Have you ever been in Japan during summer? If you are from a country where it is hotter than Japan, you may find the Japanese summer fine enough but for those who are from cooler or drier country should find the summer here is quite an endurance contest. Even as a Japanese, living here for long and have spent the Japanese summer several times, it is the time when we’d like to stay home with air conditioners on and never go out. Because all the roads are paved and there are less fresh green patches in big cities, walking under red hot sun during summer in the cities could sometimes cause serious trouble as heatstroke if you don’t be careful….
Feel like visiting Japan other than summer?
Hang on before you decide so because there are things that you could only enjoy in summer here!
We have listed up things which most of the Japanese find ‘the Japanese summer’ which may precede your interest in Japanese summer than the hot and humid climate problem. They are certainly things that have been comforting and delighting our ancestors and us today which we believe may also comfort and delight you too!
The following are things that have been close to the Japanese, directly or indirectly, in the summer season. They are the images of summer to the Japanese and appear in summer greeting cards (Shochu-mimai / 暑中見舞い), songs, literature, movies, Anime, Manga and various expressions of the Japanese. They are all close to our daily summer living of the Japanese though some may appear as images, for example as in their clothing patterns, and not substantial.
Below are the list of content links;
- Mosquito Coils
- Summer Festivals
- Portable Festival Shrines
- Bon Dance
- Balloon Fishing
- Wind Bell
- Round Paper Fan
- Water Sprinkling
Animals and Plants
Morning Glory (ASAGAO)
‘Asagao / 朝顔’ literally means ‘morning face’, a given name to the flower which blooms in early summer morning.
Since the seeds were brought by Japanese missions to Tang ChinaW in the late 8th century as medicine, it had been considered as a medicinal plant for long time.
It was in Edo periodW that the people were fascinated by its beauty and many new varieties were created as ornamental flowers by selective breeding. The culture of appreciating Asagao still remains in Tokyo where Asagao Market, ‘Asagao-ichi / 朝顔市’ is held every year in early July at Iriya.
This year it is going to be held on 7th, 8th and on 9th July with more than 100 Asagao traders.
To the Japanese today, most of us are familiar with this flower plant, Asagao, because there is a science lesson on growing the plant in almost every elementary school. There was and is a homework for every student during the summer vacation as keeping every day observation record by drawing the picture of Asagao brought back from school.
Asagao Market / Asagai-ichi Information :
Accsess to Iriya Asagao Market :
1 minute walk from Iriya Station of Hibiya Line or 3 minute walk from Uguisudani station of JR.
The origin of Kingyo / 金魚 was mutant Crucian carp ( CarassiusW) found in 3rd to 4th century in China. As its colour was yellow and red, it was named goldfish in Chinese.
It was first brought into Japan in 1502 to Sakai, Osaka.
As Kingyo was very precious and rare fish then, only the wealthy could afford them until the mid 18th century, when raising and breeding of the goldfish became popular and a book on how to raise Kingyo was published.
Rich people kept Kingyo in a big basin made of glass, which was imported and precious, while normal citizens kept them in a small bowl or anything where they could put water and fish in.
Looking at Kingyo, especially from under the basin, was and still is something which could make us forget the heat of summer.
In 19th century, the mass production and the distribution system was well-organized in three areas, Koriyama in Nara, Edogawa in Tokyo, which are still major production areas of Kingyo even now.
If you ever have a chance to visit any of these Kingyo producing areas, you will see that there are many pools within the town keeping various Kingyo.
- Koriyama / 郡山 : http://www.city.yamatokoriyama.nara.jp/overseas/english/
- Yatomi / 弥富 : http://www.city.yatomi.lg.jp.e.kr.hp.transer.com/
- Edogawa / 江戸川 : http://www.gotokyo.org/en/kanko/edogawa/event/edogawa_kingyo.html
We can observe the Edo tradition of admiring Kingyo still today. Kingyo sukui (Goldfish scooping) has been a popular game since Edo period.
Kingyo Festival is held in Edogawa-ku, Kita-Kasai, at Gyosen Park on 10th and 20th July! For those who are interested, access to the event would be 10 minute walk from Nishi-kasai Station of Tozai Line.
Bladder Cherry (HOOZUKI)
‘Hoozuki / ほおずき’ is known as bladder cherry or Cape Gooseberry in English, Alkekenge or Physalis in French.
