Shaved ice, summer clothes, and a summer solstice. What is special about June?
Last month we introduced the traditional naming system for the months in Japan. Although the old month names aren’t used in daily life anymore, but they are like micro-poems, giving us a beautiful glimpse of Japan through “kyu-reki” (旧暦, the old lunisolar calendar). June (６月) by the old calendar was called “minazuki” (水無月, month without water), because it used to be the hottest period of the year. Ironically, with the Gregorian calendar, June in Japan happens to be the start of “tsuyu” (梅雨, rainy season)!
Customs/Season–Shaved ice, Summer Clothes, and Summer Solstice
June 1 is an exciting day. It’s known as “kōri no tsuitachi” or “kōri no sakujitsu” (氷の一日, 氷の朔日, the Icy First of the Month), or “kōri no sekku” (氷の節句, the seasonal festival of ice). Traditionally, this is the day that ice was brought out of the ice house as a treat for the nobles. The famous “Pillow Book” by Seishon Nagon describes a delightful new dish made of ice and topped with syrup, having an appearance like “crystals,” “rosary beads,” “wisteria blooms,” or “fallen snow.” How poetic!
Today’s “kakigōri” (かき氷, shaved ice) has become quite a spectacular affair, and it is so expensive that some people only eat it once a year, if at all. Speciality shops use high-quality blocks of ice harvested from ice caves. These blocks are trucked in to the city (usually from Nikkō), sometimes shaved by hand, and topped with fruit, syrup, sweet azuki beans, and mochi. People line up for hours in the heat for an instant of cool relief. If you missed your chance on June 1, don’t hesitate to grab your first snow cone of the year sometime this month.
June 1 is also officially time for “koromogae” (衣替え, changing out your winter clothes out for your summer clothes). If you grew up in Japan, you might remember this day as the long-awaited day of freedom from your winter school uniform. This year the summer solstice, or the longest day of the year, falls on June 21. Having come to the halfway point of the year, this month is a good time for a general cleaning out of old unnecessary things like old sweaters, broken umbrellas, water bottles without lids, or perhaps it’s time for a wardrobe update. What sportswear brand have you been eyeing, or what is your new summer color for this year?
Nature – Change Seven Times
For anyone who has lived in Japan, when you think June, you probably automatically think “ajisai” (紫陽花, hydrangeas). In the middle of a hot, muggy month, it is so refreshing to go out and see these bountiful blooms along the roadside, in people’s gardens, and at public gardens. Ajisai grows in many countries, but in Japan, the color variation and types of blossoms are incredible. Because their coloring changes depending on the alkalinity of the soil, and because their colors can change over time, another name for them is “shichihenge” (七変化, change seven times). Lantanas are another flower that go by the same name. Even nature is doing koromogae!
Food – Wagashi Day
If you love wagashi, get excited. June 16 is Wagashi Day! On this day in the year 848 by the Western calendar (平安時代, Heian Period), Emperor Ninmyo (仁明天皇) presented 16 different types of wagashi and mochi to the gods in order to stop a plague. 16 sweets might be a little much for one day, but one iconic wagashi for this season bears the same name as the month, minazuki. You may have eaten this simple sweet as a child, but did you know what it symbolizes. Minazuki is a square of rice jelly topped with red azuki beans. The square is cut in half, so that the two triangles represent the two halves of the year. The triangles also remind people of “gohei” (御幣, a stick used in purification ceremonies). Azuki beans generally represent purification from bad things.
To Wrap Up
You might not be thrilled about the start of the muggy, sticky rainy season, but thank goodness for air conditioning! What are some things you can enjoy indoors in the month of June? (If you have a little extra time on your hands and want to try making homemade liqueur, check out our post, “Three Things You Didn’t Know About Umeshu–Japanese Plum Wine.”