In this article, we visit the annual events and foods of autumn in Japan. Autumn signals the end of the long summer days and the overbearing heat. The drop in temperature is a welcome respite, and is celebrated by the Japanese in the form of a variety of activities and events. It is also a time when many foods are in season, captured by the endearing phrase, "appetite of autumn". In what follows, we will explore the special role that food plays in the vibrant festivities of this beautiful season.
Autumn Events in Japan
Annual events in September include Chou-you-no-Sekku, the Autumnal Equinox, and Jugo-ya. In October there is Halloween and in November there is Shichi-Go-San. There are also special foods such as Chrysanthemum Flowers and Moon-viewing Dumplings. These meals have symbolic meaning, and are eaten as a prayer to good health. In addition, seasonal ingredients are used to enhance the taste of the food. These are just a few examples of the foods that are eaten during autumn events, which we will take a closer look in the sections that follow.
September Events and Food
There are three annual events in September: Chou-you-no-Sekku, Autumnal Equinox, and Jugo-ya.
The first annual autumn event is the Chou-you-no-Sekku held on September 9th, also known as the Chrysanthemum Festival because of this flower's central role in the celebrations. An event to pray for longevity, Chou-you-no-Sekku was introduced from China at the beginning of the Heian period (794-1185). In ancient China, chrysanthemums were said to ward off evil spirits and help people live longer. In present day Japan, people drink chrysanthemum wine to pray against illness and wish for long life. Chestnut rice is also eaten during the Chou-you Festival. Another auspicious food is eggplant, which legend says will prevent fever and headaches.
The second event of autumn is the "Autumn Higan" or Autumnal Equinox, celebrated during the three days before and after September 23rd for a total of seven days. The O-higan is a Buddhist event to give thanks to our ancestors. In Japan, there is a culture of visiting ancestral graves, which is a common practice during this time of year. Placed at the foot of the gravestone are flowers that the deceased liked, as well as chrysanthemums and gentiana blue-bells. Ohagi is the traditional food during the Autumn Equinox, a mochi-rice based dessert with sweet red bean paste, believed to ward off evil spirits.
The third September event is Jugo-ya, which literally translates as "Fifteen Nights" and is also called Mid-Autumn Moon. Jugo-ya falls on September 21. There is a custom of eating dumplings while looking at the moon on the fifteenth night. It is also a time when the rice harvest begins, as well a day to rejoice and give thanks for the harvest.
The seasonal foods for September include daikon radish, carrots, Chinese cabbage, and sweet potatoes.
October Events and Food
Believe it or not, October's main event is Halloween, which in Japan is celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd--not only the customary day of October 31st seen in other cultures.
Halloween is a time to celebrate the harvest of the fall crops. For many around the world, including in Japan, Halloween is a time for children to dress up in costumes and visit other people's homes to receive candy. Of course the origins of Halloween are in Ireland and the United Kingdom, but has now become an event enjoyed all over the world.
Halloween started in Japan in the 1970s. A Japanese toy store called Kiddieland sold products related to Halloween and later held a Halloween parade in Harajuku, where people dressed up in costumes and enjoyed the parade, which marked the beginning of Halloween events in Japan. Halloween in Japan had no traditional customs attached to it, and so started as a commercial event. In the beginning, Halloween in Japan did not have many participants, and did not spread well through commercial means. However, once Tokyo Disneyland held its own Halloween event, it became recognized quickly. Halloween events sponsored by Kiddy Land are still held today, and with many more participants than those first few years. Dressing up in costumes for Halloween is also enjoyed by the youth of Japan, in some cases creating various subcultures of their own.
October's special foods include tsukimi-dango (moon viewing dumplings), rice with chestnuts, beans and pumpkin. Pumpkins are often used for Halloween, so it makes sense that pumpkins are included. The seasonal foods for October include peanuts, mushrooms, taro, apples and saury.
November Events and Food
In November, there is the Shichi-Go-San festivities, which translates literally as "Seven-Five-Three".
Shichi-Go-San is held on November 15th and is celebrated by dressing children in kimonos. Before the development of modern medicines, when child mortality rates were high, Shichi-Go-San was held to celebrate the milestone of a child's growth. Even today, although Japanese child mortality rates are some of the lowest in the world, Shichi-Go-San tradition is still carried on as an annual event to pray for the health of children. The Shichi-Go-San, as the name implies, is celebrated at three specific ages: 3, 5, and 7 years old. Recently, however, people celebrate this milestone once in the child's life, at three or five years of age. In days long past, Shichigosan was celebrated by counting years where the child would be 1 years old the day he or she was born. This is a method used in Korea and other countries. Under this system, Shichigosan would be celebrated on the 2nd, 4th, or 6th years from birth. In today's practice, the full age is used to count the years based on the child's birthday.
In Shichigosan, red rice (Sekihan) and other foods such as the tail and head of a sea bream and shrimp are eaten. Red rice and sea bream are red in color as red things are considered to be good luck. The seasonal foods of November include Chinese cabbage, burdock root, green onion, turnip, apple, mandarin orange and pear.
Savor the Tastes of Autumn!
We took a quick tour of the primary autumn events and foods celebrated by the Japanese. The traditional foods of autumn include moon-viewing dumplings, sekihan (red rice), and ohagi (sweet rice cakes with red bean paste). There are five autumn events that we introduced: Chou-you-no-Sekku in September; the Autumnal Equinox, Jugo-ya, and Halloween in October; and Shichi-Go-San in November.
Autumn is also known as the season of appetite, with an abundance of ingredients in season. Why not try incorporating some of Japan's autumn flavors into your cooking?