The word origin is thought to be from the Japanese word, ‘ho-tsuki / 頬つき’, meaning ‘the looks of the cheek’. There also is another theory as the similar pronunciation to ‘Fuzuki or Fimizuki / 文月’, the fruiting month of the plant. The Kanji of Hoozuki is written as ‘鬼灯’ which literally means devil’s lantern.
In Europe and in the US, it is known as a kind of berry fruit whose taste is sweet and sour. However, in Japan, it is known more as an ornament plant. Moreover, it was considered as medicine in days gone by.
Hoozuki is a feature of summer because a very famous Hoozuki maeket, ‘Hoozuki Ichi / ほおずき市’, is held in Asakusa on 9th and 10th of July.
Legendary of Minamoto no YoritomoW, the first Shogun of Kamakura Shogunate (1192- 1199) taking a rest in Asakusa and let the soldiers eat Hoozuki who suffered from heatstroke on their way back home from the Northern battle remains.
10th July is the very important day for Senso-jiW temple in Asakusa.
From Edo period, the very day has been called the day of ‘forty-six thousand days / 四万六千日’, which means if you visit the temple on this day you will be blessed as if you had visited the temple forty-six thousand times. People who wanted to visit as early as they could came the day before which later, the festival was held, and is held, for two days.
On important days to the temples, there stands numbers of stalls selling traditional fast food or sweets, among which takoyaki and okonomiyaki, cotton candy would be the typical stalls in Japanese festivals today. Hoozuki stalls used to be among them, were not specified on specific days but gradually set dates due to the fruiting time of the plant which on 9th and 10th July become the say of Hozuki market, the Hozuki Ichi.
Information on Hozuki Ichi :
- 10 minute walk from Asakusa Station.
- Market open from about 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Japanese Rhinoceros Beetle (KABUTOMUSHI)
‘Kabutomushi’ literally means ‘Samurai’s helmet insect’.
Kabutomushi / かぶとむし is definitely the most popular insect among Japanese kids as the figure of the insect looks strong with Samurai’s helmet looking like tough head. For those who live in big cities with less nature, Kabutomushis are sold as pets in pet shops at this time of the year. The price is not so high though high enough for kids to buy with their pocket money. It would be lucky for the kids who have either their grandparents’ home in the countryside as many Japanese tend to return back to their parents’ house on Obon and that kids would have chances to find Kabutomushi by themselves in the nature of their grand parents’ place.
To catch wild Kabutomushi, you should find ‘Kunugi / クヌギ(Sawtooth oakW)’ or ‘Konara oak’ beforehand. It will be the best for you to find as many trees as you can, at least 5 to 10 trees are desirable. Go and see the trees in dawn. You will see several beetles gathering at one point, sucking the sap. Among them, you may find Kabutomushi pushing other small beetles to get the best place. If you are lucky enough, you may find ‘Kuwagata (Stag beetleW)’ which also is very popular and hard to find!
Information on Kabutomushi : http://mushinavi.com/navi-insect/data-kabuto.htm
If you are in Japan in summer for the first time, you will be surprised at the sound of ‘Semi / 蝉 (CicadaW)’. Not to mention in the country side but also in big cities as Tokyo or Osaka, you will be able to hear them shrilling busily, sometimes making you feel more hot under the burning sun.
There are several kinds of Semi in Japan, among them is the common ‘Min-min zemi / ミンミンゼミ’, easy to remember its name because they shrill ‘Min, min, min, min…’, which became the origin of their name. Another typical one is ‘Tsukutsukuboshi / ツクツクボウシ’ as their shrills go ‘Tsukutsuku boooshi’. Many of the shrilling Semi have been the ‘sound of summer’ in Japan and has been mentioned in classical poems or literature to give more effects to their works. One of the most famous poems to the Japanese written on Semi should be by Matsuo BashoW, most famous poet of Edo period which all the Japanese study in middle school, in his work, ‘Oku no HosomichiW (The Narrow Road to the Deep Nroth)’. The famous poem was read in RIsshaku-ji, also called ‘Yama-deraW, in Yamagata prefectureW as below;
Shizukesaya Iwa-ni shimiiru Semi-no koe / 閑さや 岩にしみ入る 蝉の声
No sound but of cicadas’,
Permeating deep into the silent rock.
