After sweating in the hot summer sun, it’s nice to have an ice-cold mug of beer. It is
also nice to have a glass of plum liquor prior to a cup of cool sake ? plum liquor from this
year is not yet mature, but the one from last year should have reached maturity by now.
It would surely sooth my heart and soul with the syrupy, umber smoothness.
July in old Japanese is called fuzuki, or fumizuki, which means “the month of letters.” Some say it is because men and women of letters used to dedicate poems and songs to the stars, Vega and Altair, in the evening of the star festival on July 7th. Others say the name came from an old Japanese word of an entirely different origin. Fumu in ancient Japanese meant “to swell.” They say July is the month when rice ears begin to swell and that is why it was called fumu-zuki, or “swelling month,” which later changed to fumizuki.
The English name for the month, July, came from the name of ancient Roman emperor Julius Caesar, because it was the month the great man was born.
In Japan, it is the month when the high-pressure system above the Pacific pushes the seasonal rain front up north, ushering in the glaring summer sun.
But when the high-pressure system is weak and the rain clouds remain hovering over Japan well into July, it could mean a cold summer.
According to an old Chinese legend, the night of July
7th is the only night of the year when two star lovers,
Orihime, or Vega, and Kengyu, or Altair, can see each
other. The two stars are separated by the Milky Way,
which in old Chinese is known as “the river in the
Tanabata, or star festival to celebrate the reunion of
the two stars dates back more than one thousand years
to the Tang Period. The legend says Orihime was a
daughter of the Emperor of Heaven. She would always
sit at a loom weaving even after she was old enough to
get married. The Emperor pitied his hard working
daughter and married her to Kengyu.
But once she got married, Orihime stopped weaving
all together. Her father was angered and brought her
home, separating the lovers. But the Emperor allowed
them to see each other once a year, in the evening of
July 7th, if the weather is fine.
During the star festival, people pray that the two
lovers can see each other okay. The custom came to
Japan from China in the 8th century. During the Edo
Period (17th to mid-19th century), it was one of the five
seasonal festivals (go-sekku).
People would cut off bamboo after pouring sake to
its root, put it up in a room and decorate it with pieces
of colored paper on which they write poems, songs and
their wishes. They would place offerings, such as lit
candle, flowers and sake, on a stand in front of the
Some shopping arcades in Japan still celebrate
Tanabata festival, but it is often used as just another
reason for a bargain sale to attract customers. Bars and
restaurants can hold up the tradition and let their clients
enjoy the special evening by letting them write poems,
songs and their wishes on paper and putting them up
In the old days, people used to enjoy ichiya-zake, or
over-night brew, in the evening of July 7th or anytime
between June 1st and July 31st. Over-night brew is
made by adding koji malted rice to rice porridge,
cooking the mixture over the fire for a while, and letting
it stand and ferment for six to seven hours. The end
product is similar to what we call amazake (sweet sake)
today. These days, we would often enjoy hot amazake
in winter, but in the old day, amazake was a summer
But the summer treat today should be an ice-cold cup of sake. Sake in summer looks and tastes the best when served in fresh-cut green bamboo cup. Cold sake served in plain, square wooden container (masu) is just as good. When serving sake in a masu, make sure the strait-grain of the wood is not pointed toward the guest. It is a breach of etiquette, because the act is regarded an equivalent to pointing the tip of knife toward the guest.
In summer, it is a good idea to put wine glasses and glass cups for sake in freezer immediately after washing them. Make sure you don’t wipe or dry the glasses. Get them out of the freezer just before serving drinks. A glass covered with frost makes a perfect vehicle for a cold drink.
In traditional Japanese course dishes, kaiseki, a broiled
dish, or yakimono, is served after sashimi raw seafood
dish. In the old times, a cook used to place a seawater
fish sideway on a plate with its belly facing the guest
and a freshwater fish with its back facing the guest.
These days, all the fish are served with the belly facing
the guest. Also, in the old days the guest was supposed
to eat just the upper side of a fish when a whole fish
was served. It was regarded impolite to eat the bottom
side beneath the bones. But then, half the fish meat
goes to waste ? it would be against the spirit of making
the most out of a living thing once you took its life for a
purpose. You would feel sorry for the fish that died to
be a part of your meal if half of its meat went straight
into a garbage bin.
