Traditions are just innovations that happened to catch on. Culinary traditions are no different. Some self-organize out of circumstance, such as yakisoba (literally “fried noodles”), which triumphantly emerged as the iconic food of summer festivals in large part thanks to a particular combination of demographics and ingredient availability after World War II. Some traditions are the result of more careful planning, such as the National Confectionary Industry Association’s precision rebranding in 1978 of March 14 as “White Day,” a day where men are expected to reciprocate any gift of chocolate they received from women on Valentine’s Day, this time with white sweets. People love special events, people love food — there will always be room for new ways to combine the two.
This year we have the opportunity to witness the high-profile launch of an all-new would-be tradition: nagoshi gohan, or “nagoshi rice.”
Nagoshi is short for nagoshi no harae, a Shinto rite of purification, performed on June 30 — the last day of the first half of the year. The specifics of this rite vary from shrine to shrine, but one common observance is the ritual of chinowa-kuguri (literally, “passing through the ring of reeds”), in which worshippers step through a large circular gate of braided reeds to purify themselves of defilements and receive protection from misfortune and disease.
Why create a new dish to coincide with nagoshi no harae? The original goal of the Rice Stable Supply Support Organization — the organization behind the launch of nagoshi gohan — was to fight the trend of washoku-banare (drifting away from Japanese cuisine), and in particular the slow decline in rice consumption. (According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, average daily per-person rice consumption has fallen by more than a third since 1960, and the health of Japan’s rice industry is a high-profile issue in national politics.)
The two-month gap between Children’s Day (May 5) and Tanabata (July 7) was identified as a part of the year with room for a new hare no hi (celebratory day) that could showcase a traditional rice-centric dish. This timing, in turn, naturally suggested a connection with nagoshi no harae.
“Rice has always been important to Shinto, so when we approached the Association of Shinto Shrines they were receptive to the idea,” says Tomoatsu Shida, head of the Rice Stable Supply Support Organization’s Consumption Expansion department. In the end, dozens of shrines and more than 70 restaurants agreed to participate in the launch.
With that settled, the next step was to figure out what the dish should actually be. The key to creating a new tradition is to remember that it never hurts to draw on existing ones. Eating eel on Doyo no Ushi no Hi (the midsummer “Day of the Ox,” which usually falls between July 20 and Aug. 7) goes back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) at least, but it was modern marketing that drove the shift in focus from eel restaurants to pre-prepared eel in supermarkets — not to mention eel-themed pastries and the like.
“The prototype of nagoshi gohan is rice with millet and azuki (red beans) in it, topped with a round kakiage (a type of tempura where numerous items are battered and fried together) of fresh, colorful summer vegetables, all tied together with a ginger sauce and served in a round bowl,” Shida says. “Rather than simply make something up, we wanted it to be connected with ideas and traditions that people are familiar with.”
Ginger and azuki, for example, have long been credited in Japan with the power to keep illness and ill-fortune at bay — in fact, beans in general seem to have this reputation, perhaps most visible in February’s Setsubun festival where children throw roasted soybeans to drive away an oni (demon) and the misfortune he represents.
More specific links to nagoshi no harae were forged through symbolism reflecting the chinowa-kuguri ritual. The roundness of the bowl and the kakiage recall the ring of reeds visually, but the addition of millet and other grains to the rice is also meaningful. The reference here is to the folk tale of Somin Shorai, recorded in the “Bingo Fudoki,” an eighth-century compilation of lore from Bingo province (near present-day Hiroshima Prefecture). Shorai shared his meager meal of millet rice with a hungry traveler who turned out to be a deity and rewarded his host with a small ring of reeds offering him protection from disease and misfortune. This is said to be the inspiration for the much larger ring used today in the chinowa-kuguri rite.
Other details, such as exactly which red and green vegetables go into the kakiage, have been left open-ended to encourage people to prepare the dish at home.
“We hope to see nagoshi gohan not only in restaurants but also adopted by individual households,” Shida explains.
Ultimately it is individual households that are the target of the campaign. Shida cites a 2014 survey of Tokyo’s eating habits that found the most commonly eaten seasonal foods to be zo¯ni (soup containing rice cakes) and osechi (traditional New Year’s food).
“No. 2 was toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles eaten on New Year’s Eve),” Shida says, “and No. 3 was Christmas cake!”
Eating strawberry shortcake on Christmas Eve is another of Japan’s recently invented traditions, drawing on Western holiday imagery — much of which is itself less than a century old. That Christmas cake could rise to third place on the charts proves that it’s still possible to make a mark on the calendar of observances with a new tradition — as long as the public buys the story you’re telling.
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