What’s different about Nakajo?
But something you can’t ignore is the seasonality of day-to-day life.
Everything happens in cycles. Plants appear, they flower and wither, then the next kind is suddenly in flower. All of a sudden, everyone is harvesting their rice fields. Then you have an overflow of chestnuts and all you eat for a week straight is chestnuts.
It’s not that the lifestyle in Nakajo looks out to pay special attention to the seasons, it’s more that the seasons dictate life; they dictate day-to-day activities and the contents of your meals too.
All that cutsie stuff you see in Tokyo or Kyoto department stores, the chestnut themed stationary in November, the flogging of expensive grapes in August- those are the commercial, hyped-up versions of a simply practical life happening out here where stuff actually grows.
I had a conversation with a couple down the street the other week who live in a giant house with windows on all sides looking out to gardens full of seasonal trees, plants and flowers. The husband said that’s something he looks forward to; the cyclic changes he can witness from his sunny front room.
I tried to articulate something about Australia not having distinct seasons but I wasn’t really sure what I meant.
Our seasons in Canberra are definitely distinct from each other, I mean -5 degree nights in winter are very removed from 42 degree days we can get in summer. We have visual reminders of the changes too. The hills are swept with fluorescent yellow as spring approaches. The sky opens clearly and warmly in autumn. The wildflowers come out in late spring. The trees are bare in winter.
But there aren’t the fine divisions of seasons like here in Nakajo. Autumn encompasses the higanbana (red spider lily) flowering, the chestnuts falling, the leaves turning, maybe even the first snow. I know there is said to be 72 micro-seasons observed traditionally in Japan and you might think that’s overkill but being here you realise nature might require that level of division to come a little closer to the diversity of changes taking place.
Why is it the approach to the seasons different here?
Is it just centuries of hyper awareness of the minute changes in foliage and temperature? Or is the climate distinctly different? Is it the commercialisation of symbolic seasonal foods and plants that reminds people of the changes happening around them? Or is there a diversity of plant life that does actually change more throughout the year?
I’m not sure.
I once read a book written by Japanese painter Atsushi Uemura and one anecdote in particular has stayed with me. He talks of teaching young students to paint Nihonga (Japanese style painting) and in guiding them through the basics of drawing and observation. He remarks that many of his students have “blue eyes”. That is to say, they are looking at objects with a western take on perspective and form. They were told to draw an apple and so they drew shadows and formed 3D shapes.
Their blue eyes were stopping them from seeing the true spirit of the object. He insists that there is an innate Japanese ability to appreciate the spirit of nature and those with “blue eyes” cannot.
His terminology, though probably just accidental casual racism from an old Japanese man, cuts a little because it reflects a wider view that Japanese artists have a deeper understanding of nature or are more attuned to it’s sensitivities.
As an artist depicting nature, and especially doing so in Japan, I often get comments like, “wow this is so Japanese”, “you captured the subtle movement of that plant- it looks like a Japanese painting”or “Your approach is more Japanese than a Japanese person”.
I know these comments are not meant to be a dig. But I disagree that blue eyes cannot fully and equally feel and comprehend the nature of nature. We are built of the same stuff. We just don’t go around applauding ourselves for it like Japan does with its constant reaffirming of “national character”.
While in Nakajo I’ve been making artworks that can’t help but be seasonal. We arrived at the end of a long hot summer, now we are welcoming the deepening of cooler days. In the short time we’ve been here the landscape has already changed dramatically. I’m anticipating comments at the final exhibition of “Wow you’ve made such Japanese-looking work!” Or for visitors to be taken aback by the attention I directed at the subtleties of the natural environment.
I’m ready to reply that an appreciation of nature is not the exclusive property of Japanese culture. Though I’m probably too nice to say that out loud. Instead I’ll keep on quietly demonstrating that blue eyes can also see the spirit of nature at her finest.