It’s Solstice, and I stumbled across this article by Kevin Short, one of the big guns of nature writing in Japan. I’ll share it with you.
December 19, 2013
Kevin Short / Special to The Japan News Yuletide Greetings to all our readers!
Many people today believe that the festival of Yule is just another name for Christmas. The truth, however, is that Yule is a much older celebration historically observed at the winter solstice by the Germanic and Nordic peoples of northern Europe. Many of the Yuletide customs, such as logs, special foods and caroling, were later incorporated into the Christmas traditions.
Solstice celebrations were common all over pre-Christian Europe, and many folklorists believe that Christmas was originally timed to coincide with, or even replace, these older festivals. In the pre-Christian Roman almanac, great feasts and merrymaking were scheduled for the days leading up to the solstice. This festival was dedicated to Saturn, a special protector deity of agriculture, and also featured a custom of exchanging gifts.
The winter solstice usually occurs on Dec. 22. This is the day when the sun reaches his southernmost rising and setting points. In Tokyo, for example, the sun will rise about 30 degrees south of east, and set 30 degrees south of west. In the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice is also the day when the sun is lowest in the sky. At the latitude of Tokyo, the sun at transit (highest point) will stand only 32 degrees above the southern horizon, as opposed to 55 degrees on the spring and autumn equinoxes, and 78 degrees on the summer solstice.
The traditional Asian calendar is lunisolar, and thus incorporates both the movements of the moon around the Earth and the Earth around the sun. Months are tracked by the phases of the moon; but the Sekki, a system of 24 two-week solar-based periods, is used to keep the lunar months from falling out of sync with the actual seasons. Today, for example, is the 17th day of the 11th month in the traditional calendar, but this coming Sunday will mark the start of the Toji (winter solstice) Sekki, which will run until Jan. 4.
Japanese winter solstice customs include putting fragrant Yuzu fruit in a hot bath. This small citrus tree is native to China, but was brought to Japan as long ago as the seventh or eighth century. The fruit are now grown widely in the warmer areas from the Kanto region westward, and also on the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula. White flowers bloom in April and May, and the yellow fruits ripen just around this time of year.
Yuzu are extremely fragrant, but are too acidic to eat raw. As such they are used primarily as a seasoning. Yuzu-kosho, a popular Kyushu flavoring made by crushing yuzu rinds and hot peppers into a thick paste, is used to spice up a wide range of traditional foods, including nabe-mono, sashimi, yakitori, tofu and tempura. Yuzu rinds are also used in marmalades, and are steeped in yuzu-cha, a honey-sweetened, throat-soothing tea taken during the cold winter months.
Yuzu are placed whole in the bath tub. A good soak is said to improve blood circulation, raise body temperature, and generally prevent colds and chills. Several other fragrant but acidic citrus fruit are used as flavorings in Japan. Sudachi (Citrus sudachi) is a special product of Tokushima Prefecture; and Kabosu (C. sphaerocarpa) of Oita Prefecture. Both of these are harvested earlier in the season, while still green, and are vital ingredients in ponzu sauces. Although they are classified as separate species, their extremely limited distribution suggests they may be local cultivars derived from yuzu.
Another familiar symbol of the winter solstice season is the Bora, or grey mullet (Mugil cephalus). Also known in English as flathead mullet, striped mullet and common mullet, this gray and blue fish enjoys an almost cosmopolitan distribution. Bora prefer waters with sandy or muddy bottoms, where they feed on algae, tiny pieces of organic matter, and small crustaceans. Their varied diet, as well as an amazing ability to adapt to differing levels of salinity, and a strong resistance to water pollution, enables them to live in most inner bays, harbors and large rivers.
Bora, usually between 50 and 80 centimeters long, are common in bays and harbors south of Hokkaido. They show a most interesting behavior of jumping high out of the water, especially when the tide is changing. The reason for this is not known. One theory is that it helps them escape predators, another is that the down-slap rids them of skin parasites.
Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.