Yearly celebrations passed down through the centuries
Chinese culture historically had a great influence on the language and customs of Japan. One such influence was celebration of five annual ceremonies called the Gosekku at the Japanese imperial court. These five celebrations were as follows:
Celebrated on the seventh day of the first month this festival literally meaning “Day of Mankind”. Nobles paraded in front of the Emperor, and criminals were said to have been pardoned on this auspicious day. Around this time it was also customary to eat nanagusa-gayu, a kind of rice gruel with seven different herbs. This was said to bring luck and prevent ill health through the year. In Kagoshima local people sometimes still practice nanagusa-mairi, where a child wearing kimono visits seven neighbours houses to receive nanagusa-gayu.
Celebrated on the third day of the third month, this festival is now widely known as Girl’s day. The kanji for joshi refer to the day of the snake, and originally purification rituals close to water took place to prevent harassment by evil spirits and bad luck for the rest of the year. Here at Sengan-en our Hina Doll Festival, Kyokusui-no-en, and Nagashi-bina all relate to this custom.
Celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month, this festival saw irises go on display at the imperial court. The name tango referred to the first day of the horse of the fifth month in the lunar calendar. This day was also a festival to celebrate the longevity and health of boys, and flags and streamers were erected on large poles to inform the gods that a boy was in each household. These streamers often used the image of carp, and are called koinobori. Here at Sengan-en we have a different kind of banner known as Gogatsu-nobori.
Celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, tanabata (literally evening of the seventh) is a festival celebrating the yearly meeting of lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi. Based on an ancient Chinese legend, the lovers, separated by the Milky Way throughout the year are only allowed to meet on this one day. Various local traditions across Japan have affected how this festival is celebrated in each region, but a common theme is writing wishes on strips of paper and attaching them to bamboo poles. Here at Sengan-en tanabata is celebrated using two large poles of moso bamboo.
Celebrated on the ninth day of the ninth month, this festival was originally celebrated by drinking chrysanthemum wine to avoid calamity. Over the years it became directly related to the autumn harvest festival. It is common to see flower displays in this season, and the Sengan-en Chrysanthemum Festival is held towards the end of this period.
May in Japan brings warmer weather, the verdant green of shinryoku in the mountains, and the sight of colourful koi-nobori (carp streamers) flapping in the wind around Tango-no-sekku. Carp were chosen as a motif for these banners due to the ancient Chinese belief that swimming upstream would cause the fish to transform into a dragon. Parents wished that their children would overcome their struggles in the same way eventually finding success. Prior to the Taisho period (1912-1926) koi-nobori were made of paper and were little more than decorations for the uma-jirushi – a large decoration atop the pole usually based on the family crest of each household.
An early Meiji period (1868-1912) account in “Yearly Events of Satsuma” notes “each household has a five metre pole of green bamboo, atop which is a decoration in the form of a family crest, decorative tassels, and decorative flags blowing in the wind”.
The Shimadzu family used an older decoration called gogatsu-nobori instead of the now common koi-nobori. In order to let the gods know that a boy had been born in a household, large poles decorated with family crests would be erected in the garden, praying for the health and success of the next generation of the family.
Gogatsu-nobori of the Shimadzu Family
The gogatsu-nobori of the Shimadzu family were symbols for inviting the gods to the household. Poles approximately 13 metres tall were used to mount decorations of flags and carved wooden uma-jirushi representing the crests of the Shimadzu family. At Sengan-en seven poles are erected each year, two with flags featuring the cross in a circle crest, two with the paulowina crest, and another two with climbing and diving dragons. Another pole featuring five coloured tassels completes the display.
Shimadzu Tadashige and his brothers
The 30th head of the Shimadzu family, Tadashige mentions the gogatsu-nobori at Sengan-en in the following excerpt from his diaries.
“Our nobori for Tango-no-sekku are said to be quite famous, so I would like to make mention of them. The nobori are quite large, and there were seven for myself and five for each of my younger brothers. We kept hold of one of my brother’s poles for a keepsake, and it is made of a marvelous piece of cedar as tall as a telegraph pole.”
This original nobori is kept on permanent display at the Shoko Shuseikan Museum, and a picture of the gogatsu-nobori in the gardens from the Meiji period shows the spectacular display as it was.
Irises loved by the samurai
In May seasonal irises come into bloom in the gardens. Irises were much loved by the samurai due to the fact that their straight, pointed leaves resembled swords, and that the beautiful flowers only last a few days before withering away and dying, representing the ephemeral nature of life. They were also thought to ward off evil, and were often used as a design motif on armour and clothing. Additionally the word “iris” in Japanese is hana shobu (ハナショウブ), a homonym of shobu (尚武) meaning “martial spirit”.
The Shimadzu family also loved irises, and the flowers are still displayed around the gardens at Sengan-en each year in line with tango-no-sekku. Particularly impressive is the display in the pond in front of the house. These ancient seasonal traditions are still being preserved here in Kagoshima wishing for the protection, health, and success of future generations. Next time you visit Sengan-en we hope you will recall the meaning behind these displays while taking in the extraordinary view with Sakurajima in the background.
Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.
He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.