Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – May

Boys' Day

The fifth day of the fifth month is the boys’ turn for a festival.

When this old postcard was made the festival was still called Boys’ Day. The official name was changed to Children’s Day in 1948 although it remains primarily a celebration for boys.

At this time of year, flags in the shape of carp are flown from homes with a black carp representing the father, a red one for the mother, and one additional flag for each boy (or child) in the family.

Inside the home they display warrior dolls and other masculine samurai toys.

Traditional foods for this day include kawisha mochi (mochi rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves) and chimaki (sticky rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves) which is interesting because I didn’t know you could eat oak or bamboo leaves.

The iris plant is closely associated with the Boys’ Festival in the belief that the iris’s long sharp, sword-like leaves, when placed in a boy’s bath, are supposed to make him more martial.  I think we have enough martial people in the world already. I wonder what plant produces the opposite effect? A pansy perhaps?

These fragrant shobu-yu (iris baths) are also traditionally said to be a miraculous protection against all kinds of illness.

They drink finely chopped iris leaves too mixed with sake (shobu-sake).

In olden times, iris leaves were thought to have the mysterious power of extinguishing fire. Even today, in rural areas, some people still attach iris leaves to the eaves of their houses on May 5 to ward against fire or evil spirits.

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