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

August 8, 2012

The Japanese Seasons: August

The traditional poetic name for August is Hazuki, "Leaf Month," as leaves are supposed to start falling - Risshu, the "Beginning of Autumn," comes around August 7 or 8. As the heat is at its greatest around this time, sultry and sweltering, it seems more a case of wishful thinking! But in Chinese philosophy, when Yang is at its highest, it already contains an element of Yin that from then on will grow, so it seems suitable - and thinking about autumn may actually bring some coolness. The name for the "lingering heat" after Risshu is "zansho," and this generally continues until early September.

The greatest national festival of August is the traditional, Buddhist-folkloric Bon Festival, held from 13 to 16 August (see my post about Obon). The festival itself takes place on August 15. Obon is the festival to honor the souls of the ancestors, who are supposed to return to their old homes and partake of offerings for a few days during this period. The festival starts with on Obon market around August 10. Here flowers and other decorations for the event are sold - a good place to see this market in Kyoto is near Rokuharamitsuji Temple. After the ancestors have been regaled with fruits, sweets, cakes, vegetables and flowers, and after a Buddhist service has been held at the home altar (often a Buddhist priest comes by for this), they are sent off again to their dark abode. Lanterns and small bonfires are lit to show them the way back to the netherworld (and these bonfires can take on a gigantic shape as in Kyoto on August 16).

Traditionally, Obon also is a time of family reunions as the living family members will return to their hometowns (now less so, as Obon has also become the period to take summer holidays and many Japanese travel abroad). There are several words connected with Obon. Bon-odori is the name of the dances held in many localities throughout Japan around the time of the Bon festival. The dancers are usually clad in yukata, and the rhythm is slow, fitting to a hot summer evening., "Toro" is the name for the lanterns used to light the way back for the spirits. Some temples or shrines, such as the Kasuga Taisha in Nara, lit up thousands of lanterns at Obon (called manto-e, a "Ten-thousand Lantern Festival"). Another custom is to set lanterns on graves, as is done in the huge Otani cemeteries of Jodo Shin Buddhism in the Eastern hills of Kyoto. At other locations, lanterns are put afloat on rivers, as happens in Arishiyama.

On August 24, Jizo Bon is held, a Bon festival for children where the Bodhisattva Jizo is worshiped as their guardian. This has the character of a quiet neighborhood festival.

August is also the period that many hanabi, fireworks are held all over Japan. They used to be for the repose of the dead and were therefore linked with Obon, but nowadays they have become purely amusement for summer evenings. The Sumida River fireworks in Tokyo are the most famous.

And, last but not least, August is also the month that the big summer festivals of Northern Japan take place, such as the Nebuta Matsuri of Aomori, as well as the dance festivals of Shikoku such as the Awa Odori in Tokushima.

A good old custom to get artificial shivers is to watch plays or films with ghosts in August - or play the parlor game of telling each other yokai stories. On this blog I have posted a list of the ten best Japanese horror movies to help you shiver!

The main flower for August is still the lotus, which I already discussed in my post for July. Another beautiful August flower is the fuyo (cotton rosemallow or hibiscus mutabilis) with its soft petals, in color white to deep pink.

There is a lot of delicious food in August. Hiyayakko, cold tofu eaten in square blocks with some soy sauce, bonito flakes and chopped spring onions, is so easily digestible that also those suffering from natsubate (summer fatigue - see my post) are fond of it. The same goes for the various cold noodles, not only the somen mentioned in my post for July, but also reimenhiyashi udon and hiyashi champon. Also good against natsubate and an important source of vitamin C is the bitter goya, a vegetable looking like a cucumber but in fact a gourd, that is used for example in stir-fried dishes.

The prime summer fruit - and even a symbol of summer - is the suika, watermelon, said to be good against summer fatigue and full of refreshing juices. Suika are part of the Japanese summer scene since 1640, when they arrived via China. Edamame, boiled soy beans in the pod, lightly dusted with salt, are a healthy appetizer with your sake in summer. They are not only delicious, but also help break down alcohol. August is a good time for very cold sake - for example a sake sherbet!

Also see the Event Calendar for August.

Japanese seasonal customs according to the months of the year:
January - February - March - April - May - June - July - August - September - October - November - December