Today we slithered out from under typhoon number 7, hopefully the last in the Pacific’s annual attempts to skydive onto the Japanese archipelago. Half the shoes stacked by my door were mushy and dripping this morning, so they got set for a full day of drying out on my balcony along with my freshly laundered sheets and half a dozen pairs of red socks. What can I say, I like red socks. Perfect laundry weather, the grid of windows in my apartment block speckled with fluttering eggshell sheets and slate gray futons slung over railings. It was like someone had turned a key in the back of my spine, unlocking the ramrod posture I’d developed after a few weeks of walking under umbrellas. Although the storm has sucked away a lot of the humidity with it, there is still a veil of moisture in the air, just waiting to congeal back into the spongy days of August.
Like all the seasons, summer has a small universe of icons in Japan, from the relentless metallic scree of cicadas to fireworks festivals and squares of cloth to wipe the sweat off your neck. Not a small number summer standbys are pushed on by relentless advertising. Models frolic in bikinis and repose in light summer yukatas, grinning at you from skyscrapers and train platforms. Real-estate firms and loan agencies hand out plastic fans on street corners emblazoned with their company info. The interiors of entire subway cars are splashed with beer adverts. Beer is exclusively a hot-weather drink in Japan. I read an article in the Japan Times last year that said the big three beer brewers all had formulas that could accurately predict their beer sales on any given day in July or August given the temperature that day. The higher the heat, the more beer sold.
Japan seems to be pretty unconcerned with this intersection of commerce and tradition; the fact is, they have been intertwined here a lot longer than the West. It has been estimated that in the 18th and 19th century Edo had a population of around one million people, making it the largest city in the world at the time, only London coming close. Like all cities of a certain size, it wasn’t simply a gathering of elites living off their country estates, but a sprawling center of merchants, craftsmen and laborers, inventing their own traditions around the rhythms of commerce. Today (July 28th) is the vestige of one of those holidays, Doyo no Ushi no Hi.
It’s no secret that Hallmark invented Mother’s Day and Father’s Day around the turn of the century to sell cards and Valentine’s Day was dug up by chocolatiers to hawk sweets. But Japan has been doing it for centuries, Doyo no Ushi no Hi having been concocted sometime in the 18th century as a way to sell grilled eel to a populace that didn’t have the disposable cash to throw away it’s rice money on a middle class delicacy. And make no doubt about it, unagi (grilled eel), is a fucking delicacy. Specific methods vary, but the basic idea is to alternately steam and grill slices of eel flesh over hot coals, gradually applying layer upon layer of a thick, sweet sauce. The results are dark golden brown strips of flesh as soft as foie gras, but unbelievably light and refreshing. Unagi is supposedly loaded with all sorts of nutrients sweated out during the summer months, when its sales peak. Out of the price range of your average laboring family at the time, Doyo no Ushi no Hi was the day to save for, a day to break the daily soy-bean and rice routine to savor the luxurious flavors of unagi at the height of summer. Which is why supermarket fish sections are overflowing with saran-wrapped trays of grilled eel, and unagi restaurants will have lunch lines around the block today.