Fumie's Sphere

Insights into the worlds of winemaking and nature

Groundhog Day and Setsubun(節分) February 12, 2019

Filed under: Astronomy,Nature — Thorpe Vineyard @ 1:53 am
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It was late January 1984 when I first heard the term “Groundhog Day.”  I was getting ready for the second semester of my freshman year at SUNY Oswego.  “Groundhog Day” — what is “groundhog”??  Lots of things were still so unknown for someone who just came from Tokyo to pursue the college degree in meteorology and astronomy in rural Upstate New York.  I don’t recall when I finally discovered the meaning of the day correctly but do remember wondering about this: this is about the same time when we celebrate the arrival of spring in Japan.  Is there any relationship to that?

The question resurfaced and faded as Groundhog Day passed every year until I came across an article in the February issue of Astronomy Magazine in 2007.  Yes, I did see a writing about Groundhog Day and its implication to the duration between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  To my regret it slipped through between my busy schedules then.  So, when I saw the revised version of the article on Facebook this year, I was delighted!

The idea of Groundhog Day was brought to America by German immigrants, and the animal of choice in their old country was hedgehog, according to the author, Rich Talcott.  Well, it makes sense as it has been famous as a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition and that’s where Punxsutawney Phil resides.  But my true interests lie in why it’s February 2nd every year, and Rich explains it as one of the four so-called cross-quarter days, which mark the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes.  Ah, that’s Setsubun (節分)! 

The Lunar Calendar was predominant in the Eastern Hemisphere until modern era.  To my knowledge it is still in regular use in some nations including those in the Middle East.  It is based on the movement of the Moon, that completes its cycle around the Earth in 29.5 Solar days.  As time goes on, a half to one and a half days difference per month will result in considerable gap between the Lunar and Solar Calendars in terms of which month or season it is at one point of time.  Ancient astronomers observed the sun’s location in the sky to invent some tools for farmers to follow for their field work – farming has been always essential to mankind throughout the history.  They learned when the solstices and equinoxes happened, then divided the entire year into four seasons setting a solstice or an equinox at the middle of a season.  So, the point which is equivalent from a solstice and an equinox was set as a Setsubun, that is a cross-quarter day in Rich’s word.  Setsu, denoted by , means a season, and Bun, , a dividing point; all together Setsubun 節分 means where it divides two seasons.  Precisely speaking there are four Setsubuns per year.  However, the one between winter and spring has been what we customarily indicate when we say Setsubun.  As is Groundhog Day, knowing a coming spring is the significant event in our lives thus we celebrate the day.  It’s been always the fascinating fact that we, in the East, denote an end of a season at Setsubun so that a solstice or an equinox is the middle of the following season to the contrary a beginning of a season is either at a solstice or an equinox in the Western Hemisphere.


On the day of Setsubun, which usually falls on February 3rd, we throw roasted soybeans out of the openings of our house, doors and windows, to expel any evil souls, called Oni 鬼.  Pictured here are the roasted soybeans in an oak container and paper masks denoting Onis.  Oni comes in red or blue.  A person in the family wears a mask and acts as an Oni, and the rest of us throw the soybeans at him/her in the hopes to eliminate any evil souls before welcoming new spring.  The day after Setsubun is the first day of spring in our calendar called Risshun 立春.  (An oak container like this is used to drink sake giving the oak flavor to the drink.  Sounds familiar??)

When we look around the world, we notice that there is a broad notion of a “month” that consists of around 30 days, that makes me wonder if just about every culture and/or civilization once set the movement of the Moon as an indicator of time in life as well as the Sun.  As we evolved, we couldn’t neglect the discord of those celestial bodies, so we had to find the way to compromise.  Perhaps Old Germans, as well as other Europeans, figured out what we did in the East.  Or there might have been communications between the West and the East in the past, and Groundhog Day and Setsubun might be the results of such.  We, as humans, seem to share certain omnipresent senses regardless where we physically exist.

Incidentally, I was recently asked when the Chinese New Year’s would be this year.  I would have never heard this question when I first came here over 30 years ago.  I felt so amused that I responded by asking, “do you know when the next new moon will be?”  The person who asked me the question looked startled. They are still with the Lunar Calendar, so the first of a month is always the day of new moon.  Maybe it’s a handy trick for you to remember!

Note: If you are interested in knowing more of the astronomical facts concerning Groundhog Day, visit the blog or Facebook page of Astronomy Magazine.


The Blue Moons of 2018 January 24, 2018

Filed under: Astronomy,At The Winery,Blue Moon,Nature — Thorpe Vineyard @ 7:36 pm


The year 2018 started out with a so-called Super Moon if you remember — it is a full (or new) moon that occurs when the Moon is near or at the closest point to the Earth on its orbit called the perigee. Since the Moon is closer to us than other times, it appears bigger thus brighter (when the lunar phase is full). This Super Moon was actually the closest Super Moon throughout 2018. So, you would think that we already had the best show of the Moon this year.


