If April in Japan represents a new beginning and a resurrection whether financially or spiritually, then May most certainly signifies laying the foundations for the year ahead. It is the quiet before the rainy season (tsuyu) in June, it is the preparations taking place for rice growing (tanbo), and the infamous golden week where we see thousands of Japanese flocking via crowded shinkansens (bullet trains) to every corner of Japan searching for a little respite.
However, there are two proceedings that take place in Japan during May that are worthy of notification. Firstly, ‘Children’s Day’ (Kodomo no hi). By now, the colourful carp streamers (Koi-nobori) made in a variety of fabrics are taking flight in the spring air creating a rainbow wave of brilliant colours and designs right across the country. Kodomo no hi is a Japanese national holiday which takes place annually on May 5, the fifth day of the fifth month, and is part of the golden week. It is a day set aside to respect children’s personalities and to celebrate their happiness. Children for the most part are generally happy and cute are they not!?
Kodomo no hi was designated a National holiday by the Japanese government in 1948, and since then many have enjoyed the colourful occasion. Often or not during this vibrant period you will see children creating koi-nobori on streets with chalk, or painting paper to fly outside their homes and on the back of the bicycles. The day was originally called Tango no Sekku, and was celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th moon in the lunar calendar or Chinese calendar. After Japan’s switch to the Gregorian calendar, the date was moved to May 5th on the Gregorian calendar. The festival is still celebrated in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as the Duanwu Festival or Duen Ng Festival (Cantonese), in Korea as the Dano Festival, and Vietnam as the Tet Doan Ngo on the traditional lunar calendar date. Sekku means a season’s festival (there are five sekku per year). Tango no Sekku marks the beginning of summer or the rainy season. Tan means ‘edge’ or ‘first’ and go means ‘noon’. In Chinese culture, the fifth month of the Chinese calendar was said to be a month for purification, and many rites that were said to drive away evil spirits were performed.
Below is a famous song for Koi-nobori. Sung by children and adults alike.
Yane yori takai koi-nobori
Okii magoi wa o-to-san
Chiisai higoi wa kodomo-tachi
Omoshiroso ni oyoideru
Higher than the roof-tops are the koinobori
The large Carp is the father
The smaller Carp are the children
They seem to be having fun swimming
Two home-made house bound Koi-no-bori / flying carps that my children made last year:
The other noticeable proceeding in Japan during May is the preparations for the rice fields (tanbo). Fields are prepared before the tsuyu with some plowing and flooding. About a week before planting, the paddy is partially drained leaving behind a thick muddy soup. Rice seedlings are grown in nursery plots, transplanted by hand or with a machine. Seedlings are planted instead of seeds because the young plants are less vulnerable to disease and weeds than the seeds. Farmers that can afford pesticides and fertilizers sometimes plant seeds. It is interesting to note that there are even rice roof gardens in many of Japan’s cities.
Rice planting in much of the world is still done by hand, using methods that for the most part have remained unchanged for the last three of four thousand years, but we are gradually seeing more and more usage of diesel-powered rototiller-tractors and mechanical rice transplanters to help do the job. The foot-long seedlings are planted a couple at a time by bent-over harvesters who use their thumb and middle fingers to push the seedlings in the mud. Good harvesters can average about one insertion a second in a process that the travel writer Paul Theroux once said was more like needlepoint than farming. The sticky, black mud in the paddy is usually ankle deep, sometimes knee deep, and the rice harvester generally goes barefoot instead of wearing boots because the mud sucks the boots right off.
Though it is not just rice that the rice fields provide. During the summer season we can hear a flurry of insects whizzing about whilst dragonflies hover in the jungle of the bright green and vividly lush scene of the rice fields. They provide an atmosphere of serenity for cyclists and walkers alike. And in the distance the trains hurtle pass being hugged by the warmth of rice and the smell of burnt wood creeping in through open windows (on occasion). To finish the scene, electric cables and white hats of harvesters are scattered in the distance with a lost duck quiescent and a black cat chasing birds. Just once… would it not be lovely to be the wind that grazes the tips of the tanbo.