Winter for many is a season when temperatures drop and people start preparing for the coming new year. In Japan, there are events that are especially enjoyed by children, such as Christmas and New Year's, which are events that are not unique to Japan and are celebrated by many around the world. Several annual winter events in Japan originated in other countries, while others have ancient roots in Japanese tradition.
In this article, we tour the annual events that exist internationally as well as those that are original to Japanese winters.
Winter Events in Japan
There are nine annual events in winter from December to February, which represents the greatest number of events in a season. This can partly be explained by the fact that winter straddles both the current year and coming year. There are three events in December (Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year's Eve), four in January (New Year's Day, Jinjitsu-no-Sekku, Coming-of-Age Day, and Kagamibiraki), and two in February (Setsubun and Valentine's Day). Each of these events has its distinct significance and celebratory traditions. We look at each in turn with a review of the many delicious foods that are the hallmarks of each.
December Events and Food
There are three annual events in December: the Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year's Eve.
First up is the Winter Solstice, the day with the shortest daylight hours in the year. The winter solstice falls on or around December 22, depending on the year. The shortest daylight hours are found in the Northern Hemisphere, with the sun never peaking above the horizon in countries close to the North Pole. As for foods during this time of year, pumpkin and a type of porridge are a common dishes. The porridge often contains red beans or pumpkin. There is a legend that if you eat porridge on the Winter Solstice, you will not get sick.
The next annual holiday is Christmas, first introduced to Japan in 1552. Francis Xavier, a famous Christian missionary, gathered people and held mass on Christmas day, which was the beginning of the idea of Christmas in Japan. Most Japanese are either Buddhists or non-religious, but since Christmas has been adopted with little religious significance, the Japanese happily celebrate it as a secular event regardless of their spiritual beliefs. Christmas has become a special day for couples too, as many spend Christmas Eve together with their partners. Typical foods associated with Christmas are cake, deep fried chicken and pizza.
The last day of December is New Year's Eve, a day to give thanks for the year spent, to tie up any loose ends with relationships and obligations at work, and to prepare for the coming new year. It is common for the Japanese to spend New Year's Eve with their parents, back at the home they grew up in. There are many foods with deep New Year's roots, one being soba, or buckwheat noodles. Tradition says that eating soba on New Year's Eve is a prayer for longevity and good health.
December's special foods include azuki porridge, pumpkin porridge, and New Year's Eve soba noodles. Seasonal foods for December include turnips, mandarin oranges, and radishes.
January Events and Food
There are four annual events in January: New Year's Day, Jinjitsu-no-Sekku, Coming-of-Age Day, and Kagamibiraki, but this article will focus on New Year's Day and Coming-of-Age Day.
The first is New Year's Day on January 1st, the day after New Year's Eve. On New Year's Day, the Japanese make their first visit to the shrine, called Hatsumode, or write New Year's cards to family, friends and work colleagues. When you make a New Year's visit to a shrine, you express your gratitude for spending the last year in good health and for being able to welcome the New Year safely. A small prayer is then given to the gods for a healthy and happy new year. Osechi cuisine, made up of several dishes, is eaten on New Year's Day. The number of dishes varies from region to region, but there are many kinds of Osechi, each representing a different wish for good fortune. For example, black soybeans are used to ward off evil spirits, and caramelized chestnuts are used to bring in financial luck. New Year's Day is also an opportunity for relatives who live far away to gather and spend time together.
The second Coming-of-Age Day, or Seijin-no-hi is held on January 10. Seijin-no-hi is a national holiday in Japan, celebrating all who will be turning 20 years old during the calendar year. In other countries, like the USA, 18 years old is often considered the marker for adulthood. The equivalent in Japan is 20 years old. However, due to a revision in the Civil Code, the age of adulthood is now officially 18, starting in 2022. The coming-of-age ceremony is held at the local community level, where classmates and family members gather. There is no specific food for the coming-of-age ceremony, but sushi and sea bream are eaten as good luck foods.
January's special meal is Osechi. Seasonal foods in January include Chinese cabbage, spinach and leeks.
February Events and Food
There are two annual events in February: Setsubun and Valentine's Day.
The first one, Setsubun, is held on February 3rd. On Setsubun, Japanese households throw beans while declaring, "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!", which translates as "Demons outside, good fortune inside!". The act of throwing the bean at an imaginary demon signifies the driving away bad luck and welcoming the New Year. Afterwards, the beans are eaten as a wish to prevent sickness. In addition, Ehomaki (a type of rolled sushi) and Kenchin soup are the most popular foods. When eating the ehomaki, you eat it in silence so that the luck does not escape. Kenchin soup is mainly eaten in the Kanto region and is made with many vegetables. It is often eaten during winter events, and later it has come to be eaten during Setsubun as well.
The second event of February is Valentine's Day on the 14th. Valentine's Day is a day for lovers and couples to reaffirm their love for each other, and in Japan, chocolates are prepared as gifts. The custom of sending chocolates started when a company successfully marketed chocolates as the sweet of choice for Valentine's Day, and this idea spread. In other countries, men send gifts to women, but in Japan, chocolates are sent from women to men. Chocolate giving is not only limited between couples, but also amongst friends.
Seasonal foods in February include Chinese cabbage and parsley.
The Colorful Events of Winter
Winter is a season full of festivities that bring family, friends and couples together, each with their special foods. Traditional winter foods include Osechi and New Year's Eve soba amongst many others. Of the nine traditional events, we quickly explored seven of them: three in December (Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year's Eve), two in January (New Year's Day and Coming of Age Day), and two in February (Setsubun and Valentine's Day).
Many of these events came to Japan from overseas cultures. Although many of the features may be familiar, you may have noticed a twist or two that is original to how the Japanese celebrate them.
If you have a chance to visit Japan in the winter, don't miss out on experiencing these events!