One of my favorite traditional events of the year comes at the end of the national public holiday called Golden Week. The seasonal celebration known as “Boy’s Day” originated at some point during the Kamakura (1185-1336) period with the rise of the Samurai warrior class. However, the fifth day of the fifth month has had a longer history as an annual observance ever since it was adapted by the Imperial court in the 8th century from China. Originally one of the “Five Sacred Festivals” Gosekku, the Tango Festival Tango Sekku became the most prominent summer observance in the Heian period court. It began as a ritual for dispelling evil influences and from the 8th century, various plants with strong scents and medicinal qualities such as Sweet flag shōbu and Mugwort yomogi were placed close to the body or on the eaves of houses to ward off evil. Since the leaves of the Sweet flag iris shōbu resemble the blade of a sword, the plant was symbolically powerful. Even today, we can buy shōbu leaves at every supermarket in the first week of May. Bathing in the waters of a shōbu infused tub is supposed to fortify one’s constitution and public baths sento also feature shōbu-yu (Sweet flag bath) on May 5th.
The word shōbu is also a homonym for shōbu (尚武) which alludes to “warrior spirit”. Thus in the medieval period, the Tango Festival became a day for boys to show off their martial prowess. After this time, samurai armor was displayed prominently in homes in this period to celebrate masculine energy.
Not surprisingly, the talismanic nature of certain animals and foods is also apparent during this festival. In the medieval period, the carp koi was considered to be the “king of fish”. In China, the legend was that carp were able to climb the rapids named Dragon Gate Ryūmon and transform into a dragon. Subsequently, carp koi became valued as symbols of overcoming obstacles and social success. Raising carp streamers koinobori on poles around the time of Boys Day is a continuation of this tradition. Even today, koinobori are beloved all over Japan and they can be seen flapping in the breeze in many places. On my daily walk in the eastern foothills of Kyoto, I came across a magnificent display outside a prestigious boys high school recently.
The talismanic function of food is also evident in this festival. From the mid Edo (1600-1868) period, the oak leaf rice cake kashiwa-mochi became popular as an edible good luck charm: because old leaves stay on the tree until new ones start to emerge they symbolize an unbroken family lineage. I was thrilled to discover that my local wagashi traditional sweet shop produced kashiwa-mochi with an unusual miso-an (white bean paste and miso) filling. They tasted utterly delicious and I even had to have a second one to “bolster my masculinity”.
In the garden, Irises are very much the the flower of the moment. There are many different kinds and they represent the transition from late Spring to early Summer. One of the first to bloom is the Japanese Roof iris ichihatsu. Ichi means first and hatsu means beginning in Japanese. I saw a lovely display at the historic Kamigoryo shrine in north central Kyoto recently.
The other day as I was visiting Honen-in at the end of the Golden Week public holiday, I suddenly heard a loud and distinctive sound as I approached the Higashiyama mountain that abuts the temple. Although nothing was visible, I soon worked out that the frogs must have grown to the point of making their presence known. Somehow it seems very appropriate that this very particular “singing” heralds the beginning of Summer. Rikka is one of the 24 seasonal points marking that Spring is over.