TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

On January the 7th -the Seven Herbs Of Spring (春の七草) in Rice Porridge (and the viewing of BLUE horses!)

 

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By Avi Landau

Just when you thought we were through with all the traditional dishes. Just when you’ve decided that you’ve had more than enough of the soba, the O-zoni, and the O-sechi of O-shogatsu. Just when you find yourself daydreaming about dining at one of Tsukuba’s fine Italian, or French, or Chinese, or Korean restaurants which will be reopening after the long holiday. Just THEN, you realize that tomorrow is January 7th, time to eat the very traditional NANA KUSA GAYU 七草粥 (porridge with the seven herbs of spring) and head off to the supermarket to get ready.

The ancient Chinese believed that the first vegetables and herbs to sprout in the cold of late winter possessed strong doses of LIFE ENERGY, which could be transferred to humans if ingested. The 7th day of the first month (which is actually in February according to the old calendar) was the day on which the results of the official government examinations were announced in China. It was the custom for those waiting for their results to get up early in the morning and eat young herbs. They believed the energy obtained from these plants would help them to RISE UP IN THE WORLD. The reason the exams were announced on that day (the 7th), is that it was one the five important seasonal markers (sekku). This sekku was called Jinjitsu (人日), the  day for divining a man’s future.

Young girls gathering herbs Young girls gathering herbs

This custom was adopted, along with so many other things Chinese, by the aristocrats of the Heian Court (794-1185), though they changed the date to the 15th. They would gather young plants and put them into a soup (the actual herbs have varied over time and place). In the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) instead of soup, the herbs were cooked in a rice porridge. The date was also changed back to the original Chinese one, the 7th. During the Edo Period (1600-1868), the shogunate recognized and promoted the traditional Chinese sekku, and the custom of eating porridge containing the seven herbs of spring filtered down to the general public. Of course, after the calendar was westernized, in 1873, the porridge came to be eaten on January 7th (which is now the 7th day of the first month).

It was traditional for the herbs to be picked on the 6th, and prepared on the evening of that day. There was a special song to be chanted while doing this. Translated, it goes something like “BEFORE THE BIRDS OF TANG CHINA FLY OVER JAPAN , WE PREPARE THE SEVEN HERBS”. This was done making as much noise as possible on the cutting board (to ritually chase away birds which damage crops).

It was also believed that the porridge soothed the stomach after all the eating and drinking of O-shogatsu, and got the people to eat their greens in a season when, before refrigeration, vegetables were a rarity.

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Here are the herbs and their traditional benefits: Gogyo, good for urination; nazuna, good for tired eyes; seri, plenty of vitamins; suzushiro (radish flower), good for sore throats; suzuna, plenty of vitamins; otokenoza, a pain killer; and hakobera, good for the teeth! I’m really not sure what these plant names are in English, but it looks like I’ve got a radish and a turnip among my herbs.

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Any supermarket will have nanakusagayu packs available. Their is a large variety, some containing fresh herbs and vegetables and others freeze dried. I recommend Seibu department store’s supermarket for the finest selection in Tsukuba.

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If you need help just ask a clerk for a NANAGUSA GAYU PAKU.

The porridge should be eaten tomorrow morning! Have fun and bon appetit!

For a really special experience you might want to head out to the Kashima Jingu Grand Shrine. This evening, not only will they be serving NANAGUSA GAYU but you will also be able to see another ceremony from Tang China which now only survives in Japan- the Rite of viewing the Blue Horse (O-ME SAI, 白馬祭)! This ceremony was adopted by the Japanese Court more than a thousand years ago and can only be seen at a handfull of shrines in Japan today. It begins at 6pm today and I will write more later!



4 Comments

  • alice says:

    I have never come across the freeze dried packs. Do you mean frozen ones?
    Many Japanese don’t observe this tradition. It tastes bland, they say. I have never tried it before and even when I was living with my in-laws, they never cooked it.

    Over in my place, a pack costs 398 yen.