For those who want to know how the Japanese Semis shrill, you can listen to some Semis shrilling below which is surely the sound of summer in Japan!
There is another typical Semi called ‘Higurashi’. Their names don’t derive from their shrilling sound but the time when they shrill. They start to shrill in the evening, which is the origin of their name as ‘Higurashi’ that literally means ‘making the sun set’! They are one of the ‘non-hot sound’ Semi but sends us a good background music (sound?) on a nice summer evening outside.
There is only one thing we would like to remind you about cicadas. As you may know, cicadas live underground as nymphs for many years before being active on trees. Their life as “adults” is quite short, which is said to be less than one month. So, you may find cicadas fallen on the ground as if their life would have been ended. If you love animals or if you are very kind, you cannot leave them behind on the road and pick them up to place them on more comfortable place wishing R.I.P. However, nice out of ten cicadas like that are still alive and they will burst into hard shrill in your hand! We call it “cicada bomb”, which you should keep in mind. It’s really scary….
An encyclopedia says that about 5,000 varieties of dragonflies exist on the earth. Among all, about 200 varieties exist in Japan in various sizes and colours.
The super star of Japanese dragonflies in summer would be Oni-yamma (Anotogaster sieboldiiW) which is the largest in Japan, 9 to 11cm (3.54 inch to 4.33 inch).
They fly very fast and it is so difficult to catch them. You can surely be a super star if you are able to catch one. To catch them you will need equipment, a net, more precisely insect-catching net, the ‘Mushitori-ami’.
Apart from catching a dragonfly with a net, there is a very popular way in Japan by twirling your forefinger just in front of their eyes. People say that a dragonfly will get dizzy looking at your forefinger and will not fly away for a moment while you catch. But to tell you through our own experience, we’ve never been lucky enough by this traditional way!
Dragon flies are the insects which have been loved in Japan. It has been regarded as ‘victory insect’ because they have the behavior of flying forward and never backward.
The flying habit of the Tonbo is described in the name given to the insect in German or in French as ‘teufelsnadel’ or ‘aiguille du diable’ meaning ‘witch’s needle’ which was said to have come from an image of how fast they fly in thin, stick-like body.
You ought to see some of the Tonbos here which are really fast as though a thiｃk needle is about to hit a target. No need to worry, they would not target you!
Mosquito Coils (KATORI SENKO)
Mosuquito Net (KAYA)
Pig-shaped Smudge Vessel (KAYARI BUTA)
A mosquito is an annoying insect and regret to tell you that because the Japanese summer is very humid and there are many ponds and rivers which brings the best condition for mosquito’s living, they are here….
Being bit by Japanese mosquitoes don’t mediate serious disease but is an annoy because it’s really itchy!!
To avoid them coming near you to bite you, the Japanese have been keen on how to get rid of them.
There is a long history of battles against mosquitoes and the traditional weapon we have got is ‘Katori-senko’, killing mosquitoe incense, or the mosquito coils.
The two major Katori-senko companies in Japan are Dainihon Jochugiku Company Limited, known by the brand name of ‘KINCHO / 金鳥’ and Earth Chemical Company Limited which may be more famous for their mat-type electronic mosquito catchers and spray-canned insecticide.
The Japanese would realize the summer arrival also by the TV advert or the smell of Katori-senko smoke which may derive from the famous catch phrase of ‘Kincho’ ads, as;
Nihon-no natsu, Kincho-no Natsu / 日本の夏、金鳥の夏
Japanese Summer, Kincho’s summer.
You would realize, if you travel in the countryside of Japan by finding old enamel signboards like the photographs below put up on walls of barns and houses, that Katori-senko has long been the necessities to the Japanese in summer which today, its position is taken place by various electronic mosquito catching devices.
Before the sewer system was modernized and the scientific extermination as Katori-senko and other insecticide were used in Japan, serious disease as encephalitis had arisen by the mediation of mosquito. Still, people avoided the harm by using ‘Kaya’, a Mosquito net but is hardly seen today though some over 50-year-old may remember using them in their childhood, saying that it was fun sleeping in it because the bedding space became like a small base but was so hot inside.
