“Eat eel on the midsummer Day of the Ox”: This is a unique Japanese custom that has been around for as long as we know. People start to crave eel at this time of year, even outside the Day of the Ox, and supermarkets and other stores actively sell the delicacy at bargain prices. Why did we come to eat eel on this day? In order to get to the bottom of it, we looked into the history behind the association of eel with the Midsummer Day of the Ox.
When is the Midsummer Day of the Ox?
The Day of the Ox, in 2014, falls on Tuesday, July 29. However, last year it fell on Monday, July 22. Why is this day set on a different date each year?
It is because the dates are based on Japan’s old (lunisolar) calendar. The seasons in ancient Japan were divided based on the Inyo Gogyo Setsu, or the Theory of Five Elements. The five elements of wood, fire, metal, water and earth were divided into “wood = spring,” “fire = summer,” “metal = fall” and “water = winter,” with “earth” built into each of the seasons. The period when “earth” is present in the season was referred to as Doyo Youji, which was later shortened to Doyo.
Inventor Hiraga Gennai popularized the term
Why did we establish the custom of eating eel on this day, and why did the saying emerge? There are many theories, but it seems most probable that Hiraga Gennai popularized the term. Hiraga Gennai was a renowned genius during the Edo period. Aside from his accomplishments in areas such as botany and Western studies, he was also known as an intellectual, entrepreneur and inventor. When an eel-shop owner and friend asked Gennai what he could do to increase sales, he suggested using the old custom that it was good luck to eat a food that starts with “u” (as in unagi or eel) on the Day of the Ox. Thus the phrase, “Today is the Day of the Ox (Ushi no Hi),” phrase was coined. The anecdote states that this phrase caught on then. It is still used today.
Effective not only for summer fatigue but also for longevity
Eel has many nutrients that are effective for recovery from fatigue and the prevention of decreased appetite.
It has an astounding amount of vitamin A. Its vitamin A content is said to be about 4,400 micrograms for every 100 grams. In comparison, sardines have 40 micrograms and mackerel have 24 micrograms. Aside from having the fats necessary to absorb vitamin A, it is also rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
According to research by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Hamamatsu–famous for its eel–was ranked the number-one city for healthy life expectancy. It seems only natural to assume that there is some connection between the fact that the city spends most heavily on eel and that it has the longest healthy life expectancy.
What will happen to the price of eel!?
We would love to continue eating eel in order to stay healthy, but recently young eel (shirasu eel) have been difficult to catch, causing market prices to sky rocket. Consequently, this ingredient has become more expensive than ever. The catch this year has been comparatively fair, though, and prices are expected to stabilize.
We all need to consume eel, with its abundance of stamina-rich ingredients, to get through the hot summer days.