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What is the Winter Solstice?


The Origins of a Unique Japanese Foods and Customs

The Winter Solstice of 2021 falls on December 22. Do you know that there are some special foods eaten on the winter solstice in Japan, which is the turning point for enduring the cold and welcoming spring? There is also the custom of taking a bath with yuzu, a seasonal fruit. Here are some of the unique Japanese traditions related to the winter solstice, where we take in foods that make sense nutritionally and pray for the health of our beloved family and friends.



Table of Contents

1. What is the Winter Solstice?

2. Japanese Winter Solstice Customs 1

Great for Health and Beauty! Yuzu (Japanese citron) bath

3. Japanese Winter Solstice Custom 2

Full of Nutrition! Itoko-ni and Azuki Porridge

4. Japanese Winter Solstice Custom 3

Eat for Good Luck! Nana-Kusa (Seven Kinds of Winter Foods)

5.Summary




1. What is the Winter Solstice?

The winter solstice is when daylight hours are the shortest, and the sun's mid-south altitude is the lowest. It is caused by the position of the Earth and the Sun. The winter solstice falls on or around December 22, and next year, 2022, it will be on December 22 as well. In Japan, the daylight hours will be about five hours shorter than the summer solstice.


The Winter Solstice is the opposite of the Summer Solstice, which has the most prolonged daytime hours in the year. The power of the sun, the source of life, is weakened the most at the Winter Solstice, and it has been feared since ancient times as the day when we feel closest to death. In fact, in the days when we didn't have such a blessed environment as we do today, with heaters and warm clothes, the cold itself would have been a time that made people feel so close to death.


2. Japanese Winter Solstice Customs 1


Great for Health and Beauty! Yuzu (Japanese citron) bath


However, the daylight hours, which are the shortest at the winter solstice, become longer and longer as we head toward spring. The winter solstice is the turning point of the transition from the bottom to the upward slope. For this reason, the custom of soaking in hot water with yuzu floating in the bath was born in Japan as a form of misogi (purification ceremony) to switch waning luck into good fortune.


It is said that "yuzu-yu(hot bath with yuzu)" started as a seasonal event in public baths during the Edo period (1603-1868), and there is nothing like soaking in a bath with a fresh scent and bright yellow yuzu floating in the water during the cold season. The Japanese word for "winter solstice" is "toji 冬至 ," and is also a reference to and the same pronunciation with "toji 湯治," the healing of illness by soaking in hot water. Japanese people have always loved playing with words.

Yuzu is in season in winter, and yuzu-yu is a well-established ritual to ward off evil spirits and exorcise bad luck before bringing in future luck. Of course, yuzu-yu can be used to warm up the body, promote blood circulation to relieve coldness, and prevent colds, as well as for the healing effects of its citrus aroma.However, the juice does contain acid, so please be careful if you have sensitive skin.



3. Japanese Winter Solstice Custom 2

Full of Nutrition! Itoko-ni and Azuki Porridge


If you ask people in Japan what they eat on the winter solstice, it depends on the region, but the first thing that comes to mind is "Itoko-ni," which is pumpkin and azuki beans simmered together. In some areas, porridge with pumpkin and azuki beans is also eaten.As with azuki, although pumpkins are harvested in summer, they are one of the few ingredients that can be preserved and ripened to become sweeter and tastier in winter and rich in nutrients such as carotene, which is challenging to consume in the cold winter months. In the days when sugar was precious and expensive, the slight sweetness of pumpkin must have been a great source of comfort.

In the ancient Chinese medical textbook "Honzo," azuki beans are noted for their ability to "kill poison and stop the pain." Eating azuki porridge on the winter solstice to ward off bad luck also existed in ancient China.


The term "itoko-ni" refers to a cooking method in which ingredients such as azuki beans, which are dry and difficult to boil, are added in order and cooked. "Itoko" is cousin(s), and "ni" is" simmer" or" stew" in Japanese. It is said that the name was derived from the words "oi" and "mei" (nephew and niece and =cousins) since "oi-oi," which means "in order," sound the same as nephews, and "mei-mei," which means "one by one" sounds the same as nieces. In other words, the name was born from the combination of the words "oi" and "mei" = "cousin". This is also the name made with playing with words. Therefore, there are cases where combinations other than azuki and pumpkin are used.


[Basic Pumpkin and Azuki “Itoko-ni”]

(Many variations depend on the family and region)

120 grams boiled azuki beans

1/4 pumpkin (cut into bite-sized pieces)

1 tablespoon each of sugar and soy sauce

200ccs of water

1)Put one tablespoon of sugar and soy sauce and 200 ccs of water in a pot and bring to a boil. Arrange the pumpkins not to overlap, cover with a lid, and simmer until the pumpkins are soft, about 10 minutes.


2)Add the boiled azuki beans, mix lightly to distribute the seasoning evenly, and serve.


3)The key to "Itoko-ni” is the sweet and savory flavor created by sugar with soy sauce. Since there is already a gentle sweetness from the pumpkin and azuki beans, the amount of sugar is just a suggestion. Adjust the amount according to your taste.


4. Japanese Winter Solstice Custom 3

Eat for Good Luck! Nana-Kusa (Seven Kinds of Winter Foods)


As for the food of the winter solstice, there is a legend in many parts of the country that eating foods with the letter "n" in them, such as udon, kumquat(kinkan), and carrot(ninjin), will bring you luck. The reason is that "n" is pronounced the same as "luck" in Japanese. This also applies to pumpkin, pronounced "nankin" in Japanese. While the "Seven Herbs of Spring" after New Year's is well known, the "Seven Foods of Winter" is a collection of foods with “n”, thus “luck.”


1)Pumpkin: Nankin(in Japanese)

2)Lotus root : Renkon

3)Carrot: Ninjin

4)Ginkgo nuts :Gin’nan

5)Kumquat: Kinkan

6)Kanten (Agar): Kanten

7)Udon: Udon


As mentioned above, when the seven winter foods are written in Japanese hiragana, there are two "n," so they are called "lucky foods" that bring in a lot of "luck." Depending on the region, they are readily available food items in winter and help maintain good health. This may reflect that the peak season for making agar is in winter.

There are also regions where konjac(also called devil's tongue, kon’nyaku in Japanese) is eaten on the winter solstice as "suna-oroshi," getting rid of sands in the belly. It is said that eating konjac, which is rich in dietary fiber, is meant to expel the sand and residue that accumulates in the intestines. Some regions have long called konjac by other names such as "sands for cleaning the intestines" or "broom for the stomach," and it seems that people began to eat konjac at the end of the year, which falls during the winter solstice, as a way to cleanse the body.


5.Summary


On the day of the Winter Solstice, numerous shrines throughout Japan hold "Winter Solstice Festivals." The festival's name varies, but there are special winter solstice "Ichiyo Raifuku(=Winter is over and spring comes, and favorable turn of fortune)“ amulets and talismans distributed, and free winter solstice zenzai (sweet red bean soup) made with ingredients such as pumpkin and azuki beans are served.


The winter solstice is a time to pray for the health and fortune of family, friends, and other loved ones by employing foods and customs that make sense only in the cold winter.


The seven winter solstice foods in season, kumquats and yuzu, may not be available fresh outside Japan, but you may find them in Asian markets as jams or dried fruits. In Korea, yuzu tea is very popular, made by dissolving yuzu jam in warm water. If you can find udon noodles, nutritious pumpkin, and red beans to warm you up, please try to incorporate them into your winter diet.