There is a funny tradition regarding Kaya. It has been believed that it was effective for escaping from thunder going inside the Kaya covering the navel with hands.
Summer Festivals (NATSU MATSURI)
In summer, many ‘Matsuri / 祭り (festivals)’ are held all over Japan related to Bon festivalW. This is the period when people honor the spirits of their own ancestors, believed to be back home from the other world in Buddhism. However, the timing differs depending on the regions because of the change of the official calendar used in Japan.
After Meiji RestorationW, the government decided to go with the Gregorian calendar from the Lunar calendar, among which there is about one month difference. The starting day of ‘O-Bon / お盆’ was 15th July in Lunar calendar. In the area where the Governmental order diffused quickly, such as in Tokyo, the O-bon is on 15th July in Gregorian calendar. On the other hand, in areas outside Tokyo, O-bon is on the 15th of August in Gregorian calendar. Still confusing, even in Tokyo, this difference exists because many people living in Tokyo today are originally from areas outside Tokyo…
Anyways, for the majority of the O-bon in Japan is on the 15th August. O-bon is not the national holiday but many people take leave in this period, the time when Tokyo is exceptionally empty.
There are various kinds of Matsuri in Japan depending on the regions. There are some specific important Matsuri, usually famous or big and small Matsuri of small local shrines. The essential activities for small local Matsuri are ‘Mikoshi / 神輿 (portable shrine)’, ‘Bon-odori / 盆踊り(Bon dance) and ‘En-nichi / 縁日(fair stalls)’.
Portable Festival Shrines (MIKOSHI)
‘Mikoshi / 神輿’ is a shrine made portable for festivals.
It is believed that carrying Mikoshi on their shoulders and marching with it means to purify the area with the power of the deity. There are two key points when carrying Mikoshi; one is to shout ‘Wasshoi / わっしょい’ or ‘Oisa / おいさ’ repeatedly (It depens on the area what to say.) and the other is to shake the Mikoshi powerfully to energize the divine spirit. Special festival costume as ‘HappiW / 半被’ is necessary worn to be a carrier.
Famous or big festivals’ Mikoshi tends to be festival floats than carrying Mikoshi as you see in Gion Matsuri in Kyoto or Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori prefectureW.
Bon Dance (BON ODORI)
‘Bon Odori / 盆踊り’ is a special group dance performed by citizens during Obon. The style varies from region to region and each region has its’ local dance. Yet, the most typical Bon Odori is danced in slow rhythm to a local Min’yoW, classical Japanese folk songs, lining up in a circle around a high wooden YaguraW scaffold, the center stage, where a big Taiko, a Japanese drum, placed and beats the rhythm. Anyone can participate in Bon Odori but are especially welcomed if you are wearing YukataW. Since the dance is normally slow and simple, you can easily learn how to dance and enjoy.
The Bon Odori originates in Buddhist incantation using singing, drum-beating and dancing by one of the itinerant monk, KuyaW in Heian periodW which became a great boom all over Japan as the services were stress reducing in the times when there were not much other ways.
While time passed, the service became more popularized. People dressed up, danced in the out standing way, venue decorated eye-catchy with better music. The Bon Odori venues were most active in Edo period, some held over 4 months, starting from July to October! It was then more of a place to get to know someone you’d like to hang out with or to meet someone you would fall in love with.
Ballon Fishing (YO-YO TSURI)
As well as Kingyo-sukui, Goldfish scooping, ‘Yo-yo tsuri / ヨーヨー釣り’ is another unique and fun game you can try in Natsu Matsuri. Yo-yo is a small balloon containing little water inside, mouth tied with rubber elastic string so that you could play with like the normal yo-yos, tossing it with your palm.
Yo-yo tsuri is a game to fish Yo-yo floating in a small pool with a small hook. A hook is tied with paper onto either a rod or a peg which would tear off if you don’t concentrate on avoiding the paper getting wet while you fish Yo-yo.
The history of Yo-to tsuri is not so certain but according to a book written by a man who once was a huckster looks back to his childhood and describes that Yo-yo was already at the festival stalls in 1928.
Today, you will find Yo-yo tsuri ‘yo-yos’ like as you see in the photos above but could also see some with famous Manga and Anime characters as ‘Doraemon’ and ‘Pokemon’ printed, made not with rubber but plastic. Most of the Yo-yo tsuri stalls would offer you one even if you don’t succeed in the game, so have a try if you have a chance!
