as a reminder that change is the only constant, and the end of one cycle marks the beginning of another.


The 72 seasons of Japan, by highlighting the subtle transitions in nature, act as poignant markers of this impermanence and change. This system not only encourages an aesthetic appreciation of the seasons but also prompts philosophical reflection on the ephemeral nature of life itself.


It urges living in the moment, embracing change as an essential part of existence, and finding beauty in the transience of life. In this way, the 72 seasons offer a path to a deeper understanding of life, a key concept in Japanese Buddhist wisdom.


My equipment: GITZO Ball Head S4. The ultra-stable head with friction control. The ultimate in smoothness and precision of movement. A reference for landscape photography and long exposures. Check it out here.

The 72 Seasons and Photography

The 72 seasons, the concept of impermanence, and minimalist photography share a deeply philosophical and aesthetic connection. They offer reflection on how we perceive and capture the passage of time, changes, and the ephemeral beauty of the moment.


At the heart of the concept is the acknowledgment of natural cycles and the subtle transitions that mark the passage of time. This approach to time, cherished in long-exposure photography, underscores the impermanence of everything in motion around us. Each season evokes a specific phase of transformation, reminding us that nothing remains static; everything is in constant flux.


Capturing the Passage of Time

Minimalist landscape photography is also inherently linked to the idea of impermanence. It allows for the capture of fleeting moments, securing instances of beauty that are destined to change or disappear. Through the lens, the landscape photographer documents subtle variations in light and textures that characterize each season, illustrating the instantaneity and transience of nature.


By combining the 72 seasons with the concept of impermanence valued by photography, a dialogue between the passage of time and the still image is established. Each photograph becomes a testament to the incessant changes in the environment, its ephemeral elements. It initiates a reflection on how we experience and remember time.


Thus, the link between the 72 seasons, impermanence, and photography invites us to contemplate the transient nature of existence. This synergy between the perception of time and the art of photography enriches our appreciation of fleeting beauty and prompts us to reflect on how we record its image. As such, this synergy offers a visual meditation on life, reminding us to embrace each moment with attention and gratitude.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

Practical Applications of the 72 Seasons Concept

The 72 seasons influence various aspects of Japanese life, from the arts to agriculture, and gastronomy. Indeed, this calendar also helps farmers determine the best time to sow or harvest. Gardens, designed to reflect seasonal changes, also use this system to plan plantings and landscaping to harmonize the garden with natural cycles.


Restaurant menus and available ingredients change with the season, reflecting a diet based on what is freshest and most seasonal. In poetry and literature, references to the seasons serve to evoke specific images and elicit subtle emotions.


Mono No Aware

The Japanese concept of Mono no Aware (物の哀れ) is an expression that describes the ephemeral sensitivity or emotiveness to the beauty of things, as well as the melancholy caused by their impermanence. Literally, it can be translated as "the pathos of things" or "empathy towards things". This concept is central to Japanese culture and aesthetics. It demonstrates the deep acceptance and appreciation of the transient nature of life and everything around us.


Mono no Aware is often associated with the appreciation of the changing seasons, such as the fleeting bloom of cherry blossoms (sakura), symbolizing the fleeting beauty of life. This sensitivity encourages cherishing the present moments and finding poignant beauty in their inevitable passage towards the end. The concept is expressed in various aspects of Japanese culture, including literature, cinema, and even everyday life, influencing how people perceive and appreciate the world around them.


WISE Visa Card: The solution for traveling photographers. Manage your money, instantly exchange over 40 currencies at the real rate, pay in local currencies, and have your bank details in more than 10 currencies. Get it here.

24 Sekki of 3 Kō

As mentioned above, the 72 seasons are grouped according to 24 major solar terms called "Sekki" (節気). The Sekki are key points of the traditional Asian lunisolar calendar, and 6 of them correspond to each of our 4 seasons. Together, they form the basis of the Japanese 72 seasons system, with each Sekki then subdivided into 3 to form the Shichijūni Kō.