The Moon takes 29.5 days to circle around the Earth. Consequently, we will see a second full moon this month, that is called a Blue Moon. Incidentally this Blue Moon will also happen near the perigee, that makes it a Super Moon again, and will be occulted in our planet’s shadow displaying the total lunar eclipse on the 31st. Wow! That’s a rare occurrence. We will see the total lunar eclipse of the Super Blue Moon; some call the eclipsed moon a Blood Moon, so it will be the Super Blue Blood Moon. (In the East we call the color of the moon in the total eclipse “copper” – I think it sounds softer than blood.) But, oh well, in either way, this will be indeed an extraordinary month to see two full moons in this manner.


Then following February will have no full moon. Look above – the lunar cycle is 29.5 days. That is longer than the number of the days in February, isn’t it? So, we’ll see the Moon, of course, but not in the phase of full. And remember; a month without a full moon can only happen in February because of this.


We will have a repeat of January in March, that we will see a Blue Moon again. The first full moon will be on the 1st of the month, then the second full moon, the Blue Moon, will occur on the 31st. Neither of them will be a Super Moon this time (to my knowledge at this moment; forgive me if I’m wrong), but it’s still uncommon to have a Blue Moon again within two months. You know the way of saying, once in a Blue Moon, that means something that doesn’t happen frequently, don’t you? Statistically a Blue Moon occurs once in about two and a half years. So, we are now witnessing some very interesting moments in history.


I have kept my weather log ever since this winery operation was initiated. In the last December when I was preparing my book for 2018, this moon behavior caught my attention. As I filled the calendar in with the lunar phases along with other phenomena I follow every year, I realized what kind of year this 2018 would be. — I have a memory of having a year just like this in the past. Two Blue Moons and February without a full moon in between. When was it? Which year?? — It was way before this electronic era when few media would bother picking up some “little” star incidents into their news – perhaps except some astronomy-related magazines and articles. In the frigid January the Moon started its trek from waning to waxing; spent February without getting full accordingly. By the time the second Blue Moon of that year arrived, we were here getting ready to open our Tasting Room door to welcome another season in spring. And, so will we again this year.


Triplets July 10, 2013

Filed under: Astronomy,Nature — Thorpe Vineyard @ 7:59 pm
from the spring 2005 edition of the Trillium Ridge Times

The last one was in 2002 when Jupiter resided in the constellation Gemini the Twins and was acting as their third brother to form the “Triplets.” Jupiter has an orbit of 12 years around the sun that means he travels each sign of the zodiac per year and completes a round in 12 years.

It was during the summer vacation of 1978 when Fumie first saw this “Triplets.” She was then a high school girl starting to face the answer-less question of the real world. She had books, friends, music and stars for her companions to deal with the situation; she was perhaps looking for a place to rest.

jupiter_ganyShe often read day and night and when looking outside, Jupiter was rising following Castor and Pollux, the Twins, all three forming a straight line just above the north-eastern horizon in the brightening morning sky. To her weary eyes the golden luster of the Mighty God Jupiter looked as if he had been forgiving everything.

The next conjunction was in 1990. She was working toward her meteorology degree at Oswego State as well as taking care of this haphazardly-started wine business. She was busy all summer long thus had no chance to see the sight.

By the way, why summer for the winter constellation Gemini?

The lineup of the three occurs when Jupiter is passing the Twins toward Cancer the Crab, the next sign of the zodiac. Because of the planet’s orbital properties, it can only happen when they ascend in late summer. The heavenly schedule is much more precise than we imagine.

Then came 2002… she raised her hopes for the event as she remembered the bad luck of 1990. But it turned out to be another disappointment and she was depressed for a while.

Sometime in the middle of August last year she suddenly woke up early in the morning. It was still dark so she walked up to a window to look outside: that is just the second nature of a long-time stargazer. She peeked out with probably only one eye open then got startled. There was the “Triplets” right there. “It shouldn’t be this year!” After being startled, in the next moment she realized it was Saturn, not Jupiter. But it brought her some cheer; how nice it would have been if she could have seen this 2 years ago! There was brilliant Venus not far from Saturn adding grace to the scene.

So now Saturn is in Gemini passing by the Twins to be the “Triplets” for a while again this summer. Fumie opened her astronomy book and found that Saturn’s orbital period is 29 years. She thought for a moment and pulled out the oldest “book” of her poetry to surprise herself by finding a mention of the same event 29 years ago. She had officially started her composition, largely a form of poetry, a year before then and wonders if she will see this again 29 years from now.

It was well into fall by the time she saw Jupiter for the first time in the later viewing season of 2002. Being out longer in the evening through the night for the busy harvest time brought her the opportunity. It was a scintillating yellow light while climbing through the treetops. But once it cleared the obstacles along the horizon, there was no doubt that the golden sparkle was Jupiter himself. He was already in Cancer the Crab, approaching to another celestial spectacle, the Beehive open cluster.

The life wasn’t easy then. But it doesn’t mean that it is better now. Unanswered questions are still here. And Jupiter, of course, remains silent.

“Though you have already advanced your step; the mighty God, you are there still smiling.”

She went back inside and noted in her book.


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