Wind Bell (FURIN)
The air conditioner is absolutely one of the most fabulous inventions in the history especially in the humid area like Japan. Before this great invention, The Japanese had been thinking out the way of how they could spend the hot and humid summer comfortably in ecological ways.
Fūrin is one of the ecological equipment capable of alleviating an unpleasant heat even though it does not lower the temperature at all. It is the effect of the sound that Furin makes that make you feel cooler, the expecting on individual auditory effect.
As all the ‘bell-sorts’ were thought to be a talisman, Furin among the rest was a talisman which was thought to avoid the evil spirits as epidemics which would drive into the land, drifted by the wind, with the sacred sound that it makes. Most of the epidemics of the past in Japan were active in the hot and humid summer, in which the sacred Furin’s antecedents were put by the windows. Furin gradually settled more as an ornament to enjoy the refreshing sound as the time goes by, made with glass, china, wood, coal and crystals, apart from iron or copper.
Every July in Kawasaki Daishi, Heikeiji, Japan’s biggest Furin Fair is held in the site. Over 900 varieties, 30,000 Furins are brought from all over Japan to be sold at stalls. The Fair with numerous Furins is indeed a highlight which you ought to see if you are in Japan, around Tokyo during the period. This year, 2014, the fair is going to be held from 17th to 21st July, opening from 10:00 to 18:00, till 20:00 on 19th and 20th.
Information on Kawasaki Daishi Furin-ichi :
- Take Keikyu Line from Shinagwa, change train to Keikyu Taishi Line.
Get off at Kawasakoi Daishi station.
Round Paper Fan (UCHIWA)
‘Uchiwa / 団扇’ is one of the traditional fans as well as ‘Sensu / 扇子’. The differences between these two are that Uchiwa is not a foldaway fan but ‘Sensu’ is. Uchiwa is a fan more casual, normally used in the house or occasions when formality is laid aside like on marches of the Mikoshi when mortal and immortal come together informally.
Still, in the Sengoku periodW, Uchiwa was an item, with the family crest, to represent the army, a commanding tool and a protector. It was a military leader’s fan called ‘Gunbai / 軍配’ which you could still see in the referee’s hand at SumoW wrestling match.
It was in the Edo periodW, when peace prevailed, that this battle gear became to be used in peaceful ways as to fan on hot days, making fire, to send away flies and mosquitos or holding beautiful painted Uchiwa as fashion as you see in the Ukiyoe above.
As Uchiwa became a fashion item, many UkiyoeW artists drew exclusive designs on them. Landscapes and seasonal images were acceptable design to anyone, besides, famous courtesans and popular KabukiW actors also appeared as Uchiwa designs which achieved great popularity among young women.
Today, you can get plastic-bone Uchiwa with shop logos or campaign logos free where they hold any sorts of events in streets but would be best if you could get a handmade Uchiwa as you could use them not only to fan yourself but also as a decoration and fashion item. We tell you, handmade fans are cooler in both means!!
Water Sprinkling (UCHIMIZU)
In the morning or in the evening, not during the daytime, people sprinkle some water on the road in front of their houses. This sprinkling water would lower about 1 to 2 degrees in temperature with the effect of inhibiting temperature rise by the heat of vaporization. It also prevents small dusts on the road to drift up in the air, especially in places like Tokyo where sudden strong wind blows.
This small activity, or rather a daily task of summer was a sight you could see anywhere in Japan when there were no air conditioners. But in 1970s when air conditioner spread throughout Japan as well as paving of the road, the custom gradually decreased. The custom may have only be left in traditional Japanese restaurants where owners believed the sprinkling of water in front of their shop entrance was a manner of purifying their entrance for their important customers.
It was in 1990s that this custom came back again in public, when energy-saving campaign became general, that Uchimizu became one of the actions to save electricity of the air conditioner as the temperature would get lower by Uchimizu.
Today, you may come up to people coming out of their office or shops of a main street in big cities, carrying scoops and buckets in summer, full of water, all sprinkling water at once which looks a bit like a water festival.
