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The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally: An Interview with Author Natalie Leon

Natalie Leon, author and Japanologist, recently sat down with us to discuss her new book ‘The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally: An Invitation to Celebrate Every Day’. Chronicling the idea of ‘kisetsukan’, or the awareness of the seasons, her new book covers festivals, food, and much more! 

We’ve also collaborated with Natalie to give away two copies of her new book to two lucky people who participate in our giveaway on our Instagram. Check it out here!

Let’s get right into the interview!

Hello! Thank you for joining us. To start us off, could you please give us a short introduction of yourselves?

I am a writer, Japanologist, and Urasenke Chado practitioner based in London. Growing up in a small village in Hertfordshire, I was innately aware of the changing seasons: the first snowdrops in January, blossoming cherry trees in spring, blackberry-picking in summer, hunting for leaves in autumn, and cutting holly for Christmas. I have always been happiest when surrounded by flowers and plants, foraging for seasonal recipes, drawing, and photographing every tiny detail of the landscape. Discovering traditional Japanese art, with its exquisitely rendered flowers and grasses on silk kimono and gold-leaf screens, I fell in love with these seasonal motifs and their ancient philosophies.

After over a decade of city living, I longed for the countryside where I grew up. In my London flat, I craved open spaces to wander, pick wildflowers, and fill an imaginary pantry with flower-infused delights. Inspired by Japan's 72 micro seasons and annual festivals, I re-established my bond with nature. Celebrating each micro season, equinox, and solstice as they collapsed into each other deepened my relationship with the seasons and the wider natural world.

For those who are unfamiliar, how did your interest in Japan come to be?

I fell in love with Ukiyo-e woodblock prints and pictures of Japan's iconic cherry blossoms and kimono decades before I experienced them in real life. All in the pages of books. My love affair with kimono, and by extension, Japan, began at a young age when my mother took a large, brightly coloured bundle of fabric out of a polished, black, lacquered cabinet. As she slowly unfurled it, I realised that it was, in fact, not just a piece of fabric but a kimono, and not just any kimono but a heavily embroidered and lavishly decorated one with metallic threads and a weighty, padded hem. I later learned it was an uchikake, a particular type of kimono worn as an overcoat layered over a white bridal kimono. I was hooked.

My love of kimono has never wavered; it burns brightly to this day and has taken me to the temple markets of Kyoto, the flea markets of Paris and countless art exhibitions, workshops and talks to learn more about this incredible T-shaped garment and its place in Japanese culture.

How does seasonality affect things such as food, festivals, and other traditional aspects of Japanese culture?

In Japan, people eat, sleep, and wear the seasons, from elegant kimono motifs to petal-shaped sweets and festivals dedicated to nature's spectacular displays. Seasonality permeates so many different aspects of traditional Japanese culture. During my research, I realised that kisetsukan is the green thread that connects everything. Once you gently tug on that thread and begin to follow it, you can see how it weaves through everything.

The Japanese word kisetsukan means "a sense of the seasons". Over a thousand years, Japan has carefully woven the symbols, sounds and tastes of the seasons into "a rich cultural tapestry". As a result, nature and its cycles have become so ingrained in Japanese culture that the two are now virtually indistinguishable. The Japanese approach to nature perceives humanity as a part of nature's infinite variety, not separate from it. In Japan, nature has become culture, and culture is a part of nature. This symbiotic relationship can be observed throughout numerous Japanese art forms, rituals, and traditions, which have been repeated and refined over centuries, including literature, textiles, and tea ceremony.

Traditional tea and sweets

What is your favourite season in Japan?

I love the ephemeral beauty of spring and its twin season, autumn. There is so much poetry in the landscape during both these times of the year, which is why they're the most popular seasons for artists and poets. If you're a foodie like me, you would especially enjoy the bounty of autumn in Japan. New-season rice, fiery orange persimmons, golden yellow yuzu, sweet potatoes, chestnuts, and matsutake mushrooms are just some of the myriad seasonal delicacies available at this time of the year.

Golden trees in autumn

Which season would you suggest a first-time visitor to Japan go in? What about someone who has visited multiple times?

