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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Japanese Cultural Trivia:


You get a bonus third post today and a bit of Japanese Cultural trivia that includes some history, some culinary customs, some vocabulary, and some awesome.

Monday, as you know, was 海の日(umi no hi), but did you know that today is 土用の丑の日 (doyou no ushi no hi)?

I bet that you did not.

In it's most common usage, and according to Rikai-chan, 土用 means "midsummer" or "the dog days of summer," but actually, EVERY season has it's 土用。As this site explains, each season has an official starting day (you can find it on most calendars) and the 土用 period comprises the 18 days before the official start of the next season. For example, the first day of Autumn usually falls on or near August 8th, and the 18 days before that (where we are now) is considered 夏の土用.

(Traditionally, 夏の土用 is the most important of all the 土用s because it's an extremely busy time for agriculture, which is why most people only use it to refer to the summer.)

Now, 丑の日 or the day of the ox, is borrowed from Chinese astrology, and before I spend nine hours on the internet trying to find out what makes 丑の日 different from the other 11 kinds of days, I'm just going to acknowledge the fact that it's not THAT important to this post. The point is that since the Chinese astrological cycle of days repeats every 12 days, and there are 18 days in 土用, you're guaranteed at least one 土用の丑の日.

土用の丑の日 traditionally represents the hottest, most humid, nastiest summer day (not in terms of actual temperature records or humidity indexes, but just... in general) and it's a day when you might be particularly susceptible to today's bonus word:


夏バテ is a term that might also be misleading, depending on your dictionary. I've seen it listed as "adaptation to the summer heat," which sounds to me like getting used to/dealing with it. In actual usage, 夏バテ is closer to "heat stroke." It's a term for exhaustion, fatigue, general malaise and physical misery that you suffer during the nearly unbearable summer months.

But don't worry. There is a trick to beating 夏バテ that every person living in Japan should know, and I'm going to reveal it to. You might even have noticed it yourself at restaurants, or supermarkets, or in advertisements for either of the above. Today, all across Japan, Japanese people will be consuming massive quantities of うなぎ、fresh-water eel.

If you've ever tried unagi, basted in a mildly sweet barbecue sauce (think 繊細) served over steamed rice (even better when the rice and eel are steamed together) with sliced tamago yaki and crisp toasted nori, maybe with some daikon sukemono on the side, good lord... if you've had that, you should know that you don't NEED a reason to eat うなぎ.

But as for it's value as a weapon against the dreaded 夏バテ, consult the nutritional advice of... this lady:


Chock-full of vitamin-A, plus proper quantities of protein, lipids, vitamins B, D, E, calcium, and iron, うなぎ is just the ticket for a highly nourishing meal.
But for those of you who, like me, aren't satisfied with surface explanations of why things are the way they are, it gets even better. Nutritious and delicious though it may be, how did the entire country of Japan start a tradition of eating eel on 土用の丑の日?

Back in the Edo Period, there was a renaissance man by the name of 平賀源内 (Hiraga Gennai). He studied it all, and did it all. He was a painter, a physician, a scientist, an avid follower of Western studies, an inventor (his エレキテル;electrostatic generator has earned him immortality in Japanese anime, often as an eccentric or even MAD scientist), and an author, writing novels, satire, and articles about nature or science. He was considered an expert on all matter of subjects, and rendered his intellectual services to those who needed them.

So when the Edo Period うなぎ vendors had a problem, they knew exactly who to turn to. How to ensure strong うなぎ sales in summer? Hiraga Gennai had the answer. Create an advertising campaign ensuring the masses that eating eel was a great way to beat the heat. True story. The 土用の丑の日 tradition started because うなぎ vendors and restaurants once asked Hiraga Gennai to help them recover from a sales slump.

It's possible then, that Hiraga Gennai was the first person to become a celebrity endorser in Japanese history, and at the very least he must rank as the most successful. The entire country still buys into the advertising, and Gennai is responsible for billions and billions of yen in うなぎ sales, hundreds of years after his death.

(If that's not enough to make you question his moral integrity, here's a slight footnote: He was also passionate about performing experiments on ore. So much so that his anger at being unable to open new mines and procure more samples drove him into a fit that led to the death of one of his students. He died in a Japanese prison.)

So... enjoy your bonus post, eat some eel today (I will), and stay out of the heat!

Hope everybody's having a great summer!


Claytonian said...

Hiraga was awesome in Read or Die; he used his electricity to make a lightsaber

Ido said...

God Clay you killed the whole seriousness of this post! XD

Seriously this is awesome, another food that replenishes fatigue! I've heard of horse mackerel too, but it's not specific to summers tho.