If you live in another country long enough, nobody tells you anything. Presumably they assume you know already, but that’s not always true. This week was the first time I’d ever heard of the custom of marking the beginning of winter (Toji, the winter solstice) by putting yuzu, the last fruit of the year, in the bath. Yuzu (柚子) is a light-orange-coloured citrus fruit which is too bitter to eat like a tangerine or a grapefruit, but the juice is used in the making of ponzu (a lighter dipping-sauce variant of soy sauce), traditional cough syrups, and sherbet. The peel is very fragrant and a small piece of it is placed in udon in winter for garnish and a touch of colour. In a country where they’re breeding watermelons to be square (easier to pack) and apples are individually wrapped while still on the branch, the yuzu is a homely, nobbly fruit and prized for it – it carries with it a dim cultural memory for urbanized Japanese of a simpler, purer time in rural Japan which everyone thinks of fondly and would rather die than go back to.
It also smells nice.
Well, on Saturday I happened to see a late-edition paper with a photo of some old guys sitting happily in a tub full of yuzu. Why, I wondered. It’s the custom, someone told me (because I asked) – which is all the reason anyone needs to do anything here. So, on the way home, I stopped into the local supermarket and, sure enough, there were the yuzu on display. Some were even in little muslin bags of three, which could be dropped right into the tub. When I got home, I filled my tub and let the yuzu bob around in the hot water for a while (Japanese tubs have a cover, to keep the heat in). When I tried the water (just for soaking – no soap in a Japanese bath), I realized that I’d picked a winner. Very zen, sitting in the bath up to my neck (Japanese baths are shorter than Western tubs, but deeper), surrounded by the steam and citrus scent, watching the three nobbly yuzu bobbling idly in the water. The heat from the water draws oils from the peel, which stay on your skin after you finish your bath (the routine: soak/get out and soap down/rinse/soak again). I took the yuzu out of the bath and sat them on the sink (they’re good for a couple of days if you do this). And then I slept very well indeed.
When I woke up Sunday morning, the whole apartment smelled like… marmalade. So how could I not be in a holiday mood? Merry Christmas!