Celebrate: Children’s Day

We’re coming to the meat of Golden Week right now, with Greenery Day (Midori-no-Hi) drawing to a close today. Tomorrow, May 5th, marks Children’s Day, one of the more visually exciting holidays of this period.

For many years, Children’s Day exclusively honored the male offspring of a family. After all, girls already have their own holiday on March 3rd (Hina Matsuri, or Dolls’ Festival). May 5th was Boy’s Day, called Tango no Sekku. In 1948, when most public holidays were instituted on the Japanese calendar, May 5th somehow morphed into Children’s Day (Kodomo-no-Hi). However, for many Japanese families, the holiday still centers around their boys.

Many homes and some places of business (ie ryokan, restaurants) will put up a display for Children’s Day that features a samurai helmet (kabuto) and small warrior figurines. In times past, most parents aspired for their sons to grow up to posses strength and bravery, known qualities of samurai. More commonly (and more visibly for the casual traveler in Japan), families will fly koinobori, or carp streamers. Carp are considered to be symbols of determination and courage, especially noted for their ability to swim upstream … even up waterfalls!. Banners will display a large black carp (typically representative of the father of the household), a red carp underneath (the eldest son) and then smaller carp for each successive son of the house. Now that the day is for children in general, the meaning of the streamers has changed a bit. The red carp is considered to represent the mother and any smaller carp underneath her can be either boys or girls in the house.

Samurai display for Boy's/Children's day at a Hagi ryokan
Samurai display for Boy’s/Children’s day at a Hagi ryokan

Here in Kumamoto, I have seen carp streamers both hanging out of apartment windows on my own block and attached to massive poles looming over rice fields in the surrounding rural area. On the poles, you can find additional decorations, like a wheel with arrow-shaped spokes (yaguruma) and multi-colored plain streamers (fukinagashi) placed just above the fish.

Some towns go all out for Children’s Day and string up stunning displays of koinobori over their local river or stream. My favorite so far has been in the hot spring town of Tsuetate Onsen, on the border of Kumamoto and Oita Prefectures here in Kyushu. Over 3000 carp streamers “swim” in the breeze over the water from mid-April to early May. It’s an impressive and colorful sight, especially when the wind is blowing. If you’re in the Tokyo area, check out the carp streamers at Sagamihara.

Carp streamers at Tsuetate Onsen
Carp streamers at Tsuetate Onsen

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