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.

Old Japan – Traditions, Festivals & Rituals–April

Cherry Blossom Season

Flower viewing (hanami) is a national tradition in Japan and the cherry blossom season, being the king of flowers, is the most famous of all celebrations.

This hand-tinted vintage postcard is not very clear but judging by the pink trees this must have been a typical family outing during the sakura matsuri or cherry blossom festival around 90 years ago. .

Not much has changed until today. Families, groups of friends or workmates still like to spread a mat under the blossoming trees and enjoy sumptuous picnics and copious amounts of beer and sake. Some might feel inspired by the beauty of nature to compose a haiku poem or, more likely these days, belt out a rousing chorus of ‘My Way’ on a portable karaoke.

The cherry tree comes into blossom for only a few days before its delicate petals fall and float away. In order not to miss this fleeting event, Japanese TV has a cherry blossom forecast (like a weather forecast) showing where in the nation trees will be blossoming on any particular day. The season usually starts in March in Okinawa (the far south and west), sweeping northwards over Honshu during April and does not reach the far north (Hokkaido) until May.

It is a joyous time of year. The only difficulty is finding a tree which does not already have a party going on underneath it.

Old Japan–Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – March


This postcard concerns the Japanese Doll Festival  (Hina Matsuri) or Girls’ Day which takes place on 3rd March.

This festival has its roots in an ancient practice imported from China in the 7th Century. Originally people would attach paper figures to sticks and rub them over their bodies to absorb all the bad spirits and then throw them in the river as a kind of purification ceremony. Over the years this custom evolved into making straw dolls which were set adrift in rivers or in the sea.

As centuries passed, the dolls became more and more elaborate until the the present day when they are far too expensive to throw away. Single dolls, with embroidered silk costumes can cost a small fortune and nowadays they are more of a way of showing off a family’s wealth than a means of ridding bad spirits

Typically the dolls are displayed on 5 or 7 shelves covered in a rich red fabric. On the top shelf are dolls representing the Emperor and Empress. When this postcard photo was taken the practice was just to have nobility on the top shelf but in the patriotic fervour leading up to WWII, likenesses of the Emperor and Empress were used instead and that practice remains.

The second shelf is for three court ladies, one of whom is serving sake. Lower shelves are for musicians, ministers and bowls of food, three drunkards (one maudlin, one cantankerous and one merry) furniture, carriages, palanquins and lacquer boxes. The dolls wear traditional court dress from a thousand years ago.

The dignified and genteel way the dolls sit silently on their shelves was once reckoned to be a good example for the behaviour of young girls. Presumably the drunkard dolls were seen as good role models for the Japanese sarariman!

Families put up their doll displays from February and they are supposed to be taken down no later than the 4th of March otherwise the daughter of the house may have a late marriage. (Not such a big deal these days perhaps.) On Girls’ Day families will drink sake and eat special crackers and rice cakes. It is time to pray for the health and well being of young girls. A nice tradition!

Old Japan–Traditions, Festivals & Rituals–February

The First Horse Day of February

The caption on the postcard is a little confusing but refers to an event in the Shinto religion which occurs on the 6th day of the 2nd month of the lunar calendar (First Horse Day of February).

Around 32,000 of Japan’s Shinto shrines are dedicated to Inari, a mythological god and patron deity of grain, particularly rice. On the First Horse Day in the year 711 the deity is believed to have come down to the site where the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto stands today.

The fox (kitsune) is said to be a messenger of the Inari deity and fox statues appear at some Shinto shrines.

The favourite food of a Japanese fox is fried tofu. (Maybe English farmers should try leaving out fried tofu at night and then foxes would not need to kill chickens.)

This is how kitsune udon, noodles in broth with fried tofu, got its name.

Old Japan–Traditions, Festivals & Rituals – January

I shall be in Europe for the next few weeks, an area which is outside the scope of this blog.

In my absence I though I would share with you some images of old Japanese picture postcards from my collection.  These postcards were originally owned by a British Royal Navy captain who was seconded to Japan in the early 20th century to help develop and train the Imperial Japanese Navy. With hindsight he might have done too good a job!

This postcard is one of a series of twelve, one for each month, portraying Japanese festivals and ceremonies from a hundred years ago.

