Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

July 1, 2012

The Japanese Seasons: July

July is also called Fumizuki, based on the custom that people used to write on the occasion of the Tanabata festival on the seventh of this month. Another name is not surprisingly Tanabatazuki.

And indeed, Tanabata or the Star Festival is an important event this month. This festival goes back to a beautiful Chinese legend, about a Cowherd Star and Weaver Girl Star, who were in love but could not meet because they were separated by the River of Heaven (our Milky Way). So once a year, on 7/7, magpies would join their wings together and build a bridge over which the lovers could cross and meet each other... Nowadays, it is an uncomplicated festival where people (often children) write wishes on colorful strips of paper and tie these to branches of bamboo especially set up for this purpose.

Gion Matsuri 2010

Tanabata is quiet and demure, quite different from the more lively Gion Festival (Gion-e) held in Kyoto this month. In fact the Gion festival is much more than only the parade of floats on July 17 - there are numerous events during the whole month of July. This a great time to be in Kyoto. Everywhere in the city you hear the Gionbayashi from loudspeakers, the music of the festival which fits perfectly with the hot and humid weather. I find it has a hypnotizing quality. And it is fun to visit the Yoi-Matsuri on the night before the float parade, clad in a light summer kimono and carrying a fan.

Although in the solar calendar squarely a summer month, in the old lunar calendar July is regarded as the first of the three months of autumn. Can it get more weird? In fact, the peak of the heat falls around July 23, called Taisho (Great Heat)! A word you hear often around that date is "dog days," in Japanese doyo. There are several "doyo no ushi" days around July 20, and it is custom to eat unagi, eel, on these days, for the necessary stamina.

As weather phenomena go, summer clouds (natsu no kumo) are cumulonimbus clouds and look like piled up mountains, so they are also called kumo no mine, "peaks of clouds" - a favorite subject in haiku written during this month. On the other hand, yudachi or evening showers are welcome for the refreshment they bring. In that case a rainbow or niji may appear - another symbol of summer.

If you are a sportive type, you may feel like climbing Mr Fuji - nowadays the climbing season starts on July 10. In the past when the climbing was also a pilgrimage, one spoke more poetically of Fuji-mode.

An old custom is Mushiboshi: during a fine day, clothes, paintings and books are taken out and aired to prevent them from being damaged by worms (mushi). At Daifukuji and Tofukuji in Kyoto this day is an opportunity to bring out normally hidden temple treasures.

Hokongoin Temple, Kyoto

The flower of July is the lotus (hasu), which in fact blooms from July through August. It is important to go and see them in the morning as later in the day they close down. Temples with great lotus ponds are Hokongoin and Kajuji in Kyoto, or Toshodaiji in Nara. Another important flower is the blue or purple asagao or morning glory, a symbol of summer. You see them everywhere in Japan, potted in alleys in downtown Tokyo, in gardens in Kyoto, and even just along the road, cared for by unseen hands.

Typical July vegetables are uri (gourds) and nasu (eggplant). Pickled as tsukemono, nasu are great with sake.

Talking about food, chimaki is a traditional confectionery served during the Gion festival: mochi of glutinous rice are steamed and then wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Somen are refreshing summer noodles and in Kibune north of Kyoto one eats then seated on kawadoko, platforms built over a small river. At Hirobun, the thin noodles are delivered via open bamboo pipes through which water flows (nagashi-somen). Very cool! Another Kyoto summer specialty is hamo, "dagger-tooth pike conger", and indeed a fierce fish that survives the long trek from the Inland Sea to Kyoto's kitchens. It contains countless small bones and takes a special technique to prepare, but it has a subtle taste.

And of course the umeshu (plum liquor) you have made the previous month is now delicious, enjoyed with a big chunk of ice in it. A traditional summer snack is tokoroten, small cubes made from the gelatin (kanten) of seaweeds, eaten with soy sauce, vinegar and mustard and served ice-cold.