Annual events refer to those cultural activities that come around a certain time of the year, and event food refers to the ingredients and dishes that are enjoyed to celebrate these special occasions.
In this article, we look at the annual events and foods of summer (June to August) that take place in Japan. If you live in the northern hemisphere, summer is a time of year when temperatures are higher and choices for various activities are abundant. Summer events in Japan have evolved over the centuries to recognize and incorporate these seasonal features. Thinking about visiting Japan in the summer? Below are some of the activities and foods that you may encounter.
Summer Events in Japan
Six annual summer events are held from June to August: the summer solstice in June; Tanabata (Star Festival), the Obon Festival, and the Day of the OX in July; and a second Obon Festival and Summer Festival in August. Each of these annual events hold a different meaning and method of celebration.
We will introduce the associated foods too, so you have a head-start if you are interested in recreating any of them in your own kitchen.
June Events and Food
The month of June is marked by the summer solstice. The summer solstice is one of the 24 solar terms, and is the longest day of the year, falling on either June 21 or June 22. This is the time of year when the sun is at its most northerly point in relation to the Earth. After the summer solstice, the daylight hours become gradually shorter as autumn and winter approach.
There is no nationwide rule for foods to be eaten on the day of the summer solstice, leading to differences between regions.
For example, in Nara Prefecture and the Kanto region, there is a custom of eating half-summer cakes. This practice originates from the tradition of making and eating Hankatsuo mochi (rice cakes) during the five days from July 2, the 11th day after the summer solstice when rice planting is completed.
Another example, there are some regions that have the custom of eating octopus, namely in the Kansai region, where octopus sashimi and marinated octopus are eaten. The octopus are eaten with the hope that the crops will take root firmly in the earth.
In Aichi Prefecture, figs are eaten with dengaku miso paste, called fig dengaku. Figs are a symbol of immortality and longevity, and dengaku comes from a dance performed by a man praying for a good harvest.
In Kumamoto Prefecture, buns and dumplings are made and enjoyed. Manju (steamed buns) and dango (dumplings) are meant to be offerings to the gods.
Some foods eaten in June include arare, ice cakes, and roasted beans. Other foods include sardines, which are at their most delicious because they are fatty before spawning.
July Events and Food
There are three events in July: Tanabata (Star Festival), Obon (Bon Festival), and Doyo no Ushi (Ox Day).
Tanabata falls on July 7th. It is the day when Ori Princess (Orihime) and Hiko Prince (Hikoboshi) meet across the Milky Way galaxy, a meeting that only happens once a year on the seventh night of July. Orihime and Hikoboshi used to be diligent workers, but after they got married, they stopped working completely. God saw this and punished them by creating the Milky Way so that they could not meet. However, seeing that they were sad, he decided to let them meet once a year if they worked as before. Orihime and Hikoboshi renewed their work-ethic in the hopes of reuniting for one day a year on July 7th.
On Tanabata, the Japanese write their wishes on strips of paper and decorate them on bamboo branches. There is a legend that decorating bamboo leaves will make your wishes come true and ward off bad spirits.
So what kind of food do the Japanese eat on Tanabata? There are a number of dishes, but here we look at two. The first one is Sado-mochi, which is a dessert made by twisting and shaping flour and then deep-frying it in oil. The second is somen, a common noodle that is enjoyed at Tanabata festivals. Besides the standard white colored somen, there are colored noodles as well, often times in the five-color Tanabata.
Next is Obon. Obon will be explained in detail in the August events section, but there are also events in July where Obon is celebrated.
The third festivity is the Day of the Ox. The Day of the Ox falls on a different Saturday every year in July. On this day, unagi (freshwater eel) is eaten. This is because summer is a time when the extreme heat can affect health and unagi, rich in nutrients, is thought to be the perfect food to prevent summer fatigue. In addition to eel, it is believed that it is good to eat anything with "u" in it, such as udon and gyu (beef).
August Events and Foods
There are two events in August: Obon and the Summer Festival.
Obon is the four-day period from August 13th to 16th. It is a time to welcome and make offerings to the spirits of deceased family members and ancestors. On the 16th, the last day of the Obon festival, the Japanese make a bonfire to send the deceased off to the next world. On the evening of the 16th, after the Obon festival is over everything is cleaned and put back in place.
In general, offerings are set up to welcome the deceased, which is called a Seirima. The spirit horse is compared to a vehicle for the deceased to travel back and forth between this world and the next. The cucumber represents the horse, and the eggplant represents a cow. It is hoped that the horse will come to the world of the living as quickly as a horse can gallop, and the cow will return slowly when it is time to leave.
There is no nationwide rule for Obon offerings. Since Obon is an event to welcome the deceased, meat is avoided and vegetarian dishes such as vegetables and tofu are prepared. When welcoming ancestors, albacore dumplings are made and offered.
The second annual event is the Summer Festival, which is held all over Japan. Children especially love this event. At the festival, people carry mikoshi (portable shrines), which originated from the Gion Festival in Kyoto. It is said that the origin of the festival is to prevent people from getting sick easily during the hot summer and pray for good health. The mikoshi (portable shrine) is believed to be a way to share god's energy with everyone.
The seasonal foods in August include cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, edamame, okra, eggplants, and shishito peppers.
The Vitality of Summer
Summer dishes vary from region to region, but common event foods include somen, albacore dumplings, vegetarian food, unagi (eel), and earthenware shijimi.
There are five annual events: the Summer Solstice in June, Tanabata (Star Festival) and the Day of the Ox in July; and the Obon (Bon Festival) and the Summer Festival in August. Unlike the annual events in the spring when we pray for the health of our children, many of the events, such as the Summer Festival and the Day of the Ox have the purpose of energizing the body. The summer season is a time when it is easy to fall ill due to the extreme heat, and these events evolved around the idea of keeping healthy and full of vitality. We have also listed a few seasonal ingredients. See if you can find any at your supermarket to try cooking with them.