The origin of ‘Hanabi / 花火’, the fireworks, for fun is said to have started in Florence, Italy, in the end of the 14th century. It, or the usage of gunpowder, diffused all over the world during the Age of DiscoveryW which was brought into Japan with the gun in the beginning of 17th century. The first brought in Hanabi was nothing like the Hanabi we see now, they were simple ‘sparks of fire’ coming out from a tube.
Since Japan was at the middle of Sengoku periodW when precious gunpowder was used only for firearms, it was after this period when peace prevailed in Edo periodW that the gunpowder was made into Hanabi for appreciation.
The first Hanabi suppliers started to make their own Hanabi, using the fireworks brought into Japan by the Christian missionaries as reference.
In 1733, the following year of the terrible famine and widespread of cholera, the 8th ShogunW of Tokugawa shogunateW held a Buddhism service to mourn for the dead as well as driving away the evil spirits. It is said that at this service that around 20 Hanabis were shot into the air, later became one of the big summer events in Tokyo today, the ‘Sumidagawa Fireworks FestivalW’ which takes place every last Saturday of July.
Regarding fireworks throughout the world today, many countries tend to set off fireworks more in winter like on New Year Day than in mid summer. In Japan, Hanabi is more of a summer thing than of winter, though there are some Hanabi set off in New Year. This seasonal sense towards Hanabi of the Japanese comes surely from very first display of Hanabi by the 8th Shogun as well as an old belief of big plosive sound and the flash driving away the evil ghost and spirits that also returns together with ancestral spirits on earth from the other world on O-bon period.
Today, we have many Hanabi events throughout Japan during summer. If you are visiting Japan in summer, why not schedule Hanabi watching? Most of the big skyrocket Hanabi (some cost more than 2.6 million Yen a shell!!) are marvelous, made by small family business and hereditary.
Below is the schedule of fireworks festivals in English for you to check!
Firework Festival Information :
Other than viewing big skyrocket Hanabi in Hanabi events, you could enjoy doing your own Hanabi event!
In Japan, there are toy Hanabi as well as aerial Hanabi. Toy Hanabi are small fireworks that you can enjoy by holding the lighted firework stick in your hand that even kids can play with. There are various kinds of toy Hanabi available in toy shops or even in some convenience stores.
Of course, you can play with your own bought toy Hanabi only in permitted places. Beware that in many public areas, playing with Hanabi is banned or should only be permitted with bucket-full of water for extinguishing after you enjoyed your Hanabi.
And, needless to say, Hanabis are banned to carry on the plane, so be sure to enjoy them while you are in Japan!
Ghost Stories (KAIDAN)
In Japan, ‘Kaidan / 怪談’, the ghost stories and strange or scary stories, are considered as one of the ecological methods of cooling down in the summer heat because they make your spines shiver.
Since the Japanese have the background of having believed in all sorts of spirits, as in nature, animals, plants, and even in inorganic things as rocks or daily necessities used long with care, there are numbers of strange, mysterious or scary stories passed down from generation to generation. We guess that many Japanese face Kaidan quite smoothly, no matter they believe in such phenomena or not, which must have helped establishing Kaidan as one of the culture.
As you could imagine by now, because we have O-bon, the time when our ancestors return from the afterlife, many ghost stories of summer, famous or not famous, exist in Japan. Telling each other such stories when many members of family gather in religious occasion had, of course, a serious aspect as religious ceremony but also a fun aspect as a time of the family members’ reunion, enjoyed the time by storytelling amusement, in which Kaidans were also included.
The good things about telling Kaidan in summer were that it was timely which the storytelling came alive and that the shiver made people forget the heat from the hot weather. It may have worked well on a woman as a man, feeling secretly drawn to her, scares her by telling her his scary Kaidan, ending up with her tied her arms strong around him from fear. Or, it could have helped for showing who had best courage or braveness among young men.
In fact, there is a game called ‘Hyaku Monogatari / 百物語 (One hundred ghost stories)’ which we still hear in some modern Japanese horror movies today. This game started in Middle Ages which was played among SamuraiWs. Surprisingly, already in 17th century, several ‘Hyaku Monogatari’ books were published!
The game is quite simple. Only 100 Kaidan and 100 candles are needed for it. People gather in a room with 100 candles lit. Each member would tell a Kaidan in turns and blow out a candle when each story telling finishes. The game continues until the last candle is blown off, which is the highlight of this game. It is believed that a ghost or ghosts will appear when the room is in absolute darkness but the wise would stop the game on 99th story so that no disaster would happen!