I will address the Shichijūni Kō, classified by Sekki, in articles specifically dedicated to them. This classification indeed requires detailed explanations. For the sake of simplicity in reading this general article, I wish to limit myself to the level of the Sekki.


Here then is the list of the 24 Sekki with their approximate dates, in relation to the seasons of our conventional calendar:


Spring:

立春 (Risshun) - Beginning of spring: around February 4

雨水 (Usui) - Rainwater: around February 19

啓蟄 (Keichitsu) - The awakening of hibernating beings: around March 6

春分 (Shunbun) - Spring equinox: around March 21

清明 (Seimei) - Clarity and brightness: around April 5

穀雨 (Kokuu) - Grain rain: around April 20


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

Summer:

立夏 (Rikka) - Beginning of summer: around May 5

小満 (Shōman) - Small fullness: around May 21

芒種 (Bōshu) - Grain in ear: around June 6

夏至 (Geshi) - Summer solstice: around June 21

小暑 (Shōsho) - Slight heat: around July 7

大暑 (Taisho) - Great heat: around July 23


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

Autumn:

立秋 (Risshū) - Beginning of autumn: around August 8

処暑 (Shosho) - End of heat: around August 23

白露 (Hakuro) - White dew: around September 8

秋分 (Shūbun) - Autumn equinox: around September 23

寒露 (Kanro) - Cold dew: around October 8

霜降 (Sōkō) - Descent of frost: around October 23


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

Winter:

立冬 (Ritto) - Beginning of winter: around November 7

小雪 (Shōsetsu) - Light snow: around November 22

大雪 (Taisetsu) - Heavy snow: around December 7

冬至 (Tōji) - Winter solstice: around December 22

小寒 (Shōkan) - Slight cold: around January 6

大寒 (Daikan) - Great cold: around January 20


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

It should be noted that the dates of the Sekki vary slightly from year to year due to their dependence on the lunisolar calendar, which aligns lunar cycles with solar solstices and equinoxes.


My equipment: GITZO Traveler. The ultra-stable and compact carbon tripod. The ultimate solution for traveling light and photographing without compromising on quality. Check it out here.

Stories and Legends

Through their concept that sparks the imagination, the 72 seasons convey a multitude of anecdotes, legends, and traditions. While each season may have its own specific stories and celebrations, here are some examples illustrating how Japanese culture and folklore intertwine with this unique calendar:


The Singing of Insects

One of the 72 seasons is dedicated to listening to the singing of insects, a cherished pastime that symbolizes the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. There are legends surrounding certain insects like cicadas (semi) and crickets (kōrogi), which are revered for their melodious singing. The singing of insects is often associated with melancholy and the contemplation of the ephemeral nature of life, a recurring theme in Japanese literature and art.


The Autumn Moon

Tsukimi (月見), or "moon viewing", while deeply rooted in Japanese traditions and linked to natural cycles, is not explicitly one of the 72 seasons but spans several of them.


However, Tsukimi occurs during a time of year that coincides with some of these seasons, typically at the end of summer or the beginning of autumn according to the lunar calendar. Tsukimi celebrations are related to themes of harvest and gratitude.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

The period dedicated to autumn moon viewing is particularly rich in stories and traditions. Tsukimi is not only an occasion to celebrate the beauty of the autumn moon but also an opportunity to appreciate the art of poetry, music, or even enjoy dango (sweet rice dumplings). Legend has it that if you make a wish while looking at the moon during this season, it will come true. This tradition is rooted in ancient beliefs about the moon as a source of fertility and abundant harvest.


