There are well over 100,000 festivals every year in Japan. On May 5th, it is the Children’s Day festival and national holiday, Kodomo-no-hi in Japanese, which celebrates the health and happiness of children.
The History of Children’s Day
Historically it was referred to as Boy’s Day, but the government changed it to celebrate all children in 1948. Children’s Day is one of five seasonal festivals that originated in China, the repeating of odd numbers, for example 5/5 (May 5th), was considered unlucky by the Chinese, and people were encouraged to stay home to celebrate. Over centuries in Japan, these seasonal festivals incorporated elements of Japanese culture, using food to appease the gods and symbolic artefacts to ward off evil. For Children’s Day these artefacts and traditions include flying carp windsocks, or koi-no-bori in Japanese, displaying samurai clothing and dolls, eating special foods, singing songs and bathing with the leaves and root of the iris flower.
Tochigi City Boat Ride
A fun way to celebrate Children’s Day with or without children, is to take a boat ride under the hundreds of carp windsocks flying above the river in Kuranomachi, an historical area in Tochigi City, an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. For 20 minutes you’ll comfortably glide along the narrow Uzuma River, passing Edo period store and merchant houses. Your boat person will sing traditional Japanese songs which give you a glimpse into a world gone by. There is a shop and waiting room at the boarding area to purchase tickets, other souvenirs, and fish food to feed the koi swimming in the river.
Individuals and families alike enjoy the celebrations, and in some cases, dogs are also welcome to join in! Photo by Estelle Pizer
As you walk the 10 minutes from Tochigi Station to the Kuranomachi Pleasure Boat area, many of the little streets that you will pass along the way are also filled with koi-no-bori which only adds ambiance to the retro and historical buildings like the public bathhouse, Tamagawa-no-yu (also known as Goldfish-yu) built in 1889.
Tamagawa-no-yu: a bathhouse where the water is still heated using firewood Photo by Estelle Pizer
There are many other traditional buildings ranging from the 17th through 19th century in the city area and because of this it is sometimes referred to as Koedo, Little Edo; Edo being the old name for Tokyo.
As per his final wishes, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the military ruler who unified the warring states of Japan, had his body transported to Mt Nikko, a mountain in the Tochigi area, one year after his death in 1617. As his descendants continued to rule until 1868, many would make a pilgrimage to Nikko thus bringing a lot of trade to the area. The Uzuma River also flows into a bigger river all the way to Tokyo, which was an efficient way to distribute goods back and forth before the railroad took over.
The Uzuma River is now popular among tourists and visitors to Tochigi City Photo by Estelle Pizer
Children’s Day Traditions Explained
Koi-no-bori - Starting in the early 17th century, whenever a boy was born in the upper classes of Japanese society, samurai would hang colourful banners (nobori) and flags with the family crest to let the neighbours know the good news.
During the Edo period (1603–1868) the Tokugawa clan introduced this tradition to people of all classes. Originally the carp streamers were only black, but over time they have become more colourful. Some families have a fish to represent each person in the family, some just for the boys. The carp is used as it symbolizes courage, strength, perseverance and success, due to its ability to swim upstream against strong currents. The koi fish is a colourful sub-species of the black carp. There is a legend of some fish wanting to swim to the top of a very high waterfall called Ryumon (dragon gate) in China. Against all odds, it was only the carp that reached the summit. The fish was actually a sturgeon which didn’t exist in Japan, but whose kanji translated as yellow carp so, the carp became the star of the legend. The gods rewarded the efforts of the carp by transforming them into a dragon.
Colourful carp windsocks, koi-no-bori Photo by Estelle Pizer
Samurai helmet or doll - Inside the home a samurai’s helmet or a samurai figure with accessories will be on display. These are handed down from generation to generation or purchased when a boy is born. This is to instill the samurai qualities of bravery and strength.
A doll dressed as a samurai to be displayed for Children’s Day in the home Photo by Estelle Pizer
Food - In the regions around Tokyo, people will eat kashiwa-mochi, a rice cake stuffed with red bean and wrapped in an oak leaf.
In the regions around Osaka, people will eat chimaki - a steamed sticky rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaf.
Iris bath - In early May, irises are in full bloom. They are called shobu in Japanese, which can also mean battle. Irises are displayed in the home to protect the family from negative energy. Historically before heading out to battle, samurai used to take a bath filled with the long thin green leaves of the iris plant and sometimes the roots, to give them the power from the flower. It is still common to this day to take an iris bath on May 5th. You will see pre-prepared packs in supermarkets.
Song - The song ‘Koi-no-bori’ is often sung for Children’s Day. This is an English translation:
Higher than the rooftops are the koi-no-bori.
The large carp is the father.
The smaller carp are the children.
They seem to be having fun swimming.
Koi-no-bori flying above the Uzuma River Photo by Estelle Pizer
Nearby Places to Visit
To follow in the footsteps of history, continue on to Nikko to pay homage to Tokugawa Ieyasu whose body is now enshrined in Toshogu Shrine, one of 103 buildings that make up the area recognized as a World Heritage UNESCO site. Or visit the capital of Tochigi prefecture, Utsunomiya, which is known as having the best gyoza dumplings in all of Japan. Both are about an hour by train from Tochigi Station.
Hundreds of carp windsocks on display in Tochigi City for Children’s Day Photo by Estelle Pizer
Kuranomachi Pleasure Boat Agency is a 10 minute walk from Tochigi Station. Check the Kuranomachi Yuransen website before you go as if the weather is bad, the boats will not run.
Website url: http://www.k-yuransen.com/
Address: 2-6 Yamatocho, Tochigi, 328-0037
From Ikebukuro Station (Tokyo): Take the Tobu Line Limited Express Train (approx. 70 minutes)
From Asakusa Station (Tokyo): Take the Tobu-Nikko Limited Express Train (approx. 70 minutes)