If you're not a fan of crowds, I suggest avoiding peak cherry blossom season and visiting Japan in May, which is an absolutely glorious month to visit. When the wisteria, azaleas, peonies, and irises are in bloom, the country is flush with new green foliage and neon green maples.

Wisteria in Japan

With it being springtime right now, do you have any suggestions for springtime activities or food in Japan?

One of the lesser-known joys of spring in Japan is sansai— wild mountain vegetables indigenous to Japan, such as takenoko (young bamboo shoots), fuki (butterbur), and warabi (bracken).

Takenoko – are the young shoots of moso bamboo (Phyllostachys edulis). The word takenoko includes the kanji for take (bamboo) and shun, meaning "season". The new bamboo shoots are the children (ko) of the bamboo groves that encircle temples and grow wild throughout Japan. Takenoko are the tender young bamboo shoots that should ideally be harvested before they break through the soil and are exposed to sunlight.

Bamboo in Kyoto

Takenonko requires a lot of preparation, including being boiled with rice bran (nuka) for an hour to remove any bitterness. They are one of the most commonly found sansai, often prepared as takenoko gohan (bamboo shoot rice). Their peak season is from March to May, coinciding with cherry blossom season. This is the only time of the year you can enjoy fresh creamy white takenoko, which is cherished just as much as the first asparagus spears to appear each spring in Europe.

Outside of the big cities, do you have any particular favourite spots to visit during the spring or early summer?

I spent a couple of days in Toyama last spring, and it's a prefecture I look forward to exploring further. Toyama is a real hidden gem, with so much to offer in terms of food, crafts, and landscape. Its exquisite spring scenery is a tapestry of tulips, cherry blossoms, and snow-capped mountains.

During Golden Week, I finally visited Yuushien, which had been on my wishlist for a long time. It's a stunning traditional garden devoted entirely to peonies that dominate Daikon Island, about an hour outside Matsue City. The garden celebrates Golden Week each year by holding its annual Botan Enyukai (peony garden party). The highlight of the event is a river of peonies. Seeing it was a dream come true, I highly recommend this late spring festival for ardent flower lovers like myself.

Mountains in Toyama Prefecture

In addition, with summer coming up soon, do you have any early summer recommendations?

June is just around the corner, and in Japan, it's characterised by the beginning of tsuyu, the rainy season. Just as the ume (plums) are beginning to ripen, the country is covered in water-loving ajisai (hydrangeas), blooming in luminescent shades of hot pink, inky blue and lilac. Tsuyu or baiu is the name for the Japanese rainy season, but it literally translates to "plum rain". This word alludes to the heavy raindrops that fall as the ume (plums) ripen, turning from vivid green to warm yellow. The ume or plum season is short, so you must act quickly. The best time to make umeshu, Japanese plum wine, is when the plums are still green. I make a fresh batch every summer, and that's one of the things I'm looking forward to doing over the long weekend.

Ajisai blooming in summer

The rainy season gives way to the long, hot, humid summer, defined by the search for coolness and accompanied by imagery of stars and the River of Heaven (the Milky Way); these represent the month of Suzuki (July). The stars refer to Tanabata, the Star Festival, one of Japan's five most ancient and sacred festivals.

In July, bamboo branches waving in the breeze covered in brightly coloured decorations grace almost every temple and shrine in Japan to celebrate Tanabata (Evening of the Seventh), Japan's most romantic matsuri. Tanabata, also known as the Star festival, celebrates the story of two star-crossed lovers: the heavenly weaver Princess Orihime, daughter of Tentei the Sky King, and her love, Hikoboshi, the cow herd. According to the original Chinese legend, Orihime was a weaver for the celestial deities. While visiting Earth, she fell in love with Hikoboshi. They married and started a family. However, the Sky King grew angry with Orihime for neglecting her loom, turning her into the star Vega and her husband into the star Altair. Amanogawa, or the River of Heaven (the Milky Way), forever separates the two stars.

The Sendai Tanabata Festival

They wait for each other on opposite sides of the river but can only reunite once a year on July 7th, the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunisolar calendar, when all the kasasagai (magpies) in the world flock to them, spreading their wings to form a bridge over the celestial river for them to meet. In Japan, it is said that if the sky is cloudy on the seventh of the seventh, they will be unable to meet, and the resulting raindrops are their tears of frustration.

