How the winter solstice is traditionally celebrated in Japan

The winter solstice falls on December 21st this year. This day marks the longest night and shortest day of the year for people living in the northern hemisphere. To be precise, 2020’s winter solstice (when the sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky) will happen on Monday, December 21, 2020, at 10:02 UTC, or 7:02PM JST.

There are a number of ways Japanese people traditionally mark the winter solstice or toji (冬至). Many of these traditions have to do with staying warm, guarding against illness, and inviting good luck, all of which seem especially appropriate this year.

1. Yuzu bath

Yuzu. Image: iStock

Japan is well-known for its bathing culture, and even if you live in a small Japanese apartment, you can still indulge in a luxurious hot bath every night (if you choose to rent an apartment with a tub!).

On the winter solstice, Japanese people traditionally marked the day by mixing yuzu (柚子), a citrus fruit into their bath. Yuzu is very fragrant and high in vitamin C, so for both aromatherapy and upping the antioxidant value of your bath, there seems to plenty of logic to this traditional practice! Apparently, the sharp smell of the citrus is also believed to keep demons and bad luck away (Source:

To take a yuzu bath, simply add whole yuzu fruit or slices of yuzu to your hot bath.

2. Eat winter veggies and foods having the “n” sound in their name

To mark the winter solstice, many families will include kabocha (南瓜) in their evening meal today. Kabocha is a type of winter squash. It is sometimes called a Japanese pumpkin in Western countries.

Kabocha is a highly nutritious and fibrous vegetable and is an excellent source of beta-carotene, as well as iron, vitamin C and some B vitamins; but it can be a bit difficult to peel and chop up. Kabocha is a really delicious vegetable, if you like the taste and texture of squash!

You can find many good kabocha recipes online. There’s also no reason not to cook kabocha all winter long, not just on the solstice. But if you don’t feel like preparing kabocha yourself, you can buy single-serving sized simmered kabocha at the prepared-food section of most Japanese supermarkets and conbini (convenience stores).

Simmered kabocha. Image: iStock

Traditionally, Japanese people also eat foods that have the “n” (ん) sound in their names on the winter solstice. This is because “ん” is the last character in hiragana order. The winter solstice marks the end of short winter days, so any food that has the “n” sound in its name is considered lucky since it symbolizes the last “short” day of sunlight and the start of days with more sunlight (and presumably luck!).

Examples of foods with “n” in their names include ninjin (carrot), daikon (Japanese white radish), udon (thick wheat-flour noodles), and ginnan (ginkgo nut).

3. The Great Conjunction of 2020

The winter solstice of 2020 is also special for being the date of the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, the two biggest planets in our solar system (which is why their conjunction is deemed “great”).

According to Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions happen every 20 years, so the last one occurred in 2020. But this year’s conjunction will be the closest one since 1623 (in the time of Galileo!) and the closest observable one since 1226. The extra-close conjunction of Jupiter-Saturn won’t happen again until March 15, 2080.

On December 21st, Jupiter and Saturn will be very close to each other in the sky (only 0.1 degree apart). If the sky isn’t cloudy where you are, you may be able to see the great conjunction in the western sky right after sunset. It may look like a single very bright star in the sky or two planets very close together.

If you’re clouded out and especially keen to see the great conjunction, the Virtual Telescope Project in Rome will be showing the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction on December 21, 2020, starting at 16 UTC.


Lead image: iStock

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