So I would like to delve into the concept of Doyo 土用. I feel it is particularly relevant as I sit here broiling at my desk at school on a 34degree day, as for some reason it took Kyoto-sensei’s fancy to save electricity and turn all the air cons off this morning.
Historically Doyo 土用 refers to the last 18 days of each season, however in modern usage it’s limited only to the summer 夏 period and can literally be translated to ‘midsummer’.
But why ‘The Day of the Ox’? Well the Ox is one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac and the standard Japanese calendar attributes one of these animals to each day of the year. Now according to the Chinese calendar system, autumn tends to begin around August 7 and so 18 days before typically is around now, however due to there being 18 days and only 12 zodiac animals, it is not at all uncommon for there to be 2 Doyou no ushi no hi in one year.
This year in 2012 Doyou no ushi no hi 土用の丑の日 (The Day of The Ox) falls on Friday the 29th of July. This day is regarded as being the hottest and most difficult time throughout the entire year.
On this day Japanese people eat unagi 鰻 (broiled eel) as it is believed to break the summer heat and help with recovering from fatigue.
Now like most things I encounter in Japan, at first I was perplexed as to how consuming eels would make the summer more bearable.
I guess in short the reasoning is that unagi has a lot of calories due to a high fat content, as well as a large amount of nutrients, so it makes sense that such a food would give you the energy to not become a flaccid, unproductive lump during the summer months (exactly how I feel at this moment).
Alas if you happen to be in Japan around late July each year, it will be hard to miss the plethora of displays in front of every supermarket, department store, combini and donburi place advertising steamed and grilled unagi 鰻 (eel).
These are characterized by the noburi 幟 (flags/banners) that are ever present outside of each establishment which simply have the character for U (う) printed on them and stylized to resemble an eel (as U is the first character in the word unagi). They generally look something along the lines of this.
Here is a more commercial looking one outside a Sukiya すき家 restaurant.
Also in addition to consuming unagi during the Doyo period, there has also been the longstanding belief in japan that eating any food that begins with the letter U (う) will provide replenish stamina lost due to the summer heat.
Just off the top of my head there’s Umeboshi 梅干して (preserved Japanese apricots), Udon 饂飩 (thick wheat noodles) and Ushi 牛 (beef).
I’m going to go ahead and debate the effectiveness of such a claim, as i have eaten all three of those foods in the last day and I’m still broiling ( ；´Д｀)
At the end of the day there are many other foods that seem slightly more appropriate to eat to help with fatigue, so why eel??
Well there is a story that comes along with that which takes us back to the Edo period 江戸時代 (1603 to 1868) in Edo (now Tokyo 東京).
An eel vendor was experiencing poor sales due to unagi being seen as unsophisticated and a lower-class food at the time. He sought the council of a man named Gennai Hiraga, who was a well known pharmacologist, painter, inventor and master of Dutch studies (Western learning).
Hiraga made him a sign that said, ‘Doyo is the day of the Ox, unagi begins with a U so it’s a good time to eat it!’
After learning the sign was the advice of Hiraga, it drew in so much business for the shop owner that other shops followed suit. It being so popular that it has endured as a tradition that is still practiced throughout Japan today.
On a final note there is another popular Japanese food that I have noticed going hand in hand with unagi to provide relief from the summer heat, which is Doyo Mochi 土用餅, but I’ll explore that further in the next Mochi Diaries ☆〜（ゝ。∂）