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Image: pinterest.com.au/MOONABEANS/ Yuzu bath Japan Japanese culture onsen

The five seasons: Japanese traditions

Japanese culture honours the seasons. Japan is a mountainous country of islands stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China and Phillipine Seas in the south. Japan experiences five distinct seasons due to the wide variation in geography and climate: summer, autumn, winter, spring and tsuyu—the rainy season. The Japanese pay close attention to the blessings of each season, and practices have evolved to honour seasonal change.

Starting around Shogatsu—the New Year—icy winds bring snowfall to a large area of Japan stretching from Hokkaido Island in the north to the Hokuriku region of Honshu, the main island of Japan. (It does not snow in Okinawa Island in the south.) Heavy snowfall does not start until later in the year, sometimes in February. On the north island up to four metres of snow may fall in a season.

Spring is sakura—cherry blossom—season. The blossoms start to flower in the south in Okinawa, and the blossom season travels northward. The cherry blossom season only lasts for a few weeks, but spring typically lasts from March to June.

Next comes tsuyu—the fifth season. It pours rain. The start and end of the rainy season varies, but people usually avoid travelling to Japan during the last two weeks of June.

After tsuyu—the rainy season—ends the whole of Japan, with the exception of the northern island Hokkaido, enters a season of high humidity and temperature. Summer runs from July to September. Miyazaki mangoes and Kyushu papayas appear at the market. Typhoon season ravages Okinawa in the south.

In autumn, leaves change colour to gold and red, and people forage for mushrooms and harvest rice, apples, nashi and persimmons. Momijigarimaple viewing—is the tradition of visiting areas where maple trees have turned red. The days gradually grow darker and colder and autumn turns to winter once more.

At Shizuka Ryokan we have adopted the Japanese practice of honouring the seasons, with a southern hemisphere twist. In the guestrooms, flowers are changed in accordance with the seasons. Two seasons ago, our gardener planted cherry blossoms, with the aim of celebrating hanami—the cherry blossom festival—at Shizuka in the spring.

We have a seasonal yin yang go gyo yoga retreat with Lars Skalman and Cate Peterson planned for spring that ties in perfectly with the five seasons of Japan. Shizuka’s shiatsu practitioners are trained in five element shiatsu—a philosophy that encapsulates the Japanese concept of the five seasons.

At the time of writing, our menu reflects the seasons, with delicious edible pine mushrooms gleaned from the pine grove just outside the kitchen. 

In Japan during Touji–winter solstice–people take yuzu baths. Winter solstice falls on June 22 in Australia this year. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit. Yuzu baths are believed to purify the body and soul. Here at Shizuka, we foster the Japanese yuzu bathing tradition by providing yuzu & hinoki bath salts with each overnight booking.

Matcha shortbread on Japanese plate.

Green tea shortbread

People have been known to fall in love with Shizuka Ryokan when they taste the matcha shortbread that we serve upon arrival.


250g butter (room temperature)
¼ cup caster sugar
⅓ cup cornflour
⅓ cup icing sugar
Rind from one grated lemon
1-2 teaspoons of matcha green tea powder
2⅓ cups of gluten-free plain flour


Heat oven (fan forced) to 160°C
Cream butter and sugar. 
Add vanilla essence, lemon rind, cornflour, icing sugar and matcha.
Beat until well combined and creamed. 
Fold in flour and mix well. 
Roll out on floured surface until required thickness. 
Use cookie cutter to cut biscuit shapes. 
Place on baking paper on tray. 
Keep rolling and cutting until finished.
Cook in oven for approximately 30 minutes.  Cool on tray

Owner of Shizuka

Wasabi change

Catherine Defina is the owner and manager of Shizuka Ryokan. Perhaps you have encountered Catherine (who wears red Swedish hiking pants) and her dog Cleo (who wears a checkered jumper) walking around the grounds of Shizuka, or spied her preparing sashimi through the kitchen door.

Prior to taking over Shizuka Catherine was pursuing a corporate career. She worked for a Swedish company as a general manager in the healthcare sector. It was during this role that she lived in Japan for four years, “That’s where I fell in love with Japanese culture and way of life.”

By early 2012, Catherine sensed that the corporate world was no longer the place for her, “Moving to Japan changed my life, totally.” She travelled to San Diego to undertake the Perfect Health Program at The Chopra Center. “That was my introduction to meditation. They said if there’s only one thing that you take away from this program and keep doing — meditate twice a day. So I did. And it changed everything for me.” Back in Sweden, meditating twice a day, Catherine was trying to do a password retrieval when she noticed an email saying somewhere she had never heard of called Shizuka was for sale.

Catherine is passionate about hospitality. A visit years ago to Chiva Som, a health spa in Thailand, left a deep impression on her. Catherine realised that it was a lovely place to be because the general manager was always on the floor, “He was just ever-present.” Catherine says, “I’d always said to my husband at the time that I’d always like to do something like that. There was something in me that knew I would be good at making the experience really special for the guests and staff.” So when Catherine saw that Shizuka Ryokan was for sale she had a feeling. She thought that with just six guestrooms it was small enough that she could try it out.

