Golden Week in Japan takes place at the beginning of May, in which so many public holidays happen in quick succession that schools and businesses usually give everybody the whole week off. I remember painstakingly circling school days off in my calendar in an attempt to deal with going every day. "Just 80 more days until Old People Day. Then I can sleep in!" Golden Week culminated with Boy's Day, in which everyone would go to a festival and have fun and returning to work and school didn't seem so bad.
When the blanket of unbearable
humidity descended upon my house, and the overwhelming heat knocked
everybody to the ground, houses would put out streamers and wind-chimes
that caught the smallest, slightest breeze so that just seeing them made you feel a little bit cooler, even if physically it was still hot.
One of my favourite parts in Ōkami
was when you had to do the wind brushstroke and make all of the carp
streamers wave so you could jump across them. It was very relaxing and
cooling, and less invasive than suffering through 100 Ghost Story Night in a vain attempt to summon some "spine chills."
mountain villages, for example like the one I lived in when I was
small, people would hang carp streamers all around in honour of Boy's
Day. I'm now always nostalgic for towns decorated for festivals, and
Boy's Day was probably my favourite because of the awesome things boys
would get to do on this day.
course, Boy's Day, or Tango no Sekku (端午の節句) was held on 5/5, a
response to Girl's Day, or Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) on 3/3. Boy's Day marks
the first day of summer, and is signified by a number of manly
decorations I'll describe shortly, to counterbalance the absurd rituals
of Girl's Day. Even though Boy's Day is now called Children's Day
(こどもの日) instead, most Japanese still basically consider it Boy's Day,
and tell the stories and do activities for the sons in the house who
were forced against their will to participate at the Hinamatsuri amongst
the creepy dolls.
That's just too much.
would be paraded about as little Heian princesses, and boys would have
to wear fancy pants and be nice to any girls they encounter even though
clearly at that age they are all icky. But even though we must now call
Boy's Day Children's Day, the celebrations remain.
friend called me to come pick her up after the traditional event her
club had that morning. I arrived and began the excruciating clean-up
process, accumulating a fine number of blisters on my hands, and panting
in the heat from the manual labour I had to do. Thankfully, there was a
tsukubai set on a rock where I was obliged to wash my hands and mouth.
It was then I caught sight of these:
streamers! Koinobori (鯉幟) are hung to represent the boys of the
family. Generally there are three carp per streamer for the parents and
son, and smaller ones can be added for additional boys in the family.
You can see by the photo that there really was no breeze. At all.
why carp? Koi fish represent power and strength, because of the
tendency of carp to swim upstream. It's actually tied into a Chinese
folktale, which is why the carp are swimming through the sky instead of
Of all the animals in the Chinese zodiac, the only one we
don't actually have proof of is the dragon. But if you look at Chinese
paintings of dragons, they are always depicted as being surrounded by
clouds. This is because the sound of thunder is actually a dragon's
breathing, and dragon's breath causes clouds. So why we don't see
dragons along with the other zodiac animals is because dragons live in
the sky. Dragons are famous for their power and are often shown
clutching a jewel. Dragons and people born in the year of the dragon
are known for their personalities to strive for greatness and attempt to
achieve the impossible. Coincidentally, this year, 2012, is the year
of the Dragon.
So in China, and now in Japan as well, we see the
carp swimming upstream, trying to achieve the impossible. This is
because, when a carp is finally able to jump his way to the very top of
the stream, he will become a dragon. And the carp streamers, of carp
flying proudly in the sky, represent nobility and strength, and remind
boys that they are on their way to achieving success.
And yet even the carp are no match for Kintarō.
child of Japanese folktales, Kintarō has a great number of stories
describing his feats of awesomeness. He was apparently conceived when a
mighty dragon roared and the force of the thunder impregnated a yamanba
(mountain hag yōkai), who gave birth to Kintarō. He lived in the
mountains like a feral creature, fat and red and never without his
trusty axe, often depicted, kappa-like, underwater with a little pool of
water resting atop his head.
would push over trees, break boulders, and had the power to command
animals and village children alike. Many ukiyo-e show him refereeing
wrestling matches between different animals. But he's quite famous for a
wrestling match of his own.
An enormous carp was terrorizing
the rivers of Kintarō's mountain, and not like Hanako, the 200+ year old
carp who swam around being great.
She was great.
this was a monstrous carp, so Kintarō's animal friends enlisted him to
save them from the beast. So Kintarō dove right into the river and beat
the crap of out the carp.
Can't have an ukiyo-e post without some Yoshitoshi.
Here, have more.
vs. Carp came to symbolise the power and strength, not only of carp,
but of little boys, too. Kintarō grew up to be a Heian aristocrat and
act as retainer to a Fujiwara lord, and it was said that he didn't ride
on a horse like the rest of the men, but a bear. Amazing.
this is what I was thinking about as I finished cleaning and went to
meet my friend's traditional group. She introduced me to the ladies,
most of them old enough to be her mother or grandmother, the lot of them
wearing nice summer kimono for their private event. This was when I
realised that I had fallen in line with a group of
contemporarily-dressed Japanese men, standing awkwardly amongst
ourselves, friends and relatives of all the traditional ladies.
Fantastic. Luckily, some of the women had brought their young sons
along, so it didn't become my Boy's Day celebration.
brought ice-cream and big koinobori. All of the males sang a song
about the carp streamers, but there was still no breeze, so we just
waved it around ourselves.
everyone sat and admired the kabuto samurai doll. While Girl's Day has
an abundance of hina dolls, families with sons usually put out a
samurai armour doll for the sons on Boy's Day. A single warrior doll or
even a Kintarō doll will be displayed in the home, accompanied by sword
and bow and arrow, to provide boys with an image of manliness and
warrior strength that we should aspire to.
also was a flower arrangement featuring an iris, or shōbu, which is
associated with Boy's Day, because the shape of the flower resembles a
sword, and the petals prevent illness if ingested or bathed in. Most
importantly, the kanji for shōbu can be spelled differently to mean
"warrior spirit" and "striving for greatness." You simply cannot have
any sort of Japanese anything if there is not a pun involved, damn it.
of the ladies then recited a poem which took for its first line each of
the kana for shōbu, and told some story about romance and loss, and to
be honest, I wasn't listening because I was eating an ice-cream.
Another of the women asked if anybody else knew any other stories, and
my friend suggested we all begin a 100 Ghost Story event to cool
ourselves down. This was met pleasantly by some of the women closer to
her age, and cringed at by a few of the husbands and older ladies. I
gathered my courage, avoided my friend's eyes, and asked,
anyone told the story of Kintarō yet?" Everyone looked at each other
and asked "Who? What are you talking about?" I sheepishly explained
that he was a famous boy associated with Boy's Day and all the carp, and
kind of trailed off. The subject was almost dropped until the senior
member of the group said "Yes, Little Kintarō who fought the carp and
rode a bear into the Heian capital."
Many of the ladies pinched their sons and went on about how proud they were that some
boys still took an interest in traditions, and my friend was properly
mortified that she wasn't the most outstandingly traditional person
I was then compelled to tell the story of Kintarō, in my awkward and distracted way. How was it?