What season is it? If you use the modern calendar, we’re still in “winter.” However, if you’re using the “72 Seasons” app, then you know the season is the much more poetic “Haze First Covers the Sky.”
By Leslie Lee III
“72 Seasons” uses Kurashi no Koyomi, the ancient Japanese calendar, which divides the year into 24 periods with 72 distinct seasons. Each season describes the changes taking place in nature at the time, like “Spring Winds Thaw the Ice,” “The First Peach Blossoms,” “Damp Earth Humid Heat,” and “The Maple and the Ivy Turn Yellow.” The app lets users learn about each of seasons as they come in a beautiful interface full of classic art, poems, and even seasonal food recommendations.
Weekender talked to 72 Seasons’ English language project manager Tom Vincent. Tom is a 20-year resident of Japan by way of the UK. We discussed how he became involved with “72 Seasons,” how the Kurashi no Koyomi has something to offer for people even outside of Japan, and what the future of the app holds.
How did you become involved in this project?
“72 Seasons” started several years ago as a project between publisher Heibonsha and Dentsu. I run a small creative consultancy, and when the project started they asked me to help with planning, and to organize the art direction and technical direction for the original Japanese version of the app. The Japanese version has been very popular – currently it has been downloaded 350,000 times – and has also been made into a book.
From the outset we wanted to produce an English version, but it took several years to get started. Finally last year we got to work, and I took charge of getting the translation done.
What does the app offer to people in their daily lives?
The old 72-season calendar is a wonderful way to balance our rushed, quick-fix contemporary lives. Each season lasts just five days or so – the length isn’t precisely fixed – so instead of months, weeks, days, minutes or seconds even, it relies on a more natural flow of time. And each of the season’s names are such sensitive, precise observations of the changes in the natural world as the year progresses.
It can be very refreshing to check the current season as the app updates, and then go for a walk or look out of your window and see the same flowers blossoming, hear the same birds calling as the authors of the calendar did at that time of year, all those hundreds of years ago. And besides the season names, each season of the app introduces a haiku poem relevant to the season, to give you an extra feeling of how people related to the seasons in the old days, plus descriptions of seasonal vegetables and fish and other foods, and a seasonal activity – usually a festival or ritual that is common at that time of year.
It’s fun seeing that, for example, clams are in season, learning a bit about them, and then finding them on the menu when you go for a drink at your local izakaya. I think it’s fun using the app outside of Japan, too. I grew up on a farm in the UK, and when I go back it’s fun to compare the differences at the same, tiny little slice of the year – and surprisingly sometimes similarities, too.
What is your favorite season of the 72?
It’s always fun to check your birthday, but I was born in the “Thick Fog Blankets the Sky” season in mid-August, which is a bit depressing! I think my favorite though, is number 58: “The Rainbow Hides Unseen.” I love the fact that the ancient Japanese not only named a season after something as ephemeral as a rainbow, but even more, a rainbow they couldn’t actually see! At that time of year, you can’t help but look up into the sky and wonder if there might just be a rainbow, hiding up there somewhere.
What updates or other products do you have planned?
As with the Japanese version, the English version is free, and automatically updates and overwrites itself every “season” – roughly every five days. The Japanese app has a paid version, too, allowing you to download the whole year, or sets of seasons, and save them to look at when you want. We are currently working on a similar paid version of the English app, which is due to go online in August, if all goes to plan.
Besides that, we are also beginning to investigate doing more local versions across Japan. Japan is a long country, north to south, so the different seasons actually come at slightly different times of year – the cherry blossom season is the most famous example, as the blossom spreads towards the north each spring. And foods and festivals vary from region to region, too, of course. The current version of “72 Seasons” has to take a kind of average of the country, so it can sometimes get a bit out of sync, especially if you live in the very north or very south of the country. So we are hoping to be able to make local versions that will rectify that.
Further into the future, I’d love to have a go at making a version for a country other than Japan, to see if and how that would work. It would be fascinating to see how it worked out in a country or area in a similar latitude of the northern or southern hemisphere, with similar seasonal changes, but a very different culture, and to see how people there used it. That one’s still a pipe-dream, though.