After finishing the upper side, remove the backbone
and other bones, and eat the bottom side. Some
people turn the whole fish upside down, bones still
attached, to eat the bottom side. It does not only look
messy, but is against the manners to do so.
On some occasions, a fillet of fish is served instead of
a whole fish, often broiled after soaked in sweetened
soy sauce, or pickled in sake lees. When serving a fillet,
a cook should place it on a plate so the skin is away
from the guest - that should make it easier for the guest
to eat the meat with chopsticks.
Broiled fish is often served with hajikami, ginger with
stalks pickled in vinegar, or other garnish. Make sure
you eat them as well.
It is good manners to eat every piece of meat, so
only bones are left on the plate even when a whole fish
is served - one should leave the head and the backbone
at the center of the plate, and the smaller bones
piled up at the right-front corner of the plate. There is
an old Japanese term “neko-matagi,” which refers to
fish bones left on the plate without a piece of leftover
meat sticking onto them. The word means “even a cat
would step over them without stopping (because there
is nothing left).”
One is allowed to use left hand as well as chopsticks
held in right hand when eating a whole fish. The guests
are advised to have kaishi paper napkins in pocket, so
they can wipe their hand with the napkin after finishing
the dish. One should fold up the dirty paper napkin
neatly and put it back into pocket.
Most fish taste the best during the winter
months, but takabe is an exception - the fish starts to
put on fat in June and is the best right before its spawning
season at the height of summer. Takabe is about 20
centimeters long. It looks like isaki, another fish of sea
bass suborder, sometimes called Chicken grunt in
English. But you can distinguish takabe by a yellow
stripe running along its back. Fatty but easy-to-eat
white meat tastes the best when broiled and seasoned
||Kisu (Japanese whiting)
There are two types of kisu around Japan, shirogisu
(a.k.a. silver whiting) and aogisu. The white meat fish
with sophisticated taste often served at bars and
restaurants is shirogisu. The peak season for kisu fishing is
June and July. It is good for sashimi or broiled dishes,
but perhaps the best way to enjoy kisu is tempura
deep fry. Kisu cut into strips, dried over-night and
broiled lightly makes an excellent side dish to go with
||Hamo (Pike Eel)
Gion Festival is one of the most popular summer
tourist attractions in the old capital Kyoto. The ritual of
the Yasaka Shrine started about one thousand years
ago when people prayed gods to get rid of epidemics.
Hamo dishes are the staples for the Gion Festival.
People in Kyoto say they cannot be in a festive mood
unless they savor hamo delicacies.
Hamo is good broiled after soaked in sweetened soy
sauce, in suimono clear soup, served with vinegar-based
dressing, or as otoshi (boiled lightly and served
with sauce). The fish tastes the best in July, right after
the rainy season.
Because hamo is full of small bones, make sure you
have it properly dressed and prepared at the fish shop
when you cook it at home.
Dust prepared slices of hamo with starch and boil it
lightly. The meat pops to resemble little white peony
flowers, thus the dish is often called “botan hamo
Serve botan hamo with pickled plum based sauce,
vinegar-flavored white miso (sumiso), or soy sauce and
grated wasabi Japanese horseradish. The light dish is
the best match for cold-served sake, and vice versa.
Skin of hamo is another delicacy that goes well with
sake. In western Japan, hamo meat is often used to
make kamaboko, or boiled fish paste. Leftover skin is
usually broiled and sold at market. Hamo skin is sometimes
sold at kamaboko shops in department stores in
eastern Japan as well. Small bones often stick to the
skin, so you had better cut it into thin strips with kitchen
scissors before dressing it with thin-sliced and salted
cucumber in vinegar-based sauce ? an excellent side
dish for sake. Some shops sell hamo skins already cut
into thin strips. The skin is rich in chondroitin, a substance
that is said to be good for arthritis and other
Somen (thin wheat noodles)
It is an old Japanese custom to eat somen thin
wheat noodles on the day of tanabata star festivals.
Old saying goes it is because somen noodles resemble
thin threads that Orihime used to weave.
In the old days, somen was also called muginawa
(rope of wheat), or zoro-zoro. Somen noodles served
cold makes a great closing of a meal with cool sake at
a hot, humid summer night. Nyumen, or a hot somen
noodle dish, is also good to make you forget the
Somen noodles take a bath in boiling water After
untying their dark blue paper sash Isn’t it a humorous,
but touching poem about the somen noodles?
||Translated by Hitomi Nakamura