Seasonal Calendar of September

In this 'Seasonal Calendar', I would like to introduce traditional Japanese seasonal events, which come down to Japanese's modern life for the time being.

This Season's Traditional Events

Although few customs are left to be practiced today, September 9th is known as 'Chou-you-no-Sekku ( literally, Sekku day that falls on coincided Yang numbers)' in Japan. It is also called 'Chou-ku-no-Sekku ( literally, Sekku day that falls on coincided number 9 )', 'Kiku-no-Sekku ( literally, Sekku day of chrysanthemums )', 'Kuri-no-Sekku ( literally, Sekku day of sweet chestnuts )', or 'Okunchi ( literally, festive day on the nineth )'. I'd like to introduce 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' for this month, together with the many names it bear.

What's 'Chou-you-no-Sekku'?

'Chou-you-no-Sekku' is among the 'Go-Sekku ( literally, five Sekku days or five days of events )' which were established during Edo era (1603-1868), as special days to hold official events. It is an event held on September 9th ( lunar calendar ) based on the ancient Chinese theory of Ying Yang and the five elements.

As you can see, September 9th has the number '9' in both its month and day. According to the ancient Chinese theory of Ying Yang and the five elements, odd numbers were recognized as Yang numbers which were believed to bring good luck. And because the number '9' is the largest odd number among the numbers less than 10, it was thought as the luckiest number in all Yang numbers.

Originally in China, there was a custom to hold events on such days when the month and day both fell on these Yang numbers, which is thought to have formed the primitive custom of Sekku ( literally, occasion to make offerings ). Since September 9th has the number '9' which is a wonderfully lucky number in both month and day, it was called 'Chou-you-no-Sekku ( literally, a Sekku day whith overlapping Yang numbers )' or 'Chou-ku-no-Sekku ( literally, a Sekku day with overlapping 9s )', and was told to be much accounted of within the 'Go-Sekku'.

chrysanthemum

It is said that Chinese people climbed on top of hills and mountains with small bags of Szechuan pepper nuts, or drank chrysanthemum wine flavored with chrysanthemum flowers, in order to eliminate bad atmosphere that cause illness, and to wish for long life. These customs of China were later brought into Japan together with the custom of holding events on Sekku days, and various events were also used to be held on this day in Japan, though unfortunately, it has become far from Japanese' daily life especially for those who live in the urban areas, with usually only chrysanthemum fairs being held.

However, large local festivals of 'Okunchi' are still being held today in parts of the country. The 'Nagasaki-Okunchi' held in Suwa-Jinja ( Oct.7th-Oct.9th ) which is famous for dancing Ja-odori ( dragon dance ) in detication fo the god of the shrine, the 'Karatsu-Okunchi' of Karatsu city, Saga prefecture ( Nov.2nd-Nov.4th ) full of exotic mood, or the 'Hida-Tkayama-matsuri' held in Sakura-yama-Hachiman-gu of Takayama city, Gifu prefecture ( Oct.9th-Oct.10th ) are the most well known.

Ancestry and Scheme

Now, let's see what 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' was like in ancient China.

Ancient Chinese people is said to have had a certain belief, to enshrine the god of heaven and the god of land. Records are left in the ancient Chinese history book called Shiji ( literally, historical records ), about emperors such as Shi Huangdi of Qin or Wu Di of Han, that they held a ceremony to notify the god of heaven and the god of land of their accesion to an emperor, and to pay respect and gratitude to the gods for their piping time of peace. This ceremony is thought to have been based on such belief to enshrine both gods, which was a privilege only for emperors with absolute strength and power.

On 'Chou-you-no-Sekku', which was held in great account among the 'Go-Sekku', because of the fact that it has an overlapping '9', the largest Yang number under10 in its date,people in China is said to have climbed on hills and mountains, according to the belief of enshrining gods of heaven and land. They climbed up on high places either with small bags of Szechuan pepper nuts, or wearing Szechuan pepper sprigs, and drank chrysanthemum wine in order to drive away the evil atmosphere and to pray for long life. It is told that they also had customs to display chrysanthemum flowers here and there, make pillows with them, or to enjoy them in pu-erh tea.

Szechuan pepper nuts are thought to have an effect on warming up one's body, while it also have curative properties against stomach aches and headaches that come from coldness, as well as diarrhea or vomiting, and are said to be used as natural medicine in Chinese herbal medicine.

As for chrysanthemums, they are said to have antipyretic actions as well as purifying and calming effects, or to relieve the symptoms such as headaches that come from fever, conjunctivitis, dizziness, dermatitis or cold. Since September 9th of lunar calendar falls on October in our present calendar, maybe these herbs were used in 'Chou-you-no-Sekku', in a sense to maintain bodily functions after the summer heat, and to prepare for sickness before the coming of severe cold.