Can you tell us more about your upcoming book, 'The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally: An Invitation to Celebrate Every Day? Where did the inspiration for it come from?

Over the last decade, my quest to uncover Japan's seasonal culture has led me to fabled temples, moss-covered gardens and hidden tearooms. I have attended a fox wedding in Kyoto, foraged for wild mountain vegetables in Yamagata, hunted for autumn leaves in Osaka, slept in a Buddhist monastery on Koyasan, celebrated spring with countless cherry blossom viewing picnics, handpicked yuzu in Kochi and experienced an earthquake in Kumamoto. The passages of this book whispered to me when I walked through ancient forests, visited Shinto shrines as petals fell all around me, and strolled through Japanese gardens, where koi swam languidly alongside me. I researched it in beautiful libraries, editing the manuscript in my favourite tea houses and by the light of candles under a blanket in the darkest days of January. I wrote it because I wanted to share my passion with you.

I hope it will become a companion, trusted friend and guide as you take your first steps toward the art of living seasonally. The contents are my humble offering to you, a selection of the Japanese seasonal rituals, flowers, foods and folklore that captured my heart and imagination. These are the traditions that have deeply impacted my relationship with the seasons and all living things. I hope they will enrich and inspire you, just as they did me. There is comfort to be found in the cyclical nature of time, life-affirming poetry in the ephemeral and beauty everywhere for those with eyes to see it.

I've organised the book by theme so you can dip in and out of whatever chapter piques your curiosity and return to it year after year when the season comes around again. In Chapter 1, I introduce some of the key concepts behind the book, such as my guiding principle, kisetsukan, to cultivate a sense of the seasons. Chapter 2 focuses on the A-list celebrities of spring, Japan's world-famous cherry blossoms and the many wonderful traditions surrounding them, while Chapter 3 uncovers Japan's many ways of savouring the seasons through food, exploring foraging, kaiseki (an elevated multicourse meal of many small, exquisite dishes) and obanzai (Kyoto-style home cooking).

The famous cherry blossoms

Chapter 4 explores more sustainable ways of living and travelling inspired by the Japanese concept of mottainai (which means "what a waste!"). Chapter 5 is the unofficial summer chapter, which dives into Japan's many aquatic myths. Chapter 6 invites you to enter the world of the kimono, Japan's iconic T-shaped garment, to discover its unique relationship to the seasons. Next comes Chapter 7, a wholehearted celebration of Japan's many floral traditions. In Chapter 8, we turn our eyes to the night sky, delighting in the beauty of the moon and all things lunar. Chapter 9 introduces the world of Chado, or the Way of Tea, while Chapter 10 focuses on the joyous late autumn activity of momijigari or red leaf hunting. Finally, Chapter 11 delves into Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year – one of the nation's most important annual festivities.

How can one savour the seasons here in the UK?

Throughout the book, I've shared suggestions of how we can enrich our days by taking inspiration from Japan's rich seasonal culture and implementing some of these ideas and traditions in our own ways, such as engaging with local plants, trees, flowers, and seasonal phenomena.

Throughout the years when travelling to my favourite places was impossible, I focused on finding new and different ways to tune into nature by introducing little touches of Japanese seasonal living traditions into my everyday life, for example, by practising the rituals of hanami (cherry blossom viewing), momijigari (red leaf hunting) and tsukimi (moon viewing), all of which can be enjoyed in the UK.

Practices like hanami are a beautiful way to celebrate spring and the promise of what's to come in the year ahead. Taking time out of our frantic lives to meet a friend for lunch under a blooming tree reminds us of the passage of time. There are certain trees in my neighbourhood that I like to visit each year, taking a picnic, a bento or bringing my utensils to make some tea for myself beneath the clouds of blossom. After all, you only need yourself and ippon zakura ­– a single cherry tree – to participate in hanami and enjoy a little moment of calm in nature.

Cherry blossoms in Tokyo

The world can learn so much about the beauty of intentional seasonal living from Japan, something the country's great thinkers, poets, artists, and craftspeople have known for over a thousand years.

Thank you for talking with us!

‘The Japanese Art of Living Seasonally: An Invitation to Celebrate Every Day’ is out now, check your local bookstores or online!



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