You might contest that the "seasons" in question are already over...but not so! It turns out that Japanese New Year is one hell of a production, and while New Years Eve is a pretty low-key affair, New Years Day is pluralized into a 4-day fun-a-thon! New Years here is the Japanese answer to an American Christmas, and families gather to drink, eat, and enjoy mediocre holiday television. Good times! But that's only part of what I want to talk about today.
For the first part of today's title: seasons! Japanese people have always been heavy on ritual, and it is reflected in no place better than how they regard the four seasons. Much more than a change in temperature, the falling of leaves or the blossoming of flowers govern almost every part of the Japanese lifestyle. What foods you'll find in the stores, the types of parties that will fill your weekends, and even when you should clean are all dictated by the changing seasons.
For many of you this is not too different from how America operates. The phrase "spring cleaning" is certainly not unique to Japan, and one certainly would not have a Christmas party in July. The difference is more precisely in the protocol and reverence associated with those seasons, a priority held in sharper relief due to a few key factors.
One, Japan is a fairly small, almost entirely temperate nation (Okinawa being the exception). Whereas Americans can escape to Florida for the winter or might always find snow in Alaska, the people of Japan have the understanding that if it is winter in one city, it is winter in all cities. The odd result of this line of thinking is that four seasons is an unusually high number. I've met dozens of people here who assume that my home is somehow season-deprived, that we lurk by with two, three seasons tops over the year. Alternatively there's the notion that America, like Japan, shares nation-wide norms, and that snow in New York means it will be heading down to Tennessee sooner or later. Either way, it's somewhat reassuring that another country shares America's apathy for Geography.
Next, the people here do not share a unified vision of central AC/heating. Very few homes have any real insulation, and your average school wheels out kerosene heaters only into the teacher's room in mid-December. In America many people are only exposed to the elements between their car and workplace or home. In Japan, you live or die by wearing more layers of clothes than this guy. It's not uncommon for me to see my breath inside of my own house. In summer, it's the same deal reversed - I have to hook up an IV just to make sure I get more fluids than I sweat out. GROSS.
The last big piece of the puzzle are Japan's monthly holidays. When Jeff, Nirav and I first showed up to Japan, we were all put in a Japanese class where we learned a song about celebrating every month in Japan. There were twelve verses and every one gave a different reason why you could drink sake in that month. January? There's New Years! SO LET'S GET WASTED! May? Kid's day! PASS THE BREW! September?! Typhoon season! BEER BOOOONG! While it's true that most Japanese people don't need an excuse to drink, they sure don't mind having one.
So why am I rambling on about seasons? Well, if you're planning on visiting Japan, you better figure out WHEN. I found a site that does an amazing job of summarizing the pros and cons of different months in Japan that you would do well to check if you're planning a trip. The short version is - fall and spring are great months for visiting Japan, with the exceptions listed on that site. You'll want to steer clear of the two big national holidays, Golden Week (beginning of May) and New Years (beginning of January), and summer is absurdly humid. There is, of course, something to be had any month you come to Japan. Beer, for example. And other drinks. Also, beers.
While that site gives a good general break-down, it would also be good to research the local offerings of whatever area you might be visiting. January, for example, may seem like a pretty rough month for travel. But if you're going to Hokkaido, the Snow Festival over there is not to be missed. If you're visiting Saga, it might be hot as hell - but the Imarin Beach parties, waterfall climbing, and other crazy happenings would more than make up for it.
Now that seasons are covered, let's roll over to: greetings!
As with the seasons, there is an orgy of useful information on the Internet. I just searched for "Japanese greetings" and was assaulted by a gang of websites that beat me up and took my money. No joke. So the plan now is to give you a few sites I think will help lead the way. I could blunder through a pronunciation guide, but that will be a post for later. For now, just try and learn a few phrases in the links below!
About a dozen basic greetings (sound bytes included!).
Similar to above for the more you-tube and embarrassing music/presentation oriented of you.
We'll leave it at that for now. One important note: For later reading, installing the Asian Language pack for your copy of Windows might become a necessity. It's really not too tough, so here's a little tutorial on how to set it up. A search on Google will provide even more answers, as will questions in the comments section.
Whew - that's way more than my usual post-quota for a day. Hopefully we'll see another post in about a week. Until then, get to work on learning those greetings, and you will blow the mind of any Japanese person you meet.