Japan has four distinct seasons, and there are many traditional events and holidays throughout the year that celebrate the seasons. Along with the seasonal changes, you also see changes in the food, and since long, Japanese have favoured eating dishes made using fresh seasonal ingredients.
One of the ways to enjoy a trip to Japan is to be aware of the major events and festivals, customs and traditions including food available in each month. In this feature, we talk about some of the customs and traditions that have been followed over the centuries in the month of March.
Did you know of that March has two other names in Japanese: Yayoi (弥生), meaning rejuvenation of life, and Sakuratzuki (桜月), meaning month of cherry blossoms. A time to celebrate the birth of new life and vigour in nature.
Hina Matsuri, Girl’s Day (March 3)
On March 3, hina dolls are displayed for the seasonal festival of Hina Matsuri or Girls’ Festival. Hina dolls are said to have originated in the Heian period and the festival is celebrated to pray for the well being, good health and growth of girls. When the festival first started, hina dolls were not used for display, but were placed in a straw tray and set off in a river to pray for children to grow up in good health and for diseases and disasters to float away with the waves.
Many households set up a red staircase and place a set of dolls. According to Japanese custom, as soon as the Hina Matsuri is over on March 3, the hina dolls must be put away immediately. There is a superstition that the longer you keep the dolls displayed, the later your daughter will get married in life.
Traditionally, Chirashizushi is eaten on Hina Matsuri. It is like a sushi rice salad…rice is topped with bits of vegetables like scallions, carrots, bell peppers, seafood like crab, unagi, and tuna. Very colourful and appetising, isn’t it?
White Day, March 14
White Day is Japan’s response to Valentine’s Day. In Japan, women given men chocolates on Valentine’s Day. So on White Day, which started in Japan in the 1970s, men give gifts to those women who gave them chocolates on Valentine’s Day. In 1978, a confectionery company in Japan started selling candy, particularly marshmallows, as a return gift for Valentine’s Day. Apparently, White Day was also called Marshmallow Day!
Originally, only marshmallows were given as Japanese have an image of marshmallows as being white which stands for purity and hence, March 14 gained the name White Day. Today, of course, all kinds of chocolates are exchanged on this day. According to custom, the person who receives a chocolate or gift on February 14th has to give a return gift on March 14th.
Spring equinox (March 20)
The Japanese have always had a reverence for nature and the change in seasons. Much importance is given to the spring and autumn equinox as well as the beginning of winter and of summer. Higan is a time when Buddhist services are observed in Japan at the spring and autumn equinoxes when day and night are of equal length. It is also a time to pray for the souls of ancestors.
There is a saying in Japan that “no heat or cold lasts over the equinox” (暑さ寒さも彼岸まで), which means that the bitter cold of winter and the harsh heat of summer has come to an end at the time of the vernal and autumnal equinox respectively.
Flower viewing, also known as “Hanami” in Japanese, is not a special festival, but it can be said to be the most important event in March. Cherry blossoms in Japan start blooming starting from the south around mid-March till early May in the north. No matter how old one gets, the Japanese make sure to enjoy this special time with cherry blossoms and usually March is the busiest for hanami parties.
With hanami, comes sakuramochi, a sweet treat consisting of a cherry blossom-colored mochi (sticky rice cake), with anko (red bean paste) stuffing wrapped in a cherry blossom leaf.
There are two main varieties of Sakuramochi: one from Kanto (east part of Japan) and the other from Kansai (west part of Japan). Kanto region’s sakuramochi has a thin layer of a pancake-like wrap made using wheat flour on the outside and stuffed with mochi and anko.
In Kansai, glutinous rice is crushed to form a soft ball. Since Kansai’s version is already covered in sticky rice, only red bean paste is used as a stuffing.
These days you can buy almost any ingredient throughout the year. However, it is best to eat what’s in season as that produce is the most delicious. If you come to Japan in March, you can’t go wrong with these ingredients.
Seafood: Turbanshell (sazae, サザエ), Japanese spanish mackerel (sawara, 鰆), Pacific herring (nishin, 鰊), firefly squid (hotaruika, ホタルイカ), clams (hamaguri,蛤）
Fruits and vegetables: Bamboo shoots (takenoko, 筍), rapeseed (nabana, 菜花), udo (plant related to ginseng, used in medicine and cooking), wakame (type of seaweed)
Hope this feature has given you a good idea of what to expect in Japan during March. Keep an eye out for some of the things mentioned here and you’re sure to have a wonderful holiday in Japan.
Let us know if there is something that needs to be fixed: Feedback Form