Tokyo is about as far removed as you can get from the traditional ways people knew that the seasons were passing. If it’s cold in the winter, you can almost instantly pop into a heated store somewhere. Too hot in the summer? Air-conditioning is everywhere. Tokyo almost has its own climate, its own calendar. The natural cycle of the seasons hardly seems to feature.
But there are still things around you to remind you. They might not be as noticeable as snow in the winter (rare in Tokyo anyway), or cherry blossom in the spring or red leaves in the autumn. But they are still signs and they form a kind of contemporary calendar for sensing the passage of time in urban life.
We set out to find the signs you can see around in Tokyo today that tell you time is passing.
Spring means new starts, for nature and for people. In the parks you will people sitting sheets and enjoying the cherry blossom (and a fair bit of alcohol). But even more than this you will see suits everywhere. Youngsters are job-hunting. Any coffee shop will feature at least one earnest college student, suited up in an off-the-peg offering from a suburban mall, the collar biting a neck which hasn’t experienced such tightness since graduating high school. You will spot them drafting and then completing the handwritten resumes that interviewees need to take with them. And if it’s a major corporation, interview days will see masses of near-identical-looking young suited boys and girls, all vying for the handful of positions available.
The school year also starts in April and this means club activities kick off. And what better way to do this than by eating and drinking at an izakaya? If you are passing through an area of Tokyo with college campuses nearby, be prepared to navigate through crowds of freshmen students, milling around to get into restaurants with their respective club or group.
Hay fever hits hard due to the Japanese cedar and cypress trees shedding their pollen. This means there is always a sudden spike in the amount of face masks you see to protect people from the irritating pollen. Drug stores will start putting their face mask displays in prominent positions and at times entire trainloads seem to contain only passengers bedecked with white masks to keep out the pollen.
When does summer begin? That’s always a tricky question. But at some unannounced time the hundreds of thousands of vending machines in Japan will be re-stocked so that they offer more chilled drinks than warm ones. You will also spot the ice cream flag around, a small pennant with the Kanji for koori (ice), advertising that you can buy Kakigori.
In mid-August, people will go home to celebrate Obon or may take a summer vacation. Either way, for a miraculous week or so in Tokyo, there are almost no people on the trains!
And if you’re feeling lucky, join the crowds you can see gathering at the lottery booths around the city to take part in the special Summer Jumbo draw.
If it’s autumn, that should mean harvest, right? Well, while it is hard to see the signs of agriculture’s annual yield in Tokyo, you may notice shinmai (new rice crop) at the rice section of a supermarket.
More obviously, though, look at the vending machines. There comes a point in the late autumn when the temperature has dropped enough for the drinks companies to arrive, change the vending machines’ settings back, and stock more warm beverages for chilly salarymen. Summer is over when you see the rows of blue buttons have turned blue.
Go into a convenience store and you will spot the oden section near the cash register. Oden is that smelly but delicious food cooked in a special broth. These days you can often buy it year-round but autumn is the traditional time to start enjoying oden, and the variety of things simmering in the pungent broth will likely increase in your local store.
And lastly, another food-related one: You may not see them but you will hear them, the roasted sweet potato (yakiimo) vendors. These mobile food stands trundle along the streets with their music and speakers calling out: “Yakiimo… Yaki-iiiimoooo…”
Come winter you will see Japan Post stalls in stations and elsewhere starting to sell New Year postcards (Nengajo) for early birds. Lines may also form at lottery booths for the big Year-end Lotto.
If you’re in Tokyo, you may not get much of a traditional Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year), especially if you avoid the shrines on January 1st. But go to Shibuya on New Year’s Eve and you will be amazed: Where are the people?! Even Scramble Crossing can be comparatively empty.
After New Year, just weeks after the holidays have ended, it’s perhaps the worst time to be a high school student in Japan: Entrance exam season. And this means you will lots of exam-takers around college campuses, waiting to be admitted to take their tests. They will look a bit younger than regular university students and quite possibly trembling with nerves.