Annual events in Japan are varied in their purpose and meaning, but oftentimes recognize and celebrate the coming of one of the four seasons--spring, summer, autumn and winter. The Japanese are very keen to point out that the seasons on this island nation are very distinct from one to the next, making the passage of time all the more apparent.
In this article, we focus on annual events and the accompanying foods that hold cultural meaning in spring (March to May). Spring is characterized as a time for new beginnings, both in the natural environment and social life, represented by the school year that starts in Spring.
During the three or so months of spring, there are several events that are distinct from each other with their own matching cuisine. Here we explore the cultural backdrop of these events as well as the foods that make them so interesting.
Spring Events in Japan
Before learning about Japanese spring foods, we need to know about the annual spring events.
The annual spring events do not start in April, but in February when it is still cold. There are five annual events in spring.
The first is Setsubun, which is held on February 3rd, the day before Risshun (first day of spring) to drive away demons and welcome the New Year. During Setsubun, it is customary to throw beans from one's home while yelling, "Oni wa soto, Fuku wa uchi" or in English "Demons outside, good fortune inside". The reason for throwing beans at Setsubun is to ward away any bad spirits, which were thought to be most active on the day that marks the division between the two seasons, winter and spring. In old Japan, disasters were thought to be the work of demons, and to drive out their bad spirits, here too people would throw beans to ward off evil spirits. In addition to beans, families would place the head of a sardine at the entrance depending on the region. This is because it is thought that demons do not like the smell of sardines.
The other annual events in spring are the Peach Festival in March; the Spring Higan Festival and Cherry Blossom Viewing in April, and Dragon Boat Festival in May. We will take a closer look at these events and their foods in the sections that follow.
Relationship between Annual Events and Food
As mentioned, there are five prominent annual events in spring alone, each with their symbolic dishes.
Each of these events hold a special significance, with the food usually acting as supporting cast that makes these meanings tangible. These event foods mark the celebration as well as providing a means to pray for good health. Seasonal ingredients are often used in a way that adds vitality and even glamour to the event.
The following sections introduce these spring events and their accompanying ingredients and dishes.
Events in March
The events taking place in March are the Dolls Festival and the Spring Higan. The Dolls Festival is also known as Momo no Sekku (Peach Festival). The Dolls Festival is held on March 3rd, which was said to be a day that was prone to bad spirits. On this day, dolls are decorated to ward off bad spirits. In the old days, the probability of a child's death was high, and it was believed that the gods knew whether the child would grow up healthy or not. For this reason, dolls were placed at the child's bedside to transfer impurities and purge misfortune.
Hina-arare is a food that is eaten during the Dolls Festival. "Hina-arare" roughly translates to "an offering to the dolls". Each color of hina-arare has its meaning: pink means to ward off evil, peach signifies blossoms, white means purity, and green means health. The four colors of hina-arare represent the four seasons: green for spring, red for summer, yellow for autumn, and white for winter. These four colors combined is a prayer for happiness throughout the year. There are also other dishes such as chirashi-zushi, which is prepared not only for the Dolls Festival but also for other celebrations.
Another March event is the O-higan. The O-higan is a period of three days before and seven days after the first day of spring. The first day is called "higan-iri", the middle day is called "otaka-ni", and the last day is called "higan-atsu". During O-higan, time is spent cleaning Buddhist altars, giving family gravestones a good scrub and making offerings to ancestors.
Chirashi-zushi and Hina-arare, as well as Juroku-dango (dumplings), Hamaguri (acorn), Hishi-mochi (diamond-shaped rice cakes), and Botamochi (rice cakes) are among the special foods eaten in March. Seasonal ingredients in March include komatsuna, garland chrysanthemum, turnips, lettuce, hassaku, kohada, and clams.
Events in April
Next are the iconic events of April.
In April we have the Hanami or blossom viewing in English, an event that is coming to be known abroad as an occasion to eat outside with family, friends or work colleagues under cherry blossoms in bloom. In fact, cherry blossoms are not the only flower worthy of an outdoor picnic: plum blossoms and chrysanthemums--called plum viewing and chrysanthemum viewing respectively--are another reason for time amongst the spring flowers. There is an established meaning behind the Hanami activities, which is to pay thanks to the god of rice for a good harvest.
Hanami is celebrated with Hanami dango and Hanami bento. Hanami dango comes in three colors, each with its own meaning. Red signifies cherry blossoms in spring, white is snow in winter, and green is associated with summer. In Hanami bento, the Japanese pack dishes made with seasonal spring ingredients and enjoy them while sitting under the blooming cherry blossoms.
Ohanami dango is often served with sweet tea. The sweet tea is made from sweet tea leaves, an originally bitter leaf, but through a fermentation process becomes hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. It is said that drinking sweet tea will keep you healthy and free from illness, making it an auspicious drink. Other seasonal foods in April include bamboo shoots, potatoes, royal fern, bracken, and pea pods.
Events in May
Symbolic in May is Children's day, celebrated on the 5th for the healthy growth and development of children.
Originally, the fifth day of May was called Tango-no-Sekku, and it was held for boys to pray for their health. Tango-no-Sekku originated in China and was introduced to Japan, evolving to the Children's Day celebration that we have today.
In fact, there was an event called "May Cleansing" in Japan before Tango-no-Sekku was introduced. In May, women who plant rice, or Saotome, stayed in their homes before the planting began to cleanse themselves of impurities. The combination of the tradition of May cleansing and Chinese culture led to the custom of bathing in iris infused bath during Tango-no Sekku, as it was said to have the effect of dispelling evil spirits. Later, in 1948, it was decided that Tango-no-Sekku would be a holiday to pray for the happiness of children and to thank their mothers, officially becoming Children's Day.
On Children's Day, we decorate and enjoy beautifully colored carp streamers. The traditional foods for May are Kashiwa Mochi and Chimaki. Kashiwa Mochi is considered to be a good luck food, and Chimaki is a food to ward off evil. The seasonal foods of spring include cabbage, asparagus, bamboo shoots, chives, and butterbur.
Spring is a time for New Beginnings
We hope you enjoyed learning about the colors, foods and events of spring in Japan.
In March, there is the Dolls Festival and the Spring Higan; in April we have Hanami, and in May, Children's Day. Two out of the four annual events in spring are for children.
Each of these events have seasonal significance that appear through the foods and ingredients used to celebrate them. Ingredients that are in season naturally make the foods taste better. If you are a fan of food, I think you will thoroughly enjoy trying these dishes. If you have a chance, try preparing them-- your appreciation for spring may take on new meaning!