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When winter is running out of steam but spring is not yet willing to come, this results in a series of temperature highs and lows known in Japan as 三寒四温 (sankan shion), an alternation of three cold (三寒) and four warm (四温) days. Meteorologically speaking, this phenomenon is much more pronounced on the Asian continent, where it occurs in the middle of winter rather than toward its dirty end. That the expression is originally an import from the mainland may also explain why, on closer inspection, there seems to be something odd about the two temperature words it contains.

In order to understand this, we need to appreciate that Japanese is quite “sensational” when it comes to temperatures. For instance, where in English something is just “cold,” in Japanese it’s either 寒い (samui) or 冷たい (tsumetai). The choice between the two is based on a number of conditions, including whether one specific part of the body is concerned or the body as a whole, and whether something is tactile or nontactile. Accordingly, when it’s cold outside, it’s 外が寒い (soto ga samui), but the cold hands that result from this condition are described as 手が冷たい (te ga tsumetai).

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