Another game which should have evolved from Kaidan telling in summer is the ‘Kimo-dameshi / 肝試し’ the courage testing. This game is also simple. It is a game of going to cemeteries, shrines, temples or places which have reputations of ghosts and bringing back a proof of visiting at midnight. To determine the winner of the game is by judging the proof which came from the innermost of the place. Surprisingly, this game was said to be played by an Emperor and the nobles in the court in the 12th century! And is still played as an entertainment in some camping schools today.
If you don’t like the air conditioner of where you stay in Japan in summer but would like to cool yourself, why not try the old Japanese way of cooling? You can enjoy Kimo-dameshi in any amusement parks (excluding Disneyland) by walking into ‘Obake Yashiki / お化け屋敷’ , the haunted house attraction which would greet you with Japanese style ghosts you cannot encounter outside Japan.
Food and Beverages
Suika is said to have been already cultivated in 11th century in Japan. We could estimate so as there is a drawing of watermelon-like fruit in Chōjū-jinbutsu-gigaW, Animal-person Caricatures, by Toba SōjōW (1053-1140).
However, in Edo period, Suika was considered as a grotesque fruit because of the colour, the red inside, which made some people refuse eating. Though unlike today when there are various cold and refreshing food, some should have liked Suika as refreshing, thirst-healing fruit.
It was in the early 20th century that the cultivation of Suika was activated with imported seeds from US that gradually became one of the fruits to represent summer in Japan. Until refrigerator became common in ordinary homes, whole Suika was cooled in a well by tying Suika onto the rope of the well bucket. Suika was sold in whole and not in cut pieces like today as there were many members of the family in a house.
Apart from eating them as they are, some sprinkle some salt so that the tongue would sensor more sweetness of the fruit as well as supplying the salinity of the body lost by sweating.
One of the typical scene you may see in the Summer beaches in Japan may be a game played with Suika. It is called ‘Suika-wari’, meaning splitting the Suika. It is a game to smash open the Suika placed on the ground with a wooden stick with your eyes blindfolded. The game starts with blindfolding participants’ eyes, then spun around three times before going into the smash action. The game continues in turns until the Suika gets smashed.
Green Soy Beans (EDAMAME)
Today, ‘Edamame / 枝豆’, an immature soybeans in a pod, can be also bought in Europe and in US as healthy food.
Edamame is said to have been eaten in japan in the way that we do now, boiled in salted water or boiled then salted, already in 6th century. As Edamame can be eaten with simple cooking process, it should have been a handy processed item to sell.
In Edo period, there were peddlers of boiled, ready-to-eat Edamame in Edo in summer when in its harvest. Boiled Edamames of the peddlers were sold unplucked from the twigs. The naming of Edamame is thought to have come from the form of Edamame still on with twigs, as ‘eda’ means twig and ‘mame’, the beans. It was one of the fast food that people could eat while walking, holding or sticking the fruited boiled Edamame twigs in the ‘Obi (sash)W’ of KimonoW.
Being a familiar snack food long, Edamame won its throne as a snack to go with beer when beer spread in early 20th century as an alcohol of summer for its simple salty flavor. Ever since then in Japan, many of those who wanted to have a drink after a days’ hard work have been choosing ‘a glass of beer and Edamame’ in summer, immobilizing the image of Japanese summer alcohol and matching snack.
Edamame can also be used as an ingredient of ‘Zunda-an / ずんだ餡’, sweet green beans paste, used mainly in traditional sweets of Tohoku regionW.
You could tell by the various kinds of Edamame sold in supermarkets today in summer that Edamames are still loved by the Japanese as a snack, easy to cook at home. If you are able to boil Edamame in Japan, we recommend you to try ‘Dadacha-mame / だだちゃ豆’ which is darker in colour, with the stronger Edamame and slight leather like scent which goes well with alcohol like Brined cheeseW from Yamagata PrefectureW.
‘Somen / 素麺’ is a very thin, less than 1.3 mm in diameter, white noodles made of wheat flour. There is another thin noodle called ‘Hiyamugi / 冷麦’, literally meaning ‘cold wheat’, which is a bit thicker than Sōmen.