In March 2015 Catherine was a guest at Shizuka. She didn’t let on to the owners Peter and Margie that she was a potential buyer. She was impressed, “I felt like I’d woken up in Japan. I felt this is real; this is authentic and I reckon I can do it.” In July 2015 Catherine moved back to Australia. Despite doubts she decided to buy Shizuka, “The heart knows better than the head.” The process from deciding that she wanted to do it to taking over Shizuka was a lengthy one. In November 2016 Catherine took over.

At Shizuka Catherine prepares traditional Japansese cuisine. Prior to living in Japan she had never cooked in her life but she points out, “I had a subscription to Donna Hay magazine. I must have had some sort of latent desire to be a chef that I was suppressing!” When she moved to Japan she lived alone for the first time in her life so she had to cook. “When you live in Japan it costs an absolute fortune to cook western ingredients so I started cooking Japanese food.”

Catherine points out that teaching herself how to cook Japanese had some interesting side benefits. One night she tried to shallow fry something in olive oil. Olive oil has a low smoking point but Catherine was new to cooking and didn’t know that, “The exhaust fan didn’t cope. I set the smoke alarm in the whole building off. The elevator stopped working.” Catherine went downstairs in her slippers and apron to find the reserved elderly building manager to explain to him that the building wasn’t on fire. He accompanied her back to her flat and noticed the mackerel tatsuta-age. “All of a sudden I had this totally different relationship with him.” He encouraged Catherine’s attempts to cook Japanese. The encouragement spread to the team of people that she managed,“My whole team were Japanese. In the morning they would ask ‘What did you cook for dinner last night?’ I was no longer your average expat, I was actually trying to fit in with the Japanese culture.”

Once Catherine decided to learn how to cook Japanese she went for it, “I immersed myself in what I needed to know.” In the town of Seki, Gifu she found chef Shuji and the Ozeki Cooking School. Under Shuji’s guidance, and over weeks of study, Catherine dove into Japanese cuisine. Just before taking over Shizuka she went back to Japan and did a follow-up immersive course at the Ozeki Cooking School to get ready for her first adventure as a cook. While there Shuji advised, “Catherine I’ve taught you everything I can teach you. Now what you need to do is cook.” Catherine has been cooking at Shizuka for over two years now. She will be returning to Shuji’s teaching in the future to grapple with what she calls her weak points,“I’m after tempura perfection. ”

It is two years since Catherine took over Shizuka and she is excited, “This isn’t any old guesthouse in any old tourist town. This is really quite special.” She has big plans for Shizuka. For example, she intends to build an onsen  so that guests and members of the public can experience traditional Japanese bathing under the pines. In collaboration with the groundskeeper she has begun plans for hanami, or cherry blossom parties, “The first of the cherry blossoms went in last winter. Next winter I’ll plant 20 more.” She has introduced yoga and meditation classes to the resort. “It is a private class. Three hours worth with Riki Edelsten.”

Catherine sips tea and looks around across the row of bearded iris, “So much potential.”

Image: "Shinrin-yoku", a film by Dance Films Association. The film features dance and choreography by Mayumu Minakawa, video by Kenneth Kao, and music by Levi Gershkowitz and Julie Becker. Directed by Tom Weksler.

Forest Bathing: Japanese traditions

In Japan, there is a tradition known as shinrin-yoku—or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku describes the practice of ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ by spending prolonged periods of time with trees, and engaging with the forest through all of one’s senses.

Shizuka Ryokan is set in the rolling hills of Hepburn Springs, so we are perfectly placed for some time out among the trees. Here at Shizuka Ryokan, we practice shinrin-roku, and encourage our guests to do the same.

Shinrin-yoku: How trees can help you find health and happiness (2018) is a book written by Dr Qing Li which introduces readers to the art and science of forest bathing. Dr Li draws on peer-reviewed studies into the impact of forest bathing on health. With more than 100 colour photographs of forests around the world, the book already holds a treasured place in the Shizuka Ryokan library.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that walking in the forest reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Forest bathing improves sleep, boosts immunity and heart health, and produces a better parasympathetic (rest and recover) response. Essential oils of trees such as Pine (many of which are growing at Shizuka) increase energy levels and induce a state of wellbeing.

The naturalist John Muir once wrote, ‘between every two pine trees is a doorway leading to a new way of life.’ Why not book into Shizuka Ryokan to savour the sounds, smells and sights of the forest? Listen to call of the sulpur-crested cockatoo. Watch the echidna amble past. Feel the breeze on your skin and smell the pine needles underfoot. Feel the trunk of a tree. Sip the mineral springs. Take deep breaths of the restorative Hepburn air…Walking among the trees is a great reset. Don’t even get us started on the benefits of forest bathing followed by a traditional Japanese meal.


The image accompanying this post is a still from Shinrin-yoku, a film which features dance and choreography by Mayumu Minakawa, video by Kenneth Kao, and music by Levi Gershkowitz and Julie Becker. Directed by Tom Weksler.

Shinrin-yoku: How trees can help you find health and happiness  is available from the wonderful Paradise Bookshop in Daylesford. Just a short forest walk away from Shizuka Ryokan.

If you would like to learn more about Forest-Bathing, we recommend this hilariously titled article from Outside magazine: Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning.

 

ryokans

Ryokans: What to expect

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, typically located near onsen, or hot springs. The first ryokan, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, was founded in 705 A.D. It is considered the oldest hotel in the world. Today, there are more than 50,000 ryokans in Japan.