One of the lovely things of living in Japan is experiencing the many seasonal traditions throughout the year. Until this year I hadn’t heard of the customs surrounding the winter solstice or toji.
From tomorrow the days become longer, so the sun is said to be reborn on this day. While the evenings become lighter the weather in Japan gets colder from now on so the practices associated with the solstice are to warm up the body and take care of our health.
It’s common to eat simmered kabocha, Japanese pumpkin, and toji-gayu or winter solstice rice porridge. Pumpkins are supposed to ward off colds; they are a good source of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which is not surprising given their bright orange colour. The brown rice porridge is slow cooked with red adzuki beans and garnished simply with gomashio, salt and sesame.
After our pumpkin and rice, we had a long soak in a yuzu-yu. Yuzu, small citrus fruit, are added to a hot bath to release their aromatic oils. I`ve never seen yuzu back home, and they are one of my favourite Japanese ingredients. The taste and aroma is a cross between a lemon, grapefruit and mandarin and they are mainly used as a condiment. Yuzu are also heavenly in the bath.
The Japanese believe that yuzu has a warming effect on the body and helps improve blood circulation, relieve skin conditions and eliminate toxins. It is said that if you take a yuzu bath on the solstice you won’t catch a cold all winter. We’ll have to see about that one.
Finally we settled down with our children to read some stories together by candlelight, not a Japanese custom as far as I know but a special end to a peaceful, restorative evening.