On the morning of the 21st December, the Bamboo Bathhouse was filled with the wonderful aroma of citrus fruit. Kiku the little fox padded downstairs, following the warm scent into one of the bathing rooms, where he found Boss Panda throwing little yellow balls into the water. “What are you doing?” enquired the fox, who loved that there was always something interesting happening in the bathhouse and so much to learn about Japanese culture.
Boss Panda explained that on the winter solstice, known as Tōji (冬至), it was traditional for many public hot baths and hot springs to throw yuzu fruits into the water, releasing the scent of citrus into the steam. “On the shortest day of the year, with the coldest months ahead, it is believed that bathing in yuzu infused water will help to ward off illness in the coming year. A yuzu bath is called a ‘yuzuyu’ or ‘yuzuburo’ and warms both the body and mind at a time when it is especially needed, and also helps to soothe the skin.”
Kiku knew from Mama Kōjin’s kitchen that yuzu looked a bit like a small yellow grapefruit, with lots of seeds and a strong fragrance. They had all had the rind in tea and used ponzu dipping sauce, of which yuzu is a key ingredient. Always hungry, the little fox enquired hopefully “Are there any special foods eaten on Tōji?”. Boss Panda laughed. “Actually, yes, you are starting to understand Japanese customs well! It is also customary to eat kabocha, a seasonal squash on the winter solstice, because it is rich in nutrients and can also help ward off colds when there aren’t so many seasonal vegetables around. The name can also be read as ‘nankin’, and because the nasal sound of the ‘n’ at the end of the word sounds like a word meaning good fortune, any vegetable that has that sound within it is also considered auspicious and healthy to eat at this time of year.” Kiku thought for a moment, and then his eyes lit up. “You mean like ‘daikon’, ‘renkon’ and ‘ninjin’?” Mama Kōjin put her head round the door. “Yes!” she said, “And don’t forget ‘konnyaku’, ‘ginnan’ and ‘kinkan*’!”
That afternoon was a busy one at the bathhouse, with friends from all over Tokyo dropping in to take a hot yuzu bath, and eat seasonal goodies from the kitchen.
*Daikon = mooli radish/ renkon = lotus root/ ninjin = carrot/ konnyaku = konjac/ ginnan = gingko nut/ kinkan = kumquat.