五月: May is the month of rice planting

May 12, 2010

My neighborhood garden walk

Here in my neighborhood, only a few meters away from the ocean, we’ve gotten very little spring weather this year. It’s either been terribly cold or almost steamy-hot outside. May is the segue-way month into summer, and also into the rainy season. Already the stores are displaying summer-themed goods, from beach toys to grilling sets. However, for the last few days we’ve been getting nothing but drizzling rain. Anticipating summer is exciting, but the rain is a real annoyance. During May, many people are already mold-proofing their houses, myself included.

Traditionally, May 5th was known as Tango no Sekku, or Boys’ Day. It’s a national holiday in a series of holidays known as Golden Week. However, a few years ago it was renamed Children’s Day, Kodomo no Hi, in 1948. However, Girls’ Day is still celebrated in March and Boy’s Day is still celebrated in May.

Children eat Kawashi mochi, which is a sweet rice cake filled with the ubiquitous red bean paste, and wrapped in oak leaves, kawashi. Oak leaves are symbolic of parental affection because the old leaves wait for the young leaves to grow before falling. Many Japanese sweets, wagashi, are symbolic in form.

Chimaki, a sweet rice cake wrapped in bamboo, is another such. It is said to represent the “warrior’s spirit” because of its gun-like shape. I personally think it looks more like a backyard firework.

The most well-known symbol of Boy’s Day is the Koinobori, or carp streamer. The carp is a symbol of success and health because of a Chinese saying about carp swimming upstream to one day become dragons. Perhaps there are variations on this, but this is the version I always. Several days before May 5th, many of my neighbors with young boys set up a fukinagashi, or five-colored streamer, topped with a yaguruma, a pair of arrow-spoked wheels, which drive away evil spirits. My neighbor’s yaguruma spin in the wind, which I am pretty sure is a recent thing. It’s terribly fun to watch and listen to. On the very top is the  kagodama, which is where the kami, or gods, descend.

Koinobori

A somewhat bad attempt at stealthily photographing my neighbor's carp pole

May, although having fluctuating weather, brought about beautiful foliage. I cannot properly tell you how the smells of citrus, jasmine, freesia, and myriad other flowering plants are floating around in the air. Coming from the Southwest, I am totally unaccustomed to so much moisture, pollen, and fragrance hanging around as if it were nothing whatsoever. It’s serious business getting plants like these to bloom in the desert. It’s completely intoxicating walking around the neighborhood.

A look down my street from our upstairs window

Another Boy’s Day tradition is  Shoubu Yu, a bath sprinkled with iris leaves, which is believed to fend off evil. This is actually easy to make at home if you can obtain some iris leaves.

1. Get about 5-7 leaf stalks. These are purchasable from places such as green grocers in Japan.

2. Wash them and cut them into small pieces.

3. Place into a net bag, such as a tea bag.

4. Place into a large bowl and pour boiling water onto the bag, just like making tea.

5. Pour the bag and the water into a hot bath.

or: Simply tie the bunch of leaves beneath the tub faucet and fill with hot water.

May is also the month of Hachijuuhachi Ya, or 88th Night. This event dates back many years ago before the use of the Gregorian calendar. Today, the date is May 2nd. This is supposed to be the best day for picking tea leaves, as they are purportedly good for long life and have a delicious taste.

Tea leaf picking

The last event I’ll go into detail about is Shiohigari, which is clam-digging. The equipment for clamming is very basic. A bucket, a rake, and a plastic bottle for sea water to keep the shellfish alive when brought back home. Spring is an excellent time for clamming, due to the Spring tide, which recedes very far and leaves a huge beach to dig about in. It’s a popular family event and many people make an entire day of it. The origins of this activity are very old, and apparently Shinto in origin, surrounding a purification ritual. Later, people came to enjoy digging for clams as well.

As always, Japan is brimming with amazing amounts of sea life. What could we expect to find?

Bucket full of shellfish

In this bucket, we have jack-knife clams, short-neck clams, hard shell clams, a hen clam, and a (probably) enraged prawn. Short neck and hard shell clams, asari and hamaguri respectively, are extremely popular in Japanese cooking.

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3 Responses to “五月: May is the month of rice planting”

  1. Kate said

    I love it! I had no idea so much happened around this time in Japan, and I’m so fascinated by various cultural celebrations around the world. Clamming looks like so much fun, and what a tasty prize at the end!

    Your neighborhood looks so neat and tidy.

    How do you mold-proof? Bleach? We’ve got mold all over our bathrooms, yuck.

  2. ellydishes said

    I’m actually going to have a separate entry about mold-proofing because they’ve practically made it an art form…! Maybe it’ll have trick or two that’s useful!

  3. Mommy said

    Your neighborhood looks absolutely idyllic, especially when considering that it’s right next to the sea. had no idea May was such a packed month for special days and activities. your description of the smells of spring there was so inviting, I guess that’s the time of year to visit?

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