In Japan, certain dates in the calendar year are associated with food. It’s somewhat similar to the United States custom to have turkey, cranberries, and applesauce on Thanksgiving, but the Japanese do not commemorate specific past events by eating certain food on these days.
In many cases, we don’t know why we eat certain foods on particular dates or even when our customs first started. But even though the origin and reasons of such customs have been lost to history, the Japanese retain and repeat the same food-centered rituals every year.
According to Kunio Yanagida, the father of Japanese native folkloristics, the idea of hare and ke (or kegare) is buried deep within the Japanese psyche. The Japanese believe in kegare, which roughly translates to a natural accumulation of intangible dust on people. Even though kegare is not connected to the western idea of “sin,” we have to cleanse ourselves by observing special days of hare.
Those special days of hare are unusual, memorable, and different from routine everyday life. We often wear special clothes and eat special food on those days. The Japanese have placed such special days a few times a year, so that we may periodically cleanse ourselves.
Japan followed the lunar calendar in the past, but since the government switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1873, the Japanese observe some of these dates following the Gregorian calendar.
However, there are some discrepancies. For instance, New Year was supposed to start in the early spring of the lunar year (usually around the middle of February), but in the Gregorian calendar New Year’s day is still in midwinter. We use a New Year’s greeting that suggests early spring, but early spring is actually a couple of months away.
The following is a 2016 calendar of the food-related days in Japan (there are some regional differences).
A printable calendar ($1) can be downloaded from Japanese-Kitchen Store.
|1st~7th||New Year's Day||This is the most important day in the Japanese calendar of events, and there are many foods associated with the New Year's Day. People wear their best clothes and visit shrines on January 1 to pray for a good year. The Japanese are not supposed to work for the first seven days and are supposed to eat osechi ryori, special festive food during this period. This food tends to be well stewed or well preserved. Other than osechi ryori, ozoni, a type of soup with vegetable and mochi is eaten and otoso, a spiced alcoholic beverage, is consumed on January 1. In many other Asian countries, the New Year's Day is still celebrated according to the lunar calendar.|
|7th||Nanakusa||Nanakusa marks the end of the New Year's celebration period. People eat nanakusa gayu, which is soft-cooked rice mixed with seven indigenous spring greens. These greens are now nicely packaged and sold in stores, but they often grow on sidewalks in Japan.|
|11th||Kagami-biraki||January 11th is the day to eat kagami-mochi, which is made of pounded sweet rice and used for the New Year's decoration/offering. The mochi is dried and significantly hardened by this time, so that it has to be hammered to break into small pieces. Then it is soaked in savory or sweet stew and served.|
|15th||Koshougatsu||This is a small New Year's Day for women who worked hard during the period to serve their family members. Eat adzuki gayu, which is soft cooked rice with adzuki beans.|
|3rd||Setsubun||Setsubun is the day to celebrate the beginning of spring by scattering roasted soybeans inside and outside the house to repel evil spirits and welcome good luck. There is a well-known custom to eat the same number of soybeans as one’s age, but many people don't really follow the custom.|
|3rd||Momo no Sekku (Hinamatsuri)||Momo no Sekku or Hinamatsuri is the day to celebrate the growth and development of all girls by displaying dolls dressed in Heian period costumes. Chirashi-zushi, shirozake, and clam soup are served.|
|17th~23rd||Higan||Higan or Ohigan is the period of days before and after the spring equinox. People generally go to ancestral gravesites, pray, and make offerings. Botamochi, half mashed rice covered with stewed sweet adzuki beans, are offered to ancestors and are eaten on this day. There are two Higan periods in a year. The other Higan days occur around the autumn equinox.|
|Hanami||During the season of cherry blossoms, the Japanese often have parties under the blooming cherry trees. Recently, obsessive drinking and eating have become more prevalent. This season used to be marked with tea parties with sweet mochi. Hanami dango, tri-colored mochi balls on a stick, are one of the typical confectioneries of this season.|
|5th||Tango no Sekku (Kokomo no hi)||Tango no Sekku also known as Kodomonohi is the day to celebrate growth and development of all boys by displaying Japanese medieval warrior helmets and carp shaped flags. Confectioneries made from sweet rice, called kashiwamochi or chimaki are eaten.|
|7th||Tanabata||The current Tanabata event is a fusion of ancient Chinese and Japanese customs. This used to be celebrated in August, but it was changed to July when Japan began using the Gregorian calendar. On this day, people write wishes on strips of paper, tie them to bamboo branches, and eat somen noodles.|
|30th||Doyou Ushinohi||The Japanese still note this day based on the old calendar, and so Doyou Ushinohi moves every year. This event takes place approximately during the hottest time midsummer. On this day people customarily eat grilled eel, which is rich in many nutrients.|
|15th||Obon||Many people still mark Obon in August, even though it is supposed to be moved to July, according to the Gregorian calendar. Along with New Year's Day, Obon is one of the most important customs in Japan. People go back to their hometown and visit ancestral graves, and relatives gather. In many areas, Obon dance parties are organized, offerings are made to ancestral spirits, and animal slaughters are halted. Only during this period, people refrain from eating meat, and vegetarian food is offered. People in the past believed that during this period the spirits of the dead come back to this world.|
|15th||Jugoya||Jugoya night occurs during the full moon in fall. For this reason, it is still celebrated according to the lunar calendar. People eat round things, such as dango balls, as they cherish full moon nights.|
|19th~25th||Higan||Higan or Ohiganis a period of before and after the autumn equinox. People generally go to ancestral gravesites, pray and make offerings of Ohagi, which are offered to ancestors as well as eaten on this day. There are two Higan periods in a year. The other Higan days occur around the spring equinox.|
|15th||Shichigosan||Shichigosan is literally the words "seven, five, three" strung together in Japanese. When the child mortality rate was high, this was the day to mark and celebrate the growth and development of children of the age of seven, five and three. Children carry around chitoseame, which is an elongated candy to signify a long healthy life.|
|21st||Toji||Toji is winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. After this day, the days start to get longer. Some people eat stewed kabocha pumpkin with adzuki on this day, as people believed that it would prevent them from catching a cold.|
|31st||Toshikoshi soba||At the end of the very last day of the year, the Japanese eat soba noodles. Many people still follow this custom. This could be because it's just the act of eating soba noodles, without any religious or other obligations attached.|