Battledore and Shuttlecock in early 20th century Japan.

In case you cannot read the caption, it explains that these girls in traditional costume are playing the game of battledore and shuttlecock which is played during the first seven days of the New Year (pine decoration season).

There is no date on the postcard but judging by the car, I would guess it dates from the 1920s.

Battledore and shuttlecock is an ancient game which has largely been superseded by badminton in most countries. The object is to hit the shuttlecock to each other and prevent it from touching the ground for as long as possible.  The record number of hits, achieved in 1830 in England, apparently stands at 2117.  That does not sound unachievable and is a record waiting to be broken for anyone interested in getting a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.

The English version.

This game was introduced to Japan hundreds of years ago and is played with a wooden paddle called a hagoita and a shuttlecock made from a seed with feathers attached (hane).

A battledore fair called Hagoita-Ichi is held from 17th –19th December annually at Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo during which wooden paddles are sold. Over the years these paddles have become more elaborate, usually padded rather than plain wood and bearing pictures of kabuki actors, girls in kimonos, TV personalities and comic book heroes. Nowadays the paddles are just for ornament or good luck charms and are no longer used to play the game.

The Pine Decoration season refers to the practice of placing pairs of  kadomatsu  (traditional New Year decorations made from pine, bamboo and other plants) in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits.  After January 15th the kadomatsu are burned to appease and release the spirits them.

The next post will be for February’s tradition.

Koyasan, Japan

During the past fortnight the world has been watching the distressing images of Japan’s triple calamities – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.  For my wife and I, the pictures of the devastated towns of northern Honshu have brought back vivid memories of our own terrifying experience of the 1995 Kobe earthquake where we were living at the time. I have some idea of what Japan is going through at the moment.

I would really like to help but the Japanese are not very good at accepting charity, particularly from foreigners, and anyway the Japanese Government will no doubt give generous support, albeit by increasing their already huge national debt. We received 100,000 Yen from the Kobe local government to offset some of our losses and we were luckier than many because at least we had insurance – it is very difficult to get earthquake insurance in Japan and policies will normally have a modest cap.

If you would like to help Japan the best way in my opinion is if we all take holidays in Japan this year. This will boost their morale and finances. Don’t go right now of course, the mood of the Japanese is not appropriate to receive tourists. But go after six months or so  by which time, if Kobe is anything to go by, the world will be amazed at the progress the Japanese will have made in repairing roads, railways and ports, reconnecting utilities, clearing the rubble and providing temporary housing for the displaced.  Rebuilding shattered lives though will take longer.

I can recommend visiting Koyasan, a small town set in forested hills in Wakayama prefecture, south of Osaka (well away from nuclear radiation if that is a concern). Koyasan (Mount Koya) is a pilgrimage site for the Shingon sect of Buddhism which is followed by ten percent of the Japanese population. The area has a special atmosphere with misty cedar-lined paths, enchanted woods, temples, pagodas and rock gardens. It is not so well known to foreign travellers but perhaps here you will experience the true essence of Japan more readily than in touristy places like Kyoto or Nara.  There are over a hundred monasteries, many of which take paying guests. Do not think of a spartan monk’s cell. These temple lodgings (shukubo) offer the same sort of luxurious accommodation and lavish meals as those found in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan), with prices to match. The only difference is that the food is vegetarian (you will like it – no boring nut cutlets here) and you might be invited to observe the monks chanting their morning prayers, if you wish.

The journey to Koyasan is itself memorable. After taking a train from Osaka, you switch to a cable railway (like the Peak tram in Hong Kong) where the weight of the ascending car is counterbalanced by the descending car. Alternatively, if you have the energy, you could take the traditional pilgrimage trail, the Koyasan Choishi Michi, a 23km trail which would take seven hours or so. Shorter trails are also possible. I would have liked to have tried the trail but on my visit it was snowing so I took the train. Next time perhaps.

Unfortunately my photos of the visit are rubbish – I blame it on the weather. This photo is from Japan-guide .com’s website and  I think it captures the atmosphere of the place which left a lasting impression on me.

Go during November to enjoy the beautiful colours of the autumn  leaves .