What on Earth?: Tōji (冬至)

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In astronomical terms, the winter solstice is defined as the instant when the Sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer.  In plain words, it’s the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  Each culture interprets this day in a different way; in Japan, the winter solstice is called “tōji” and is traditionally considered the beginning of the year.  Since solar energy weakens as we approach tōji, it is the day with the weakest energy level, but, at the same time, it is also the day when the energy level starts to increase.  This is why Japanese people place importance on this day.

On the day of tōji, Japanese people customarily eat “kabocha” (pumpkin) and “tōji-gayu” (porridge made with red beans) and bathe in “yuzu-yu” (a hot bath with yuzu citrus fruit).  The origins of these customs are unclear, but there are some commonly accepted stories.  Tōji-gayu, with its red beans, may have become popular because the color red is believed to have the power to repel evil.  A similar custom is observed in Korea as well. There, people eat red bean soup with dumplings during the winter solstice.

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Kabocha is a summer vegetable and is not native to Japan, but even so it’s one of the stars of toji; people believe that eating kabocha during toji prevents them from catching colds and other diseases.  There is not any definite explanation of why Japanese started eating kabocha on the day of toji, but there are some plausible theories.  Kabocha harvested during the summer can be preserved for a long time and can retain its nutrition well without the help of contemporary preservation systems.  Naturally, it is a good source of nutrition in winter, a season when vegetables with an abundance of vitamins are in short supply.  Additionally, kabocha is also known as “nankin,” a word containing several “n”s.  Based on the belief that eating food that contains an “n” in its name brings “un” (good luck), kabocha, a.k.a. nankin, is listed as one of the seven fortunate foods of tōji.  The other six are “ninjin” (carrot), “kinkan” (kumquat), “renkon” (lotus roots), “ginnan” (ginko nut), “kanten” (agar), and “udon” (udon noodles).

Putting a couple of yuzu citrus fruits in a bath is believed to have  beneficial physical effects, including curing cracks of the skin, preventing colds, and easing backaches. These are not, however, the only reasons why people customarily bathe in yuzu-yu during tōji. The custom is thought to have come from a pun; tōji has a homophone that means “hot spring cure,” and yuzu has another meaning “to accommodate money.”  Expanding this interpretation, bathing in yuzu-yu during tōji is believed to repel disease and bring richness.  Nobody knows how effectively yuzu-yu brings about these results, but it is certain that the aroma of yuzu in a bath is  therapeutic.

Tōji this year is December 21st.  New York will be freezing at this time, but remember it’s the day positive energy levels start going upward.  Look forward to spring walking towards you.

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