The Blooming of Flowers

Several of the 72 seasons celebrate the blooming of different plants and flowers, each accompanied by its own legends. For example, the cherry blossom (sakura) blooming period is surrounded by myths and symbolism, representing both ephemeral beauty and renewal. Festivals (Hanami) are organized to appreciate the cherry blossoms, a time when people gather to celebrate life and nature.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

The First Snow

Hatsuyuki (初雪), meaning "first snow," is a highly observed and celebrated phenomenon in Japan. It marks the transition from autumn to winter and is often awaited eagerly for its beauty and symbolism of renewal. There is a belief that the first snow brings purity and renewal. In some regions of Japan, the first snow is considered an omen of good fortune for the coming year.


Although each season is associated with specific observations of changes in nature, Hatsuyuki as such is not explicitly named as one of the 72 seasons. Like Tsukimi, this event also spans several seasons.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

The micro-seasons related to the approach of winter include descriptions of temperature changes, animal behavior, and vegetation, which are related to the onset of the first snow. For example, micro-seasons such as "Shimo hajimete furu (霜始降)" - the first frost falls, and "Tsubaki hajimete hiraku (山茶花始開)" - camellias begin to bloom, indicate the imminent arrival of winter and coincide with or suggest the approach of Hatsuyuki in some regions of Japan.


Rituals and Cuisine

Each season is also associated with traditional culinary rituals. These practices are often accompanied by legends explaining their origins or the beliefs associated with them.


Most seasons encourage the tasting of fish, vegetables, or other ingredients at their peak of freshness. Thus, Japanese cuisine includes a strict notion of seasonality in their dishes, with foods being consumed during the periods when the harvest is optimal.


Spring is marked by the arrival of shoots and green vegetables such as bamboo shoots (takenoko), broad beans (soramame), and young dandelion leaves (tanpopo no ha). Spring dishes often feature these ingredients, celebrating freshness and new life.


Summer sees an abundance of seafood, as well as vegetables like eggplants (nasu), cucumbers (kyūri), and tomatoes. A summer culinary ritual is the consumption of somen (thin wheat noodles) served cold, ideal for refreshing oneself during hot days.


My equipment: K&F Concept ND Filter + magnetic ring. Rainproof treated glasses. A practical solution for photographing in difficult conditions without compromising on quality. Check it out here.

Autumn is the time of harvests, with an abundance of rice (kome), mushrooms (kinoko), sweet potatoes (satsumaimo), and fruits such as persimmons. A traditional dish of this season is grilled Pacific saury (sanma), a migratory fish often enjoyed with freshly harvested rice.


Winter is marked by foods that warm the body, like lotus roots (renkon), daikons (daikon), and pumpkins (kabocha). Hotpots (nabe), with their rich broths and varied ingredients, are a winter culinary ritual that promotes conviviality and sharing.


Japan: The 72 Seasons, Celebrating the Ephemeral Beauty of Nature

The Final Word

The concept of Japan's 72 seasons invites us to deeply reflect on our relationship with nature and time. Beyond merely dividing the calendar, it symbolizes a life philosophy that embraces the impermanence and ephemeral beauty of each moment.


This sensitivity to natural cycles teaches us humility and gratitude. It encourages us to live more consciously and harmoniously. By observing the delicate transitions between seasons, we learn to appreciate the value of each moment, recognizing the richness of the small things that make up our daily lives.


Relating these seasons to minimalist photography invites a deeply philosophical and contemplative approach to visual art. By focusing on nature's subtle transitions, minimalist photography captures the essence of impermanence, reflecting beauty in simplicity and the transience of moments.


This approach encourages photographers to meticulously observe changes around them, recognize the unique value of each moment, and convey the emotional and aesthetic depth contained in life's simplest aspects. The 72 seasons offer a framework for exploring the connection between humans and nature, inviting personal reflection on our interaction with the environment.

 

Congratulations! You have reached the end of this article. I am pleased to offer you your first WISE VISA CARD. Exclusively here:

WISE Visa Card: The solution for traveling photographers. Manage your money, instantly exchange over 40 currencies at the real rate, pay in local currencies, and have your bank details in more than 10 currencies. Get it here.
 

Comentarios


bottom of page