In ancient China, chrysanthemums were also thought to grow only in enchanted land, and it was believed that the flower had virtues to keep a person young, and to increase one's life-span. This also may be the reason why chrysanthemums became essential to 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' in China. It could be understandable, that this event bears another name as 'Kiku-no-Sekku ( literally, Sekku day of chrysanthemums )'. There's also a story involving chrysanthemums said to be left in China.

The Legend of Jucitong

During the Zhou dynasty of ancient China, there was a Taoist called Peng Tan ( Japanese Hou Tan ), whose childhood name was Jucitong ( Japanese Kiku-jidou ). Jucitong was an attendant of Emperor Mu ( Japanese Boku ) in his youth and stood high in the Emperor's favor, until one day he accidentally stepped over the imperial pillow, and was to be banished entrapped by his rivals' scheme. The Emperor felt sorry for Jucitong and secretly taught him a line from The Lotus Sutra, hoping for his safety.

Jucitong was exiled to a valley where chrysanthemums were blooming, and he spent everyday writing the words of Buddha which he was taught by the Emperor, on chrysanthemum leaves. Then one day, Jucitong found a place where the dew drops fallen from chrysanthemums gathered in a stream. He scooped some water with his hands and tried a sip.

To his surprisee, the water tasted sweet as though it was the sweet rain, that the god of heaven is said to have precipitated to the peace on earth. It tasted so good that Jucitong drank them all out of his hands. He felt young and refreshing after he drank the water out of his hands. It is told that he remained young after a hundred years, and overlived until 800 years old.

'Chou-you-no-Sekku' in Japan

It is uncertain when the custom and events of 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' held in China had come into Japan, though the Japanese Emperor Tenmu (631-686) is said to have held Kikka-no-en ( literally, celebrations featuring chrysanthemums ), so it must have been imported into Japan by this time.

When Heian era (794-1185) comes around, the celebrations become established as an annual event at court as 'Kiku-no-Utage ( literally celebrations featuring chrysanthemums )' or 'Kangiku-no-Utage ( literally celeberations for viewing and enjoying chrysanthemums ). Those with aristocratic backgrounds are said to have composed poems admiring the beauty of the flowers, hobnobbing chrysanthemum wine together. Chrysanthemums, by the way, are not flowers that originally grew in Japan, and it is told that they were brought in from China for medical use. Though it is not certain when these flowers were brought in, as it is said to be Yamato era (300-645) or Nara (710-784) era, and the specific time is unknown.

flower decor

Related to these celebrations during Heian era, there was a practice that became very popular among the court ladies, called 'Kiku-wata ( literally chrysanthemums and floss silk )' or 'Kiku-no-Kise-wata ( literally chrysanthemums covered with floss silk)'. During the night time of September 8th, court ladies covered the blossoms of chrysanthemums with floss silk, in order to make dewdrops and the fragrance of chrysanthemums soak through the floss silk. It was believed then, that it would keep a person young by gently stroking one's skin, with that floss silk the next morning.

This practice might have descended from the former legend of Jucitong, and the wishes of women wanting to stay young and beautiful, don't seem to change once, now and forever. Incidentally, the floss silk used to cover the blossoms of chrysanthemums, are said to have been in different colors, according to the rank of each court lady.

Besides this 'Kise-wata' practice, there was also a custom during this Heian era, to exchange the small hanging ornaments hanged on the occasion of 'Tango-no-Sekku ( a traditional event held in May )', with small bags of Szechuan pepper nuts on 'Chou-you-no-Sekku'. The hanging ornaments called 'Shoku-mei-ru ( literally life extending ornament )' were said to have been brought in from China as a good-luck talisman, to drive away the evil atmosphere and to extend one's life span, and Japanese came to wear them or hang and display them on columns, occasionally on 'Tango-no-Sekku'. On 'Chou-you-no-Sekku', these ornaments were taken off to be replaced by bags of Szechuan pepper nuts, or chrysanthemum flowers which were also believed to have similar effects.

As the government established the 'Go-Sekku' to hold official events in Edo era (1603-1868), 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' becomes a holiday for Samurai families, accordingly spreading quickly among general people. Various events were told to be held among people in general during this period until Meiji era (1868-1912), though it's regrettable that chrysanthemum fairs are about the only event that comes down to today. It is thought that the abolishment and the shift of calendar was behind such situation, with the old lunar calendar which were put to use until 1873 being abolished by the end of the same year, followed by the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar which started from the very next year.

September 9th of the lunar calendar falls on around October of the present calendar, and the 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' before Meiji era was usually held when chrysanthemum flowers blossomed out. But as the date of 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' were passed down untouched even after the calendar had been changed, the event turned out to be held in a season when the chrysanthemums have not yet bloomed. Maybe there might have been other reasons, however, this change in calendar must have had more than a little impact, upon the loss of traditional customs of 'Chou-you-no-Sekku'.

