The Poetic Winter

 "Whispering in Winter" by Shigeki Tomura, 1994

"Whispering in Winter" by Shigeki Tomura, 1994

It's not hard to think fondly of winter. Images of crackling fireplaces, steaming mugs of hot chocolate and gently falling snow jump to mind as soon as the air begins to get crisp.  In reality, though, the weather is not always so delightful, as shorter and colder days reveal a landscape turned increasingly drab.  It is fair to say that our notions of cozy winters can sometimes render an idealized version of the season, a vision that sustains us through the harshness of chilly days.

In ancient times, noblemen and women of the emperor's court in Japan did something similar.   Living through frigid temperatures without the modern comforts of central heating, electricity or insulation, the court idealized winter in art, creating a romanticized season that was often removed from reality.  Though fall and spring are popular subjects in Japanese art and literature, there is a tendency to avoid lingering for too long on the heat of summer or the bitterly cold nights of winter. As Dr. Haruo Shirane writes in Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, “when it came to the unpleasant or difficult seasons [of] summer and winter, aristocratic poetry and culture sought to depict not what nature was actually like but what it ought to be.”

This meant that for over 700 years, winter was painted in tones almost as gentle as our own holiday memories.

 夕去れば
衣手寒し
御吉野の
吉野山に
御雪降るらし

As evening passes
My sleeves grow cold
On Mt. Yoshino
In fair Yoshino
Snow must be falling

It took poets like Kobayashi Issa, who had a rural upbringing and lived a life with few luxuries, to depict winter in a non-sentimental fashion.  Even so, Issa is not unaware of the quiet beauty of this often difficult season:

雪ちらり
ちらり見事な
月夜哉

The snow--fleeting,
fleeting--on this magnificent
moonlit evening
- Kobayashi Issa

Winter is full of challenges and difficulties that no sentimental portrait can contain.  However, there is abundant joy to be found and savored in even small moments that can warm the season.