A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.
For the Winter Solstice (冬至)- Yuzu Baths, Pumpkin, and Fire-Walking (火渡り) – on Sunday December 22, 2019
By Avi Landau
Up here in the northern hemisphere, we have been watching our daylight hours grow shorter and shorter by the day. It can be startling to leave work at the usual time and find ourselves immersed in complete darkness where just a few weeks ago it was perfectly bright. For the ancients, this gradual waning of daytime was the cause of great apprehension, and a wide assortment of rituals and ceremonies (including human sacrifice!) were conceived of and performed by various peoples around the world to make sure that the sun didn’t continue to weaken and ultimately disappear altogether.
Once a year, on the day of the winter solstice, just before sunset, the “Sun-box” at the Tsukuba Center Complex lights up like this. The past few years have been a bit cloudy- but last year I was able to take this photo- Thanks to Dan for telling me about another of Tsukuba`s curiosities – Rest in Peace, Buddy!
Sunday December 22 is the day of the Winter Solstice in 2019 and will be the shortest day and longest night of the year for those of us who dwell north of the equator. And though now most of us have no fear of the sun continuing to fade away never to return, the lack of sunlight and knowledge that its going to get colder and colder for the next few months can be quite depressing.
The Japanese have several customs for the TO-JI (冬至), as they call the winter solstice, which remain popular to this day. Not being religious rituals, these customs have developed with the intention of fortifying the body for the cold weather to come and also of adding color and fun to these darkest and gloomiest of days.
The most commonly practiced custom for the winter solstice is putting YUZU (柚子), a type of citrus fruit, in the bath. This is called YUZUYU (柚子湯). The yuzu is the hardiest and most cold resistant citrus fruit, and thus represents human resistance to winter’s harsh chill. Its aroma, which fills the steamy bathroom when the fruits are placed in the bath, is believed to be therapeutic, and certainly makes for an invigorating (and fun!) change of pace from your everyday bath.*
If you go to a hot spring or public bath on the solstice day you will SURELY find lots of YUZU floating in the water!
If you would like to try a yuzu bath for yourself, the best way to get the fruit in Tsukuba is by asking a farmer. They usually have many more yuzu than they can use. Of course they are available at shops, as well. You might want to rinse these citrus fruit with hot or boiling water before you put them in your bath, as they can cause itchiness for some people.
There are also certain foods which are customarily eaten on the to-ji. In Ibaraki, it is common to have pumpkin (kabocha), the vegetable which can be preserved longest (symbolizing hardiness for winter) and konyaku (devil`s tongue), a kind of rubbery jelly made from a yam like vegetable, which is believed to cleanse the digestive system of any grit or grime, giving the body a big end of the year cleaning. Eating konyaku on the solstice day is mentioned in Nagatsuka Takashi’s novel TSUCHI (長塚節の土), which is set in early modern Ibaraki (the author’s thatched roof house is a 20 minute drive from Tsukuba University).
An Authentic Tsukuba Area Winter Solstice Dish Consisting of Pumpkin( kabotcha) and konnyaku- prepared by Asako Seo
Asako Seo`s delicious winter solstice treat- pumpkin and konnyaku!
Also, throughout Japan, some people still eat TO-JI GAYU, rice gruel with azuki beans, whose red color is believed to have the power to exorcize evil and bad luck.
For those with some free time on the 22nd, I would recommend driving up to Mt. Kaba in Makabe (about a 30 drive from central Tsukuba), where a unique fire-walking ritual will be held in an effort to energize winter’s weakening sun, so that it can grow strong again and give us more daylight. Walking through the fire will also protect you from sickness and bad luck (so they say!). This will take place from 1 to 2 pm at the Saenazumi Jinja Hongu Shrine (加波山三枝祇神社) on Mt Kaba.
(There will also be HOSHI MATSURI (星祭り), literally Star Festival Ceremonies held at various Buddhist Temples ( especially those of the Shingon Sect) around Japan on the 22nd. Goma Taki ( ritual fires) will be lit and those attending will burn votive tablets with their birth star ( according to traditional Chinese astrology) written on them. This is done to ensure good fortune for the coming year. I would recommend the ceremony held at Makabe`s beautiful Yakuo-In Temple if you`d be interested in seeing this ancient ritual held.)
A yuzu bath, some kabocha, konyaku and a little walk through the fire should brighten up the darkest day of the year for you. And there is also the encouraging knowledge that though the coldest days of winter are still to come, the daylight hours will be growing longer and longer after the to-ji!
I have written in more detail about the fire walking event at Kabasan at:
The Sun Box on the west side of the Tsukuba Center Building ( designed by Isozaki Arata) at sunset on the day of the winter solstice. Rumor has it that on certain occassions the box is filled with a blazing red orb. This did not happen today. Maybe on the summer solstice-or perhaps the equinox days- at sunset.
* Looking at a selection of haiku poems using YUZUYU, the practice of putting YUZU (citrons) in the bath on the day of the winter solstice, as a KIGO (keyword) helps give a sense of how families may experience this custom:
吾子はをみな柚子湯の柚子を胸に抱き (山口青邨, 1892-1988)
Ako wa omina yuzuyu no yuzu o mune ni daki (Yamaguchi Seison, 1892-1988)
My little daughter – clings closely to a citron- in the citron bath (my translation)
柚子どもと衝突しつつ湯浴みせり (相生垣瓜人, 1898-1985)
Yuzudomo to sho-totsu shitsutsu yuamiseri ( Aioigaki Kajin, 1898-1985)
I keep getting hit – by the bobbling and bumping- solstice bath citrons (my translation)
Yuagari no yu no ko no musume sono haha mo (Iwai Eiga)
Just after their baths, my daughter smells of citrons, and likewise my wife (my translation)
A large, interestingly shaped YUZU used as a seasonal OBJET in December in Hojo, Tsukuba