Japanese Inherent ‘Sense of Season’?

Ning Huang 


On a research trip to Tokyo last week, I saw the famous Christmas tree and light-up at Kitte, a shopping centre neighbouring Tokyo Station.

Kitte's Christmas tree light-up. Image Ning Huang, 2013.

Kitte’s Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.


Kitte’s Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Kitte's Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Kitte’s Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Kitte's Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Kitte’s Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Kitte's Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Kitte’s Christmas tree light-up. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Designed by the young and innovative Japanese architect Makoto Tanijiri, the display treats the white tree as a blank canvas and applies lights and background music to generate dreamy and romantic spaces. Although totally illogical, as a ‘hungry’ food design historian, I immediately make a connection between Kitte’s Christmas tree design and the aesthetics of kinton きんとん, one kind of Japanese confectionery favoured at tea ceremonies for its abstract and simple form: strained and coloured white bean paste surrounds a ball of red or white bean paste (sometimes coloured) to create a ball-of-yarn like form whose slightly sharpened top resembles the shape of a mountain.

Kinton 「Yuki Mochi」(雪もち, Snow Cake) by Shogetsu 嘯月, Kyoto. Image c Ning Huang, 2013.

Kinton 「Yuki Mochi」(雪もち, Snow Cake) by Shogetsu 嘯月, Kyoto. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

Cross section of Fig. 6. Image c Ning Huang

Cross section of Fig. 6. Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

The critical criterion for being cha-gashi 茶 菓子 (confectionery consumed at tea ceremony) is ‘a sense of the season’ (kisetsukan 季節感) as with other elements (such as content of the hanging scroll and the design of tea bowl) at a tea gathering. Since the form of kinton as we see today already settled in the first half of 19th century, its ‘sense of the season’ is mainly expressed through its colour and name. [1] As kinton provides an interesting case study on the issues of colouring and naming of Japanese confectionery design, I use it to raise questions that apply to Japanese confectionery in general.

In Judging Food by Its Appearance, I discussed the importance of shape reflecting the change of season and the flow of time in Japanese food culture. Colour and name play the role in the aesthetics of kinton, as well as some other kinds of Japanese confectionery mainly consumed at tea ceremonies nowadays. Just as Tanijiri’s use of colourful lights on Kitte’s Christmas tree, colours and names that indicate seasons are applied to kinton in accordance to the natural cycle: for instance, snow on plum blossom in January, peach in March, hydrangea in June, autumn foliage on mountains in September, and falling leaves in December.

The Kyoto Confectionery Shogetsu's kinton for twelve months of a year (from right to left horizontally); page from a magazine (magazine title and date unknown)

The Kyoto Confectionery Shogetsu’s kinton for twelve months of a year (from right to left horizontally). Image © Ning Huang, 2013.

My question, as a non-Japanese observer, is: how do Japanese confectioneries decide which colour and name to stand for which season, and when do they change the colour and name of the confectionery?

The confectionery makers’ responses are surprisingly identical:

“We were trained to look at the colours of mountains and nature to make confectioneries. Japan is a country of four seasons, and we change colours and names of confectioneries when the season changes.” From when? “Umm … from ancient time … and the rules are passed down from one generation to another.” [2]

The statement seems romantic and natural. However, one requires certain cultivation to connect pink in January with plum blossom, in March peach and in April cherry blossom, green in January with pine, in february seedling and in July young green leaves, and etc.. The consciousness of the change of season exists so commonly in Japanese everyday consumption life (such as a wide variety of ‘seasonal limited’ commodities) that it is generally believed that the ‘sense of season’ is an inherent and unique Japanese quality.

However, as historical materials and studies suggest, this assumed inherent Japanese ‘sense of season’ did not settle until the latter half of 19th century. The kasaneirome 襲色目 (combination of colours created by multi-layering of garments) established at the imperial court during Heian period (794 – 1185 AD) is often quoted as an inspiration for the colouring and naming of Japanese confectionery. Indeed, as early as a thousand years ago, aristocratic and court ladies were already arranging colours and names in accordance to the change of season. Rules of kasaneirome, such as ‘Wisteria’ (light-purple-based combination) for early summer and ‘Maple foliage’ (red-yellow-green combination) for autumn, are close to the use of colour and name in Japanese confectionery as we know today. However, the kasaneirome has been reserved to the court and nobles, and its ‘sense of season’ has never been spread to other classes of the society. In the case of Japanese confectionery, it was not until late 17th century that colours and names with reference to seasons and nature came into sight as survived historical documents reveal. [3]

Interestingly, as Nakayama Keiko observes, even though by 18th century names with reference to season and nature can be found in a number of documents, it seems that the use of these confectioneries did not necessarily respond to the season as assumed today. For instance, in a book of tea ceremony cuisine instruction published in 1696, it is not rare to find suggestions such as using ‘Maple foliage’ confectionery in January and ‘Under the snow’ confectionery in July. This is also the case with other elements at tea ceremonies, such as displaying a hanging scroll of plum blossoms in March, or using a chrysanthemum-shaped incense box in February as recorded in early 18th century. [4] Contemporary Edo period kimono designs whose ‘sense of season’ is nowadays often recognised as a core quality were in fact of a similar situation. [5] It is estimated that in the latter half of the 19th century when the publication of saijikis 歳時記 (reference books of glossary of seasonal terms for haiku composers) spread, the ‘sense of season’ of Japanese as we know today started to be constructed.[6] How this Japanese ‘sense of season’ is commoditised in 20th century deserves another article to discuss.



[1] Nakayama, Keiko 中山圭子: Jiten: Wa-gashi no sekai 事典:和菓子の世界 (The World of Wa-gashi: A Dictionary) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2006) ‘Kinton’, p. 58.
[2] Author’s conversations with a number of confectionery makers, 2013.
[3] Nakayama, Keiko 中山圭子, ‘Genrokuki no kasha to Toraya shirio’ 元禄期の菓子と虎屋 資料 (Confectionery in Genroku period and Toraya documents), in Tsutsui, Horoichi (ed.): Chadogaku taikei 4: Kaiseki to kasha 茶道学大系 4 懐石と菓子 (Kaiseki and confectionery) (Kyoto: Tankosha, 1999) p. 350.

[4] Ibid., pp. 363 – 364; Author’s conversation with Nakayama Keiko, 19 December 2013.

[5] Author’s conversation with Tajima, Tatsuya 田島達也, 23 December 2013.

[6] Author’s conversation with Nakayama Keiko, 19 December 2013.


Ning Huang – 

Ning is currently working on the study of wagashi (Japanese confectionery) design and history. Through her previous studies and experience of East Asian art and cultural histories, she believes that the small world of wagashi culture provides an unusual and interesting lens for the observation of Japanese social histories and economic, knowledge and cultural exchanges.


© Ning Huang, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *