June is the heart of the rainy season, and it pours daily. But surprisingly, its poetic name is Minazuki, the “Drought Month”. The reason is the rice planting. In the old world when farmers all took to the field for planting they diverted water from the local streams to flood their paddies. The streams suddenly ran dry, and it is this image that gave rise to the name “Drought Month”. That tone extends across much of Japan during this time, with many accompanying religious ceremonies, customs, and pageants that celebrate the time of planting, a task that is approached with due solemnity and cautious hope.
At the grand Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine the Otaue Matsuri, the Shinto festival of the planting season, is celebrated with a ceremonial replanting of rice shoots into sacred soil. In ancient times a young, female novitiate of the shrine would lead a sacred dance, dressed in full religious garb, while another thirty young maidens carefully planted the early seedlings, the underlying tone being one of vitality and fertility. Today the festivities are more playful than ponderous.
Red beans, perhaps because of their color, are said to ward off evil. White is the color of rice and its pounded confection-like counterpart, o-mochi (the “o” being honorific). Red and white are the traditional colors of Shinto, and therefore of the indigenous worldview of Japan. Minazuki is both the name of the month and a special confection eaten then. It’s red beans sheathed in a triangular envelope of white mochi. And it’s delicious, but strangely, it started as a “make-do” in lieu of something more precious. There was an ancient Kyoto ritual involving bringing ice, an intensely rare commodity, to the imperial palace in a ceremony called Himuro no Sekku. Common folk could never in their lives hope to possess actual ice, but minazuki were a fine and sweet substitute, and potent symbols of good fortune to boot. It’s believed that by eating minazuki on June 30th, the date when the first half year terminates (called Nagoshi no Harae), you can release yourself from all misfortune suffered in the prior six months and spend the next half year in good stead, safety, and solace.