December 2017


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Do You Know Japan’s Winter Solstice Traditions?

In company with her host mother Sawako, Frederika has come to the supermarket to help with a big shopping. On seeing the scene that confronts her in the fruit and vegetable section, she is rather surprised.

It seems like they are selling mountains of pumpkin! Normally, I don’t think they put so much of it on the shelves.
Frederika
There is so much of it because the winter solstice (or toji in Japanese) is fast approaching. In this country, there is the tradition of eating pumpkin when toji finally arrives.
Sawako
Eating pumpkin when toji arrives? What is the reasoning behind that?
Frederika
Unlike our modern world in which we are blessed with a great variety of different food throughout the year, in times past pumpkins were important because they could be stored after being harvested in summer and then be eaten during winter. In that our forefathers hoped to successfully see out the harshness of winter without incident, they apparently ate pumpkin on the day on which toji fell because it represented such a valuable source of nutrition.
Sawako
That sounds very logical because pumpkin is a highly nutritious vegetable that is rich in both carotene and vitamins.
Frederika
Yes, that is correct. As such, even today due to the idea that “eating pumpkin on toji will make you a stranger to sickness,” the tradition of eating it continues. Furthermore, there is another tradition in that people in the old days associated the eating of pumpkin on toji with the concept of “bringing about good fortune” (or un in Japanese).
Sawako
Why was that the case?
Frederika
Because what we now call kabocha (pumpkin) used to be known as nankin in Japanese. When the kanji for that word was transposed into hiragana, at the end of the two syllables that comprised it, there was an intonation of the n that people felt resembled un (or good fortune), and it seems that that phonetic similarity induced them to specifically eat pumpkin on toji (or on the day of the winter solstice).
Sawako
I see what you mean!
Frederika
Toji of course marks the shortest day and longest night of the year. In that once that day is passed the period of sunlight each day will again start to lengthen, I suppose that people in the old days thought that whatever had been bad up until that point would begin to improve with the result that there would be an upswing in their fortunes.
Sawako
In Northern Europe as well including my own country of Finland, there used to be ancient celebrations on the winter solstice to mark what was perceived to be a returning of the sun. For inhabitants of regions of the world where the hours of sunlight during the winter months become extremely short, there is special significance in the winter solstice and the idea of the days becoming longer once it has past. While celebration of the winter solstice later transformed to become “Christmas” through its contact with Christianity, in Northern Europe today there are still places that refer to Christmas as the celebration of the solstice.
Frederika
I wasn’t aware of that! So, the special significance of toji or the winter solstice is not just something Japanese.
Sawako

At this point, Frederika becomes aware of something resembling an orange that is piled up next to the pumpkins.

It seems they are also selling a lot of yellow-colored fruit today. Do these here also have some relationship with toji?
Frederika
Frederika, you are observant! They are a variety of citron citrus called yuzu, and on the day of the winter solstice here in Japan, we have the tradition of placing them in our baths and creating what we call yuzuyu (or a hot citron bath).
Sawako
What is the significance of that?
Frederika
There are a number of explanations for the tradition. One is the idea of making yourself clean before “bringing about good fortune.” Another is the fact that yuzu have a strong fragrance during the winter months which some people believe can ward off evil.
Sawako
In actual fact, by bathing in yuzuyu, what do people hope to achieve?
Frederika
Some people believe that in bathing in such a manner they are able to ease their sensitivity to the cold by improving their circulation. It is also said that bathing in yuzuyu can help individuals recover from fatigue. The fragrance that yuzu give off also relaxes the body, and there might also be some truth in the saying that “people who bathe in yuzuyu don’t get colds.”
Sawako
So yuzuyu is like using bath salts. I think I will also give it a try!
Frederika
Okay, let’s buy some pumpkin and some yuzu. In that you are here in Japan, it will give you a great opportunity to experience some of our solstice traditions!
Sawako

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