Friday, May 6, 2011

Kodomo no Hi

Happy Children's Day!

5/5, May fifth, is Children's Day--the time of year you see undulating carp streamers hanging off balconies or strung across rivers.  Koinobori (Koi-- carp, nobori-- streamer) are actually windsocks painted with eyes and fins and scales and shaped tails to resemble the giant Koi that fight their way back upstream every spring.

Here they go:

waving from a neighbor's balcony

The largest streamer is said to be the father, the progressively smaller streamers, the male siblings of a family from oldest to youngest (represented by the smallest koi).   If you see them hanging from a balcony or in front of a house, it means that family has boys.

The movement of the streamers in the wind is said to resemble carp swimming in the river, struggling to swim upstream, and as such symbolize strength and perseverance--qualities parents traditionally hope to inculcate in sons.

Sons, you'll have noticed by now, not daughters-- this day was originally called Boy's Day (Girl's Day is Hinamatsuri-- the Doll Festival on March 3), and the trappings still reflect that despite it's having been renamed Kodomo no Hi in 1948 when the Japanese government made it a national holiday.

glinting gold and green in the sun...
Even more originally, this festival day was called Tango no Sekku (the "Edge of Noon Season") and was celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, and still is in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea.  The date was moved to May fifth (still 5/5) after the switch to the Gregorian calendar in Japan, where it became a festival celebrating the warrior spirit.

Kintaro, who rides a bear instead of a horse (and also Koshi;-)

Kintaro, the warrior boy of folklore who was so strong he rode a bear instead of a horse, is the character associated with Boy's Day.  Families put small, decorative kabuto helmets on display in the genkan to express the hope that their sons will grow up healthy and strong.  This was originally done only in samurai families, but gradually filtered down to all families with boys. 

Hana Shobu-- Japanese Iris with its sword-like leaves

The Hana Shobu, Japanese Iris, with its sword-shaped leaves is the symbolic flower for Boy's Day.  Many people also display a small ceremonial sword behind the Kabuto warrior's helmet.  I've always assumed that the re-naming of Boy's Day to Children's Day in 1948 was the Japanese government putting a peaceful, post-war face on a holiday that traditionally celebrates the Warrior.

yes-- you eat the leaf, too:-))

Kashiwa  Mochi-- a sticky rice dumpling filled with sweet bean paste and wrapped in a pickled oak leaf is the traditional snack for Children's (Boy's) Day.  "Kashiwa" is 'oak'--the strongest of trees.

...and naturally, there's a song to go with those beautiful carp streamers.  Because, trust me, there's a song about practically *everything*.

Last year, all the area elementary kids painted Koinobori...

Yane yori takai Konobori
Ookii magoi wa Otoosan
Chisai magoi wa kodomotachi
Omoshiroso ni oyoideru...

....which were displayed again this year over the river in front of our school
 Higher than the rooftops Koinobori
The biggest streamer is the father
The small streamers are the children
They look like they are having fun swimming in the sky...

Here's the song if you like singing along:-))

Mata asobou, ne!


  1. 1. I want a carp windsock
    2. I REALLY want a Kashiwa Mochi

  2. I thought you were stating a cyberpunk novel, 'til I reread the first line and realised you said carp… :-)

    I love the way the Japanese seem to enjoy their traditions. Too many of ours get shunned as embarrassingly quaint. (No this doesn't mean I'm taking up Morris dancing, any time soon.)

  3. Lovely and informative post. I am surprised that one eats the oak leaf, since those things are full of indigestible tannins, but I DO WANT one or five of those mochi. . .

  4. Sarah--I totally wish there were an easy way to send dango and mochi to people...

    Daz-- Sarah up there is the steampunk writer:-))
    There's something sweetly innocent about all those traditions, isn't there? Well, apart from the festival where they parade down the street with an enormous penis...(more about that another time;-))

    Jerry-- I wondered about that, too, but I think the pickling must leach out most of the tannins. And, I would totally send five or ten if they'd keep while the US Postal Service ambles nonchalantly across America to get them to you...

  5. There is a recipe for acorn coffee here -
    I have never made it as it feels like stealing from wildlife!
    They were certainly eaten/used during the war, so I suppose as you say that pickling gets rid of or reduces the tannin.

  6. I was just reading about that very thing-- boiling to get the tannins out of acorns. Bernd Heinrich talks about it in The Trees In My Forest (highly recommended, by the way-- just finished it. *Loved* it! He's a marvelous writer.) In fact, that's what I was thinking of when I wrote that I thought pickling would reduce the tannin. I know that people eat the leaves, though-- I saw a guy sitting outside the Daiei eating a Kashiwa Mochi, and I watched him eat the leaf, too.

  7. "they parade down the street with an enormous penis..."

    I didn't even know David Cameron had been in a Japanese parade…