The Folk Customs of Okunchi

In some parts of Japan, there are places where they call this event 'Okunchi' instead of 'Chou-you-no-Sekku'. 'Okunchi' is an event mainly held on September 9th in agricultural communities all over Japan, and is usually thought as another name for 'Chou-you-no-Sekku'. Though the events of 'Okunchi' are held not only on September 9th, but also on September 19th or September 29th according to each region, and it seems that these three days collectively, are called 'Okunchi' in general.

In farm communities during this season of harvest, 'Okunchi' events are held as harvest festivals or celebrations for rice reaping. Local practices differ depending on each regions, but it shares the point in dedicating gratitude to the god of fields. In farm houses, rice cakes are pounded together with tansy leaves, rice cooked with chestnuts or festive red rice would be prepared, chrysanthemum flowers, rice wine, and in some places the first harvested rice ear of that season, are offered to express appreciation towards the god of rice fields, and to celebrate rich harvest.

In Japan there was a certain belief since the early days, that the god of rice fields would come down from the mountains in spring, to stay in the rice plants and become the god of rice fields so as to bring harvest of rice in fall. When winter comes, the god of rice field would return to the mountains to become the god of mountains, spend the cold winter days in the mountains, then come back to the rice fields again as the god of rice fields, the next spring. It may be the vestiges of such belief, that people in Aomori or Fukushima prefecture still seem to regard September 29th, as the day for god to return to the mountains carrying rice cakes on his back.

There are also some places that are said to call this festive day of September 9th, as 'Kuri-no-Sekku ( literally, a Sekku day for chestnuts )' instead of 'Chou-you-no-Sekku', celebrating by eating Kuri-gohan ( literally, chestnut rice ), rice cooked with sweet chestnuts. 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' was an event held on September 9th of the lunar calendar, which falls on around October of our present calendar, just about the season for good fat sweet chestnuts to be peeping out from the browned burs, after they have snapped open.

Since it is said that they have customs to eat sweet chestnut dishes on 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' in China too, the custom of eating sweet chestnut dishes may be shared in both countries, carrying the meaning to enjoy the taste of seasonal fruits, as well as to dedicate a feeling of thanks to god who brought such harvest.

Enjoying the Change of Seasons

Seen this way, it could be understood that 'Chou-you-no-Sekku' is an event with overflowing sense of season. Don't you think it's a pitty to leave this day just as a day for chrysanthemum fairs, where only elderly people and experts gather? How about making this day a good opportunity to follow in the steps of our ancestors, to appreciate the great power of nature and have a feeling of thanks, as they do in the 'Okunchi' events of the farming communities, and enjoy the atmosphere of the changing seasons?

Last Modified Sep.16th, 2006

Site of Reference

Go-sekku - Heian Dai-Jiten ( Japanese )

http://heianjiten.fc2web.com/gosekku.htm

September 9th Chou-you-no Sekku ( Japanese )

http://www.gld.mmtr.or.jp/~sumiyosi/dentou(tyouyou).htm

Gekkan Gu-rin Puraza 8gatsu-gou ( Japanese )

http://www.jaac.or.jp/plaza/0008/index.htm

Susanowo to Nigihayahi no Nihonn-gaku ( Japanese )

http://blog.livedoor.jp/susanowo/archives/2005-08.html

Houzen - Wikipedia ( Japanese )

http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%B0%81%E7%A6%85

Satsuki, Roku-jou-in Shiki no Utsuroi ( Japanese )

http://www.iz2.or.jp/rokushiki/5.html

JAANUS/mitate-e

http://www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/m/mitatee.htm

Web Links

For information on Nagasaki Okunchi
Global Citizens News Vol.72( English ): http://www1.city.nagasaki.nagasaki.jp/kokusai/...

For informations on Karatsu Kunchi
Japan Atlas: Karatsu Kunchi Festival( English ): http://web-japan.org/atlas/festivals/fes23.html

Sightseeing Guide to Saga Prefecture
( English ): http://www.pref.saga.lg.jp/at-contents/gaikoku/english/eibun/ekankou/ekankou.html

Karatsu Kunchi - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
( English, Japanese, German ): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karatsu_Kunchi

For informations on Hida Takayama Matsuri
Background of Takayama Matsuri or Festival( English ): http://www.hidanet.ne.jp/e02/ematsuri/ekigen.htm

WEB att.JAPAN - Japan Travel Guide - Tourist ...
( English, Japanese, Chinese, Korean ): http://www.att-japan.net/modules/tinyd0/rewrite/tc_26.html