Carp streamers can be seen hanging out from balconies of many homes towards the end of April, as the Golden Week beckons. Golden Week is one of Japan's busiest holiday seasons, with 4 national holidays within a span of seven days, of which the last one is Children's Day on May 5th.
To Chinese tourists, many may find familiarity with tango no sekku 端午の節句, the former name of Children's Day in Japan, as it is similar to Dragon Boat Festival 端午节 which is celebrated across Chinese communities around the world. While Japan has adapted various cultural elements from China, 端午 bears a different significance in Japan. For Chinese today, 端午节 revolves mainly around eating rice dumplings, in memory of Qu Yuan 屈原, a patriotic poet whom committed suicide by jumping into a river after an enemy state invaded his home state of Chu 楚. Rice dumplings were dumped into the river in hope that the fish will not eat his body and the loud drumming of dragon boats was to scatter the fish away.
One may wonder why the Japanese adopted this festival, since Qu Yuan bore no historical significance to Japan, while rice dumplings and dragon boats never became part of Japanese culture. Well actually, the Japanese adopted only the name of the festival.
端午节 is celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar. Likewise 端午の節句 is also celebrated on the same day until Japan switched to the Gregorian calendar after the Meiji Restoration, and it was then celebrated on May 5th, hence the significance of the date is not lost.
(Temple seals from Sukunahikona Shrine 少彦名神社 in Osaka)
What do the two characters in 端午 actually mean? 午 refers to the 7th day of the 12 day week cycle (12 Earthly branches) of the lunar calendar, while 端 means the start, so 端午 means the first 7th day of the fifth month. 午 also corresponds to the fifth month when using the Earthly branches to label the months. Coincidentally 午 also share the same pronunciation as five 五, hence it is easy to remember the day and month of the festival.
While the lunar calendar is still in print today, most modern day Chinese will have little or no knowledge of it or of the Heavenly Stems 天干 and Earthly branches 地支 . Hence not many will be able to give an adequate answer as to why the Dragon Boat festival is known as 端午. Based on the timing and name of the festival, it is believed that 端午 was originally a celebration to mark the harvest of winter wheat way back when China was an agrarian society.
Now that I have explained 端午, what is 節句? 節句 means festival, and 端午の節句 is one of the five festivals commonly referred to as 五節or 五節句 (Jan 7th, March 3rd, May 5th, July 7th and Sept 9) Likewise the other festivals also have Chinese origins but takes on a different meaning and form in Japan. Similarly their dates are originally based on the lunar calendar. 端午 reflects the festival's Chinese origins and its meaning may be lost on modern Japanese, hence May 5th is more commonly known as shoubu no sekku 菖蒲の節句.
Japanese Iris 菖蒲
The purple flower known as the Japanese iris, is one predominant image of the festival. The beginning of May marks the change of the season, when people seem to be more prone to disease and disaster. Due to the high death rate, May was also known as poison month 毒月. Drinking wine infused with iris, and holding iris stalks became a common practice to ward off disease and bad luck.
Warrior spirit 尚武
There were more elaborate practices to celebrate the festival in the palace courts, but these became obsolete with the rise of the samurai in the Kamakura period. However the festival was imbued with a new meaning as militant spirit 尚武 sounds the same as 菖蒲. Boys began to play sword-fighting with the narrow,ridged leaves of the Japanese iris, and bathed with iris leaves.
尚武 continues to be reflected today as families may display a Kintaro doll, and the traditional Japanese military helmet, kabuto, as symbols of strength and vitality. 金太郎 Kintaro is the childhood name of Sakata no Kintoki who became a retainer of Minamoto no Raikou, and was known for his strength and martial prowess.
Carp streamers 鯉のぼり
One might suggest that this is a poor man's substitute for live carp, but this is not the case. During the Edo period, common people attached them to bamboo poles and competed against each other to have one's raised higher than others, in good spirited festivities. In China, legend has it that a carp will turn into a dragon if it scales a waterfall. This is now known as the idiom 鱼跃龙门, and is often used to describe career success. This legend was translated into koi no taki nobori鯉の滝昇り。This is now commonly known as 鯉のぼり, as both 幟 streamers and ascending昇り sound the same. Carp streamers fluttering in the wind certainly look like carps fighting the current.
Today carp streamers continue to represent the hopes of parents for their children's growth. During the Golden Week period, carp streamers can be commonly seen in public areas such as shopping streets and temples.
In 1948, May 5th was designated as a national holiday and became known as Children's Day こどもの日. While some may continue to regard this as Boys' Day, as March 3 is Hinamatsuri雛祭り, this day should be a celebration of both boys and girls, and showing gratitude to parents.
Takatsuki Carp Streamer Fiesta 高槻市鯉のぼりフェスタ
If you have come across hundreds of carp streamers fluttering across a river on Instagram photos, and wonder where the location is, one likely answer is 高槻 Takatsuki in Osaka.
I was hoping to go there on a weekday but it had been raining through the week. Finally the weather cleared up on Saturday and I made an early morning trip to 芥川桜堤公園 Akutagawasakurazutsumi Park (Alternatively look up 高槻市鯉のぼりフェスタ on Google Maps)
I spent an hour plus taking photos and looking at the colourful array of streamers, some of which veered from the conventional by creating scales with handprints. or painting popular characters such as Kumamon.
There were some parents taking photos of their children as they blew soap bubbles, probably inspired by some fantastic Instagram photos. I had to stifle my laughter while observing one family group, as the father was impatiently giving orders to his children to pose, while kids being kids, have short attention spans and do not share the same interest in photography.
An hour should be enough to take ample shots, but if you are hoping to take competition level shots, it might take an entire morning, as even if it is all sunny and clear skies, the streamers require wind or else they just look like a huge laundry lines. Some streamers may not be hanging out fully and have parts draped over others.
Do browse the photos on Google Maps to have a better idea of what you will be able to see. It is indeed a wonderful photo spot, and no other place in the Kansai region has so many carp streamers concentrated in one location. The only other location beyond the Kansai region that I know of is Kanna of Gunma prefecture. However it is just this 100m+ stretch of the river park that has streamers, moreover there are no other tourist spots within walking distance. It may be a more worthwhile trip if you have bookmarked other places to visit in Takatsuki.