Dreaming of Spring: Children’s Day and Koinobori

Koinobori, Kamo-shi, Niigata-ken

I’m getting a little tired of the winter weather here in Tokyo, so since this month’s Japan Blog Matsuri (graciously hosted by loneleeplanet) is themed “famous Japanese events”, I thought I would choose a slightly warmer topic to muse about. On May 5th of every year, Japan celebrates “Children’s Day,” one of the string of consecutive holidays that makes up Golden Week, one of Japan’s busiest travel times. This holiday has a much longer history than you might imagine. Originally known as “Boys’ Day” or “Tango no Sekku,” its celebration dates back to the 6th or 7th century. It was traditionally held on the 5th day of the 5th moon of the Chinese lunar calendar (and other Asian countries still celebrate the holiday at that time, since it marks the change of seasons), but when Japan transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in 1873, the holiday was moved to the 5th day of the 5th month. In 1948, Boys’ Day was made a national holiday and changed to the gender neutral “Children’s Day,” a day “set aside to respect children’s personalities and to celebrate their happiness.” The original holiday’s female counterpart, “Girls’ Day” (“Hinamatsuri”) is still celebrated in March, however, so many families still use “Children’s Day” to focus primarily on their boys.

koinobori3

The most famous symbol of this event is the koinobori, a streamer or windsock decorated to resemble a carp (koi). According to Japanese tradition, the carp represents determination and vigor, since it overcomes all obstacles to swim upstream. As Childrens’ Day approaches, these colorful banners begin to appear outside houses and around parks and rivers around the country. The pictures in this post were taken in the city of Kamo in the Niigata prefecture, where I lived and taught English on the JET Program. I loved how the colorful koinobori made the Kamo River look so very festive; in just a few more days, the trees lining the riverbanks would burst forth with clouds of pink cherry blossoms, leaving no doubt that spring had finally sprung.

There are a variety of other traditions associated with Children’s Day. Some people take special baths with iris leaves and roots, which are thought to promote good health and ward off evil. Some display dolls of famous heroes inside their homes or wear kabuto hats (samurai helmets often made out of paper), both of which symbolize strength. Many eat kashiwamochi, traditional sweets consisting of rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves (and yes, this is the same mochi I talked about earlier!). An older tradition was for families to take the day as an annual opportunity to measure their children’s heights and mark them on a pillar outside. These are just a few examples of the more widespread practices; I’m sure that many families also have their own personal traditions. All around the country, there are public events celebrating children through arts and sports and various other kinds of activities. At the very least, it’s a chance for families to spend a day together, free of their usual work and school obligations.

Koinobori, Kamo-shi, Niigata-ken

Looking at these pictures, I can almost feel the warm wind on my face. I can’t wait for spring!

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