While tourists from all over travel to Japan to see cherry blossoms in March, a season comes right after it that not many know by name. The season before summer fully sets in and after the last cherry blossom petal has fallen is called shinryoku. Written using the characters 新 (new) and 緑 (green), the Japanese word shinryoku refers to young leaves that trees sprout in the spring.
I learned this word in 2022 when my friend Nobuhiro Ito, a retired national park ranger, invited me to participate in a guided shinryoku viewing walk on Mount Daisen in Tottori Prefecture. I was eager to take part because due to COVID-19 prevention measures that restricted gatherings and limited my work to online activities, I hadn’t spent much time outside or with friends since I had moved to Japan months before.
As it happened, the symbolism of shinryoku and the simple act of spending time in nature with others was the perfect moment.
When I asked Ito-san about the cultural significance of shinryoku, he explained that newly grown greenery is “a testament of growth and vitality” and a symbol of the start of a new life cycle. The exact meaning of this significance is perhaps best understood in the context of two events that often overlap with shinryoku: Children’s Day and the start of rice planting.
On May 5, families throughout Japan celebrate Children’s Day, a holiday dedicated to wishing for children’s well-being and prosperity. If shinryoku season begins around the same time as this holiday, the act of trees sprouting after a long winter adds hope for the future.
Meanwhile, the convergence of shinryoku and rice planting carries its own meaning. For centuries, rice has been a staple crop of Japan, steeped in traditional spirituality. Texts such as The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki (Nihongi) attribute the origin of rice cultivation to Shinto deities. As a result, throughout Japan spring festivals are held to pray for the growth of newly planted crops. Like with Children’s Day, the convergence of shinryoku season with this time embodies wishes for growth.
Shinryoku season can start as early as April, and as late as June, so these events do not always overlap. However, the act of new leaves growing after the winter months symbolizes new beginnings, new growth and hope for a promising future.
In contrast to other periods that represent new beginnings, such as oshogatsu (the New Year period), shinryoku season is when the environment around us–not decorations or specific customs–creates a festive atmosphere.
How to enjoy shinryoku season
Shinryoku season is a great time to practice shinrinyoku (forest bathing). Often considered to have gained popularity around the 1980s, forest bathing is the practice of spending time outdoors and “bathing” in or taking in the atmosphere of nature. According to Ito-san, this practice can relieve stress and refresh the mind.
During shinryoku season, the leaves are lush and bright green, and the weather is typically milder with lower humidity than later in the year. This makes it an excellent time for visiting parks or hiking. National parks such as Daisen-Oki National Park sometimes have events dedicated to spending time outdoors this season, such as guided nature walks.
If shinryoku season and rice planting coincide, this is also a great time to view flooded rice paddies. When rice is initially planted, the paddies are full of water and can reflect the sky.
This year’s shinryoku season
Personally, shinryoku has taught me to appreciate all aspects of the passing seasons. Sights such as cherry blossoms or autumn leaves may be particularly prominent, but just as beautiful are the quieter seasonal moments, such as leaves growing after a long winter.
Since moving to Japan, I have grown to love the country’s national parks, many of which are dedicated to protecting the forests that comprise a large part of Japan’s land mass. Since attending the guided walk in Daisen Oki National Park with Ito-san and learning about shinryoku, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the place forests hold in Japanese life and culture. I hope to explore more of Japan’s 34 national parks someday and experience what makes each unique.
This year’s shinryoku season looks much different from last year’s. More people are venturing outside, and more of us are meeting up with people we haven’t seen in a while. To celebrate, I plan to head outdoors again soon with a new awareness, appreciation and anticipation.
Have you heard of shinryoku before? Let us know in the comments below!