Although June is not a bursting at the seams with annual Japanese holidays — winter and spring reign in terms of major cultural celebrations — the rituals that do happen illustrate important, albeit more subtle, values in Japanese culture. Practices associated with himuro no sechie, as well as the summer harvest and planting, reflect the importance of fraternity in Japan. These seemingly inconsequential traditions have persisted, perhaps because of the value placed on harmony in Japanese culture. In any case, June’s holidays cement the important role community has played in Japanese culture, both historically and in contemporary times.
Himuro No Sechie
One of the Japanese holidays that happens each summer in Japan is himuro no sechie. Its origins stretch far back, all the way to the Heian period. At this time, between 794 and 1185 A.D., ice was a luxury. Therefore, it was only for the rich and powerful. Things changed on June 1, however, when the elite would take the ice out of the himuro, or ice-room, to share with their servants.
Outside of the palace, where the common people didn’t often have access to ice at all, they instead cooked mochi they had frozen around the new year. (To freeze it, they would simply string several mochi with thread and hang the strand underneath the eaves of the roof outside. The mochi would freeze and dry naturally during the winter.)
In modern times, you can still find this custom in several prefectures, including Osaka, Kumamoto, Nagano, Fukui, Gifu and Ishikawa. Depending on the location, though, himuro no sechie may be observed on either June 1 or in July. Why the discrepancy? People used an older lunar calendar during the Heian period. On the modern Gregorian calendar used today, this date would be closer to mid-July.
Several other Japanese culinary traditions happen during the month of June near the summer solstice, which occurs around June 21. Not coincidentally, this is the peak of the rice-planting season. In old lore, the long, straggly roots of the rice plant were thought to resemble octopus legs. Thus, in the Kansai region in particular, the people eat octopus at this time of year. As a good omen, they would feast together on cephalopod as a method of, at least spiritually, encouraging a bountiful rice harvest. Common recipes for this occasion include octopus and ginger rice as well as fried octopus.
In the Kanto region, meanwhile, people eat komugi-mochi (a type of mochi made with flour) around the summer solstice. This is because farmers often rotated their fields between rice plants and wheat. Thus, when it was time to plant rice in the summer, there was usually plenty of wheat that had just been harvested. After the rice planting season, farmers would often thank those who had helped plant the fields by sharing their wheat with them. Then, they would cook mochi and eat together to celebrate their hard work together.