Finding Umami in Japan's Five Seasonal Festivals

Let’s find umami taste in the beautiful festive meals

Hina dolls and festive meals for Joshi - Momo (peach) no Sekku by Kiyomi Higashi, Dining Space CoordinatorUmami Information Center

The Japanese archipelago that stretches north and south is expressive and rich in nature with four seasons. Japan’s culinary culture has been nurtured by blessings bestowed by nature and annual festivals that form Japanese culture. By sharing food, i.e. natural bounty among members of families and communities and time for eating, people have deepened their bonds.

Festive meals that people enjoy during annual festivals are based on food ingredients from the region and dashi soup made with umami of dried bonito, dried kelp, and local specialties, and seasoned with miso (fermented soybean paste) and soy sauce, which are both fermented seasoning filled with umami produced from Japan’s unique rice malt-based fermentation culture. People enjoy festive meals together on celebrative occasions such as the New Year holidays or Gosekku, the five seasonal festivals. Let us introduce Japanese festive meals associated with the five seasonal festivals and umami. 

Gosekku (the five seasonal festivals) by Kiyomi Higashi (Jinjitsu, Joshi) and CHIE MARUYAMA (Tango, Shichiseki, Choyo)Umami Information Center

What is Gosekku, the annual festivals in Japan?

Gosekku, that is, the five seasonal festivals are Jinjitsu no Sekku on January 7, Joshi no Sekku on March 3, Tango no Sekku on May 5, Shichiseki no Sekku on July 7, and Choyo no Sekku on September 9. They are also named after vigorous plants, that is, Nanakusa (seven herbs) no Sekku, Momo (peach) no Sekku, Shobu (Iris) no Sekku, Sasanoha (bamboo leaves) no Sekku, and Kiku (chrysanthemum) no Sekku. 

Nanakusagayu by Photo: CHIE MARUYAMAOriginal Source: SHUN GATE

7 – Jinjitsu, Nanakusa
no Sekku and Nanakusa Gayu
(rice porridge with seven herbs)

Jinjitsu means a human day. In ancient China, there was the custom of assigning the days of the new year, starting with January 1, to an animal, and the seventh day, namely, January 7 was a human day. The country had the custom of eating soup with seven kinds of herbs on the day. This led to the Japanese custom of picking young greens filled with life force and in the Heian Period, people came to eat nanakusa gayu (rice porridge with seven herbs).

In Japanese cuisine, while there are so many dishes that take advantage of umami of dashi (Japanese soup stock made from dried fish and seaweed kombu), nanakusa gayu uses no dashi. With nanakusa gayu featuring a gentle and mild taste, it is designed to help ease gastrointestinal fatigue due to New Year’s food. It may be also a good idea to add a little bit of nukazuke (vegetables pickled in salted rice bran), asazuke (lightly pickled vegetables) or salted kelp full of umami on a small plate to give an accent to the porridge’s plain taste. 

The seven herbs of springUmami Information Center

the Seven Herbs of Spring, pray for a perfect state of health

the last day of the Matsunouchi
period (January 1 through 7), the
seven herbs of spring help rest the heavy stomach because of a big feast for
the New Year. The seven herbs of spring is seri
(water dropwort), nazuna
(shepherd’s purse), gogyo
(jersey cudweed), hakobera
(common chickweed), hotoke
no za (nipplewort),
(turnip), and suzushiro

Rich in carotene and vitamin C, boosting immune strength.

Rich in minerals, such as iron and zinc, generating medicinal benefits, including diuresis and detoxification.

Gogyo helps stop coughing and sputum, prevent colds, and bring down fever.

Rich in vitamin A, which is good for the eyes.

Hotoke no za contains a lot of plant fiber. Good for the stomach.

Suzuna, meaning turnip. With suzushiro (daikon), rich in vitamins and whose amylase helps promote digestion.

Suzushiro, meaning daikon (Japanese radish).
Umami substance: glutamate: 30-70 mg/100g

Dishes for the Dolls’ Festival/Girls’ Day on March 3 by Photo: CHIE MARUYAMAOriginal Source: SHUN GATE

3 – Joshi,  Momo
(peach) no

 (Dolls’ Festival/Girls’ Day)

is supposed to be a girls’ seasonal
festival. People used to drink a herbal liquor called the peach blossom sake
that was believed to dispel bad vibes and boost energy and physical strength
and in the course of time, people came to enjoy a wide variety of dishes along
with shiro zake
(white sake). In ancient China, there was a festival in early March, where
people perform ablutions and expel evil spirits at a river, and the March 3
date took root in around the 3rd century. Meanwhile, there was a custom of
dispelling evil spirits in Japan, in which human-shaped papers were released on
a river after stroking and breathing onto what was wrong to transfer
impurities. When it became a court function, dolls were kept for around three
years before they were released onto a river. As they were kept longer, the
material changed from paper to cloth and dolls came to become something like
stuffed toys, taking the form of today’s dolls’ festival, where dolls are not
released into a river.

When Tango no Sekku became a boys’ festival, Joshi no Sekku became more of a girls’ festival. Among seasonal festive food, chirashi zushi (scattered sushi) and ushiojiru (thin soup of hard clams called hamaguri) as dishes in which umami stands out have been eaten up until today. As one shell of a hard clam is supposed to only match the other in pairs, it is believed to be a symbol of a prayer for a good match and a harmonious marriage. Glutamate, an umami substance, extracted from hard clams enhances saltiness, so thin soup of hard clams is more than tasty though it is low in salt.

