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

January 29, 2016

The Japanese Seasons: February

The ancient name for February (Nigatsu) is Kisaragi, meaning "to wear more clothes due to the cold." As it also is the month of plum blossoms which are considered as a harbinger of spring, other names are Ume-zuki (Plum Month), Umemi-zuki (Plum Viewing Month) and Hatsuhana-zuki (First Blossom Month).

[Setsubun in Shogoin Temple, Kyoto]

The most important festival in February is Setsubun, on either February 3 or 4, although this is not a public holiday. The word "Setsubun" literally means "seasonal division" and used to refer to the day prior to the first day of spring (risshun), summer (rikka)  autumn (risshu) and winter (ritto) in the lunar calendar. Today, however, it is only employed to refer to the festival held on the day prior to risshun, because this day is the most important one as it marks a new start. In that respect, it is comparable to New Year's Eve - as a kind of "Spring's Eve."

Rituals on Setsubun have to do with chasing out evil influences as a sort of spiritual or ritual house cleaning (or better "soul cleaning") before the start of spring. They are:
  • Tsuina or oni-yarai. Originally held on New Year's Eve and introduced from Tang-China, this is an exorcism rite. Participants carry bows and clubs made from peach wood and symbolically chase away figures wearing demon masks.
  • Mame-maki. Bean-scattering ceremony. The scattering of roasted soy beans to expel evil spirits began in the 15-16th centuries and in popular folklore became linked with the above Tsuina ceremony. Participants shout "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Out with the demons and in with good luck"). The bean scattering is done by a toshi otoko, a male family member born in the same Zodiac year (nowadays, happily, toshi onna also can take part). Afterwards one should eat the same number of beans as one's age to spend the year free from problems. 
  • Yaikagashi. Smelly heads of sardines are stuck on thorny holly branches and hung over doorways to drive out the demons.
On this day, many shrines and temples hold Setsubun events (some are listed here). Often famous persons from TV, show business or sports (sumo) will take part, and in Kyoto there are even bean-throwing maiko!

The typical food for Setsubun are ehomaki, "Lucky Direction Sushi Rolls," thick uncut sushi rolls in which any combination of ingredients goes.


As stated above, Setsubun is the day before Risshun (February 4 or 5), literally (and rather ironically as this is the coldest time of the year) "the Beginning of Spring (Spring Rises)," the time when the increase in life-giving sunlight becomes noticeable. Traditionally, on this day amulets or lucky couplets (daikichi, good luck) would be hung at the door to avert evil. The period of about a month from risshun is called soshun, "early spring."

February is also the month of various winter festivals. The most famous (and modern) one is probably Sapporo's Snow Festival (Sapporo Yukimatsuri, Feb. 1 to 5), when giant snow sculptures are created in the city's Odori Park. More traditional is the Kamakura Festival in Yokote, a city in Akita Pref., when in several spots in the city igloo-like snow houses (kamakura) are built where children play house (Feb. 15-17). The kamakura feature altars dedicated to the Deity of Water (Suijin-sama) and in the evening rice cakes (mochi) are grilled over charcoals braziers and amazake (a sweet rice drink, not sake!) is served.

Although not Setsubun, there is a national holiday in February and that is National Founding Day (Kenkoku kinen no hi) on February 11. This holiday was first designed in the early Meiji period, in 1872 to be precise, when it was called kigensetsu. It was seen as the date that the (entirely mythical) emperor Jimmu ascended the throne in Kashihara in 660 BCE, after traveling from southern Kyushu to Nara. After WWII this holiday was discontinued, but it was brought back in the mid-sixties under the guise of "national founding day," and meant to serve as an appeal to people to respect their country and to cooperate to make it a better place to live.

A rather tricky day in February is Valentine's Day (as elsewhere February 14), which is being lustily exploited by the Japan Chocolate and Cocoa Association and its members. Although Japan is not a Christian nation and couldn't care less about a saint called Valentine, it has become a "Day of Chocolates" on which women give a box of chocolates to their boyfriend as an expression of love. OLs and other female office staff may also give chocolates to their bosses or other male colleagues, but these are called giri-choko or "obligatory chocolates" and are far removed from any idea of tenderness. Commercial exploitation in Japan has even gone so far that March 14 has been set up as "White Day" on which men have to return the sweet gift.

A more serious matter is that mid-February is also the time of the Entrance Examination Season (Juken shizun), as the new school year starts on April 1. In Japan, it is necessary to do an examination in order to go to a high school (after three years of middle school) or university / college. (In the case of private schools, there are always entrance examinations, starting with kindergarten!). But the heaviest and most stressful entrance examinations are those for prestigious universities, such as Tokyo University or Kyoto University, or among private establishments, Keio, Waseda and Doshisha. It is important for students to join a top-ranking university, as that will make it possible four years later to get a good job with a prestigious company or ministry. So this is a nervous time for hopeful students and you can often see them with their mothers in the Tenmangu Shrines, earnestly praying for some divine assistance from the God of Learning, or writing their wishes on wooden votive tablets.

The food of the season is called nabemono, one pot dishes cooked at the table and served directly out of the cooking pot - the diners can pick the ingredients they want directly from the pot. Further ingredients can also be successively added. It is either eaten with the broth (usually in case of strongly flavored stock) or with a dipping sauce (lightly flavored stock). It is a dish that warms both body and heart - it is after all the most sociable way to eat with family and friends.

[Ume in Kyoto Gyoen]

The flower of the season is in the first place the ume or plum blossom (early February through mid-March). Before sakura (cherry blossoms) became popular in medieval times, the ume ruled supreme in Japan's flowery firmament, as it did and still does in China, from where it was brought to Japan in the 7th c. The ume is in fact not really a plum (the official name is prunus mume), but a tree (and fruit) between plum and apricot, so it seems reasonable to use the Japanese word "ume." The ume is the flower of the perfect Confucian gentleman, the junzi (kunshi in Japanese): that it braves the cold to put out its flowers signifies its strength and endurance, while its subtle aroma stands for its virtue that unobtrusively transforms society. The ume trees can grow very old, sometimes even a few centuries, making them with their gnarled trunks a symbol of longevity and happiness.

The ume also has various practical uses: as pickled plums (umeboshi, one of my favorite delicacies) or as umeshu, a liqueur made from ume and either shochu or sake (often called wrongly "plum wine"). Finally, as the ume was the favorite flower of Sugawara no Michizane, a ninth c. statesman, scholar and Sinologist, who was deified after he died in exile, you will find it prominently in the many Tenmangu shrines dedicated to him all over Japan. 

[Fallen camellias (tsubaki) in Honenin, Kyoto]

The other important flower of February is the camellia or tsubaki, adding a touch of color to gardens in the heart of winter. The Japanese camellia has red, five-petaled flowers. Indigenous to Japan, it has been cultivated for centuries. It is also a useful plant for in traditional times oil obtained from tsubaki seeds was used as hair oil, both for the top-knots of men as for the high coiffure of women. The camellia was also treasured for its hard wood. The notion that samurai hated tsubaki as the flower drops off whole, like a human head falling, is not based on any fact. In reality, both samurai and courtiers loved to grow rare and ornamental varieties of tsubaki. The flowers were also popular as chabana, flowers in the tea room.

Although February is so cold that all you want to do is take shelter with your legs under your kotatsu, its electric heating element going at full blast, your lower body snugly under the futon draped over the table frame, late February (around the 25th) finally is also the time the Haru Ichiban or "First of the Spring Heralding Winds" blows. This is a strong south wind which drives the temperature up, and although it is only temporary (the temperature soon drops again), it provides a welcome foretaste of the approach of spring...