  • Dan Waldhoff says:

    あけおめ,

    Just a day early and with some changes. M bought a “set” on her way home from work and armed with a suggestion from a co-worker added a piece of salmon to the shopping list. Tomorrow we take delivery of all the mother-in-law’s despised last year’s rice so tonight there was not a grain in the hutch BUT there were a few blocks of mochi. Substituted that for rice in the mix and it was EXCELLENT!!!

    Too cold tonight to wait for morning – I haven’t had a heater on here since 1994 and reading “Memories of Wind and Water”. Sleeping with a warmed tummy tonight!

    いつまでもよろしくおねがいいたします!

    Dan

  • Avi Landau says:

    Dan,that sounds like a idea for an ADDITION to the porridge!
    Alice, maybe you should try to make nanagusa gayu with salmon! It might be a HOT with your family.
    And to tell, I was surprised by how popualar the custom is around here. I was at the supermarket and was watching all the people stop by at the special display counters and make their purchases.

    Dan! I know what you mean by cold! Unfortunately I had to wait till morning for my tummy warmer!

  • Mamoru Shimizu says:

    Thanks Avi-san explained us many aspects of traditional Japanese culture with profound knowledge and love!!

    *Hyakunin-isyu(百人一首)
    We used Hyaku(百) as meaning of plenty, for fondness of exact cutting number:百名山(hundred famous mountains),百万長者(millionaire),百神(Hyakushin :hundred god=百太夫=
    Haykudayu?),百景(hyakukei:hundred beautiful places),百姓(hyakusyou: peasant)
    百日咳(Hyakunichi-zeki:whooping cough)etc, Oh I must not forget 百栗(Hyakkuri:hiccup!?)
    Farther plenty:八百屋(Yaoya:eight hundreds seller: green grocer), 八百長(Yaocyou:put up job: cheating quite many times.

    *When I was a boy (everybody even have an infant time!), next to my old man’s house, his younger brother family lived. I was the youngest of one sisters-two brothers, my uncle had three daughters and one boy, totally 4 boys (6-12years old) and 4girls (6-16years old).
    In every Osyougatsu there were Karuta-tori (Hyakunin-Issyu game), those were games but also were magnificent, gruesome, pandemonium battles!!
    Just the caller pronounces one or two words or even a single sound, every one throw their bodies toward certain card with shouts. Especially girls!!
    Ever since then I have never dreamt that girls were elegant creatures, just understood they were fighters since Amazones and smarter than their opposite sex.
    *I could only take one card in front of me written “Kiri tachinoboru akino yuugure . “mu” was caller’s first voice of murasameno・・・・.
    「mu :むらさめの露もまだひぬまきの葉に 霧立のぼる秋の夕暮」,The only song begins “mu”
     Roughly translated ”Even a drops on the leaves of Maki haven’t dried, already fog was arising in the autumn night」
     So, I think this resulted for me to become to be fond of haze-like or foggy person like Admiral Togo, also letter mu=む=無=nothing.=mujyou=無常!!!?

    *Nanakusakayu- Seven herbs porridge(七草粥) 
     Honestly speaking, I have never tasted this one, because there were not such smart guys to sell packs of Nanakusa, beside there are no supermarket during my mother’s age. Also they could not find such Herbs except Suzuna(turnip) and Suzushiro(radish) in the Solar calendar(7/Jan.), it could be find early February (older calendar), in someway commercial-idea like Valentine-Choko, and green house production system
    *I think Avi-san already knows  “君がため 春の野にいで 若菜つむ わが振袖に 雪はふりつつ“ Emperor Koukou(830-889). Roughly translated:
    “While I picked up young herbs for you on the spring field, snow drifting on my sleeves now and then”
    Some quoted this song of Hyakunin-Issyu connected to Nanakusa-kayu七草粥、even official seven herbs were later determined during Kamakura-Edo-Era, custom of picking young herbs began Heian Era delivered from Chinese culture.
    Any way it is good scene for imagination!!
    Those articles of Avi-san remind me many things which I almost forget. Thanks again.