The origin of Somen is thought to have been a sweet twisted pastry which was an offering confectionery to the gods or the nobles. The reason of eating Somen as a summer menu seems to lie in the ancient religious custom of offering the Somen on a seasonal festival day of summer to worship the ancestors. On the day, the Imperial Court celebrated the two-star-meeting on the milky way as well as wishing for women’s needlework progress since one of the star, Vega, was thought to be the goddess of weaving.
As time goes by, the offering of Somen origin turned its shape into more like the Somen we have today. They were cooked and served likened to the shape of the flow of the milky way which tradition still remain in some of the places yet today in Japan on 7th July, the Star Festival.
Sōmen and Hiyamugi are both usually served cold with light soy sauce based dipping sauce. Sōmen of Miwa, Nara prefecture, which is the oldest Somen producing area with more than 1200-year-history, is considered as one of the best ‘O-chugen / お中元’, a summer gift.
Roasted Barley Tea (MUGICHA)
‘Mugicha / 麦茶’, a roasted barley tea, is absolutely a beverage of summer even though it is available all the year round in convenience stores in plastic bottles.
The history of this beverage to the Japanese is indeed long as the oldest record could be read in the text of Heian periodW, more than 1,000 years ago. Since barley was still a precious grain that was used mostly as a part of staple food, it was a special drink only for the nobles and the warriors of Sengoku periodW in latter period.
Mugicha became a popular drink among the public when its amount of yield grew in Edo period and that stalls selling a cup of Mugicha in town became in fashion. The drink was thought to be the summer drink as the barley harvest starts in beginning of summer but was served hot until in 1950s when the refrigerator diffused among the public. Mugicha was called ‘Mugi-yu / 麦湯’, meaning ‘hot barley water’. Looking at the procedure of making Mugicha, the name ‘Mugi-yu’ may fit the name of the drink better as it is a roasted barley infused water and contains no tea leaves inside. Still, the Japanese would quickly realize the drink is a infused sort by the name of ‘cha / 茶’ where the reason of the name gradually changed from Mugi-yu to Mugicha may exist.
Today, we hardly see Mugicha served hot but encounter some with little salt or even some sugar according to areas or families. Putting little salt in Mugicha have been a simple method of keeping the right amount of sodium within the body which is lost by sweating much. On the other hand, sweetening Mugicha is thought to be the traces of serving Mugicha as a welcome drink to the guests, serving it with little sugar which was precious in the past.
Finally, various Mugicha sold in plastic bottles in convenience stores have no salt or sugar added in. If you would like to infuse your own Muchiga at home, you can buy roasted Mugicha grains at supermarkets sold in teabags or as they are.
Cold Chinese Noodles (HIYASHI CHUKA)
‘Hiyashi Chuka’ literally means ‘cold Chinese’, which sounds odd….
Even though it is called ‘Chinese’ it was invented as a new ‘Chinese style’ dish in Japan.
The beginning history of Hiyashi Chuka is not certain but is thought to have been invented by cooks who were familiar with Chinese menu about 100 years ago when Japan started to activate towards overseas.
Hiyashi Chuka can be considered as a cold RamenW noodles, usually served with less soup than Ramen, more of a soy-sauce-based or pasted-sesame-based sour topping sauce, with thinly sliced cucumber, ham and shredded omelet. Hiyashi Chuka is less served in famous specialized Ramen restaurants but in local Chinese or Ramen restaurants where each have its own special Hiyashi Chuka menu.
You will be able to see, in the beginning of summer, many signboards or flags put outside of the restaurants saying ‘Hiyashi chūka Hajime mashita / 冷やし中華始めました’, meaning that they have started to serve Hiyashi chūka. You will also see TV ads of instant cooking Hiyashi Chuka which stimulates the appetite lost by hot Japanese summer weather. Like instant cooking Ramens, there are several brands selling their own instant cooking Hiyashi Chuka which could be a good souvenir for you to take it back with you if you like the taste of Hiyashi Chuka.
Mind you, there is a similar cold noodle recipe as ‘Reimen / 冷麺’, which is rather a Korean dish like NaengmyeonW. The difference between the two could be just the noodles used for. Reimen noodles are made mainly from buckwheat flour but Hiyashi Chuka noodles are made from wheat flour.