May–What Happens and What to Eat

May–What Happens and What to Eat

Summer has begun! In this post we’ll introduce celebrations, seasonal foods, and fun facts you should know about the month of May.

Month Name – Satsuki

If you have had beginner Japanese, you will know that the months of the year in Japan are called by their number; in other words, since May is the fifth month of the year, it is called “go” (five) “gatsu” (month). If you have studied Japanese or Japanese culture a little longer, you might also know that the months have traditional names that reflect what typically happens at that time of year. The month of May is also known as “Satsuki,” which is short for “Sanae zuki” 早苗月, because around this time of year rice farmers start planting young rice seedlings called “nae” 苗.

Rice paddy
Rice paddy in Hiroshima Prefecture

Interestingly, the two main characters in Studio Ghibli’s となりのトトロ (My Neighbor Totoro) are sisters named Satsuki and Mei.

Season – Rikka

According to the 24 seasonal divisions 二十四節気 of the Japanese calendar, spring has officially ended and rikka 立夏, the early summer season, has begun. This year in 2021*, Rikka started on May 5th and ends on May 20th. Summer will last until Risshuu 立秋, the first day of autumn, which falls in August. In Japan, early summer is the season for planting not only rice, but also summer vegetables like eggplant and bell peppers. It’s also time to place shades over delicate fruits, pay your car tax, and harvest another Japanese staple: tea.

*These dates vary from year to year, as these seasons are determined by the movement of the sun.

Eggplants–good in stir fries, tomato sauce pasta, and as tempura.

Celebrations / Events

May 1 or 2, depending on the year, is Hachi ju hachi ya 八十八夜, or the 88th night since the vernal equinox. This is an important date in the tea world, as the earth has warmed up, and the ground is no longer covered with frost in the morning, making this the perfect time to pick “shin cha” 新茶, the first flush of tea. Shincha is prized for its young, green taste that lacks the bitterness and astringency of laters flushes. They say that drinking tea on Hachi ju hachi ya guarantees you good health for the entire rest of the year! No worries if you missed it, though. Green tea has amazing health benefits all year round.

The traditional outfit worn by 茶摘み娘 or “tea picking girls” is too charming!
Photo Credit: Photo AC

As mentioned in our Golden Week post, May 5 is Tango No Sekku, a seasonal celebration in which families wish for their boys to grow up strong with a warrior spirit, so they can succeed in life.

Nature – Birds, Frogs, and Flowers

Certain plants and animals remind Japanese people strongly of certain seasons and make their way into seasonal poetry. In Japan, one of those seasonal symbols is the lesser cuckoo, called “hototogisu” 時鳥. In North America, look for the mangrove cuckoo and yellow-billed cuckoo in Florida, or the black-billed cuckoo all across the continent. Another representative creature is the frog. If you live in the country and have heard bullfrogs croaking out their hearts at night, you will understand why these creatures get their very own season! It’s called “kawazu hajimete naku” 蛙始鳴 (かわずはじめてなく), meaning “the frogs croak for the first time,” and falls between May 5th and 9th.

 May is also time to plant morning glories, and to enjoy the vivid colors of the azaleas. The Japanese azalea (Rhododendron indicum) is also known as satsuki サツキ.

Azalea blossoms hold sweet nectar inside–did you ever taste it as a child?

Honors Heights Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma, hosts the Azalea Festival every year, celebrating their beautiful array of Asian azaleas in bloom in April. Unfortunately, this year the flowers were damaged by an unusually cold and prolonged winter.

Food–Peas and Fish

Snow peas are often found on the dinner table during this season, along with seasonal fish. It may be hard to find fresh fish in many parts of America, but Alaskan salmon is available in most grocery stores. Salmon is incredibly good for health and is one of the most common dishes in a traditional Japanese breakfast.

To Wrap Up

There are 72 “micro season” in Japan. If you want to know more about them than what we bring to you here, check out our favorite resource: the 72 Seasons app. It’s free and available in both Japanese and English. Happy reading!

72 Season App (App Store)

72 Seasons (Google Play)

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