Chimaki (sushi) by Kiyomi Higashi, Dining Space CoordinatorUmami Information Center

5 – Tango, Shobu
(iris) no

is supposed to be a festival for boys, where people eat kashiwa mochi (rice
dumpling wrapped in an oak leaf) and chimaki
(a rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves) and put up carp streamers, which
symbolize a success in life, or display a war helmet that protects you against
a misfortune to pray for boys’ growth. In ancient China, a purification
ceremony was performed during the rainy season to ward off negative vibes. Also
in Japan, prior to rice planting, people pray for productiveness during this
season. Shobu
(iris) smells strong and holds snakes and insects at bay, so shobu yu (bathwater
with iris leaves) and shobu
sake (iris sake) were preferred to ward
off evil spirits or disaster. Rice planting was mainly performed by women, so
they had played the central role in the ancient Shobu no Sekku
but when the time of the samurai warriors came, it became a festive event to
celebrate the growth of boys of the samurai class as it leads to shobu,
which is phonetically the same as the “game” or “militarism” in the Japanese

Kashiwa mochi by Photo: CHIE MARUYAMAOriginal Source: SHUN GATE

The Festive
Food for Tango, Shobu
(iris) no

Eating kashiwa mochi, which is rice cake wrapped in oak leaf, on Tango no Sekku is believed to be auspicious as old oak leaves don’t fall until the tree bears new leaf buds, meaning family lines are handed down from parents to children without interruption. Chimaki has a long history, which was eaten primarily in the Kansai region while kashiwa mochi originated in the Kanto region in the Edo Period. While for Japanese confectionery, sweetness of jam made of beans, such as azuki (red beans) or white beans, plays a pivotal role in tastiness, kashiwa mochi that contains jam made of light-brown miso (soy bean paste) may justifiably be referred to as one of the typical Japanese confectionery that incorporates slight umami nicely. The period of fermentation of light-brown miso is shorter than that of regular miso, so the amount of glutamate, an umami substance, is smaller than that of other types of miso but it strikes a superb balance with the sweetness of the Japanese sweet. 

Tanabata somen (thin wheat noodles) with colorful ingredients by Kiyomi Higashi, Dining Space CoordinatorUmami Information Center

7 - Tanabata, Sasanoha
(bamboo leaves) no Sekku

Tanabata on July 7 is supposed to be a day when Orihime (the Weaving Girl, Vega) and Hikoboshi (the Herdsman, Altair) meet only once a year over the Milky Way. It is also called Sasanoha (bamboo leaves) no Sekku, where people write wishes on strips of paper of five colors, hang them on bamboo grass, and their wishes are believed to come true. It is said to have originated from the festival of the ancient Chinese star legend. In the Nara Period, Empress Koken is believed to have performed this seasonal festival. Capitalizing on the Weaving Princess, people wished for sewing and weaving skills, and in the Edo Period, improvement of their learning in general, including penmanship.

Festive food for Tanabata by Photo: CHIE MARUYAMAOriginal Source: SHUN GATE

7 – The Festive
Food for Tanabata, Sasanoha
(bamboo leaves) no Sekku 

Somen (thin wheat noodles) is served for Sasanoha (bamboo grass) no Sekku (Star Festival). Somen is said to have derived from sakubei that came from China in the Nara Period. Saku means a rope and bei, something made by kneading wheat flour. If you eat sakubei on July 7, it will lead to a perfect state of health, auguring well, which turned into somen over time. What is indispensable for cold somen is mentsuyu, noodle soup base. Used for mentsuyu, soy sauce contains glutamine acid and dried bonito is rich in inosinate. The synergetic effect of these two umami substances make “tsuyu” (soup) with strong umami. Tsuyu full of umami helps bring out a superb texture of somen noodle in your throat.

Sakubei by Photo: CHIE MARUYAMAOriginal Source: SHUN GATE

Sakubei, deep-fried or boiled cake made from wheat and mochi powder, is said to be the origin of somen.

Kuri gohan (rice cooked with chestnuts) and kiku-ka shu (chrysanthemum flower sake) by Photo: CHIE MARUYAMAOriginal Source: SHUN GATE

9 –
Choyo, Kiku
(chrysanthemum) no

Choyo no Sekku is also known as Kiku (chrysanthemum) no Sekku. Chrysanthemum is believed to be a medicinal flower that promotes a long life and eaten boiled, or petals are put on Japanese sake.  

Choyo no Sekku came from China to the Imperial Court in the Heian Period. In Onmyodo, as odd numbers are supposed to be auspicious, September 9 (the day when the largest odd number nine is repeated (choyo)) was celebrated extravagantly as the day that brings good luck. In the five seasonal festivals, it took longer to take root and ordinary people began celebrating this festival after they were designated as national holidays in the Edo Period.

Deep-fried kamo nasu eggplant soaked in seasoned soup stockOriginal Source: umami website recipe_13

Festive Food for Choyo no Sekku

In farming and mountain villages, many regions designate this day as a harvest festival and it overlaps with the season for harvesting chestnuts, so it is also called Kuri (chestnut) no Sekku. Enjoying kuri gohan (rice cooked with chestnuts) using freshly harvested chestnuts and rice, people pray for the productiveness of grain. In the northern part of Kyushu, a festival called Kunchi is performed, where dishes using food ingredients in season are served. There is an oral tradition that if you eat eggplants in season, you will not have a stroke.  Eggplants have a good chemistry with oil and dashi and umami of dashi spreads in the mouth when biting agebitashi (deep-fried eggplants soaked in seasoned soup stock). Dried bonito on top of the eggplants contains a lot of umami as well, helping deepen umami and spread it and allowing you to enjoy a lingering taste of umami on the palate. 

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