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Children's Day, Koinoburi, and the Iris

koinoburi, Japanese kite, Children's Day, Tango no sekku

Our Koinoburi Tenugui is instore here!

What is Children’s Day?

Children's Day (こどもの日, Kodomo no Hi) is a national holiday in Japan, which takes place every year on the 5th of May. It is a celebration of children and their happiness :)

Children's Day was originally known as Boys' Day and was a celebration for boys and fathers – it was the celebratory equivalent of hinamatsuri or Girl's Day, which is held on 3rd March. But in 1948 Japan changed the name to Children's Day, and so it cherishes all children, and all parents too!

This day of celebration has a long history in Japan and reaches back to before the Heian era of 794!

Yukki's family have sent us beautiful photos of Children's Day! This one is of her lovely brother! :)

What are the Traditions of Children’s Day?

The Display:

In a similar way to the dolls that are displayed indoors for Girl’s day (hinamatsuri), for Children’s Day families sometimes display a samurai doll, or traditional Japanese warrior armour, helmet, drum or sword. These are symbols of strength, vitality, and protection, which originate from the samurai custom of visiting a shrine and dedicating armour for protection and personal safety.

In the slideshow below are some wonderful photos that Yukki's family have so kindly sent, showing dolls in gorgeous dress and displays:

Aren't the dolls' poses, dress, and accoutrements amazing!

Koinoburi Kites:

These beautiful koinoburi are flown outside family homes on Children’s Day. The windsock-style kites are designed to look like koi carp, because of an old Chinese legend that tells of a carp swimming upstream to become a dragon before flying to heaven. The koi carp kites look like they are swimming in the sky, and symbolise the strength needed by the boy of the family for when he becomes a man and looks after his family.

The colours of the koi are symbolic too: a black koi symbolises the father; a red koi symbolises the mother (but traditionally the oldest son); and a blue, green, or orange koi represents each child of the family.

Wonderful koinoburi swimming in the sky!

Make your own origami koinoburi!

We used our beautiful Japanese Origami papers to make these cute koinoburi to celebrate Children's Day. You can make them too following OrigamiAko's brilliant YouTube tutorial!

Traditional Food:

Traditional foods are served on this day such as kashiwa mochi, a sticky, rice flour cake filled with red azuki bean paste and wrapped in oak leaves, and chimaki, a sweet rice cake wrapped in an iris or bamboo leaf.


Tango no Sekku

Children’s Day was originally called Tango no sekku (端午の節句), and it was one of the five annual ceremonies (go-sekku) which were held at the imperial court. It marks the transition to the rainy summer season in Japan.

The five sekku are seasonal festivals:

O-Shogatsu on the 1st day of the 1st month

Hinamatsuri on the 3rd day of the 3rd month

Tango no sekku on the 5th day of the 5th month

Tanabata on the 7th day of the 7th month

Kikumatsuri on the 9th day of the 9th month.

iris, flower, Japanese art, ukiyoe

Utagawa Hiroshige, Iris

How did the iris become a part of this festival?

Tango no Sekku was also known as the Iris Festival (Ayame no hi ).

Centuries ago, it was believed that bad spirits were abroad on this fifth day of the fifth month, and that iris was a flower that could offer protection.

In Japanese, the word shōbu, means ‘warlike spirit’. It also sounds like the word for ‘contest’ with the connotations of a win or defeat. But it also is the name of the iris: hana shōbu. Perhaps the iris was named this because of its blade-like leaves. Because of this association with a warrior spirit, the Iris Festival became popular among samurai families.

Traditions evolved such as the placing of sword-like iris leaves on the roof or eaves of a family home to fend off bad spirits.

In The Gossamer Years diary the 10th century Heian author records the excitement of this day:

My brother appeared before we had raised the shutters on the morning of the Iris Festival. "What's this - you haven't put out the irises yet? You really should have done it last night."

We got up in great excitement and prepared to open the house. "Leave the shutters down for a while," he said. "The scent will drift in, and then you can have a good long look." But we were all up helping him.

It was a fine morning. The wind had changed and the sky had cleared, and the scent of iris roots spread quickly through the house.

Iris leaves were floated on the top of a boy’s hot water bath on this day so that he might become a great samurai – the leaves are known to have a healing component and they represent longevity. This tradition is still popular today and is called shōbu-yu.

iris, flower, Japanese garden, art, Japanese art

Hasui Kawase, Iris Garden at Meiji Shrine

The Iris Festival a thousand years ago

The Emperor Ichijo had two Empress consorts: Empress Teishi and Empress Shoshi. Each Empress managed competing households within the Heian-kyo palace. The brightest and best ladies-in-waiting were carefully selected from within the powerful Fujiwara family to serve each Empress. Two rival literary salons advanced, with Sei Shonagon the star of Empress Teishi’s court, and Murasaki Shikibu the star of Empress Shoshi’s court. Both of these writers observed the Iris Festival over a thousand years ago, and you can read about it in The Pillow Book, and The Tale of Genji.

Sei Shonagon

Sei Shonagon observes the Kyoto court’s celebrations in The Pillow Book:

Of the five seasonal palace festivals, none is better than the fifth month’s. I love the way the scents of iris and sagebrush blend on this day, and another striking thing about the day is the way everywhere … people compete to spread their roof thick with all the iris and sagebrush they can lay hands on.

… Her Majesty is served special festival food, and the younger girls put iris herbal balls at their waists, and special iris … charms in their hair, and tie delightful little sprigs of seasonal plants on to long iris stems with dappled cord and attach them to their Chinese jackets or over-robes. Of course I can’t claim there’s anything rare and special about all this, still it’s most delightful. After all, the cherry blossom blooms every year, but does anyone find it less lovely for that?

…And then there’s the delightful custom of finely wrapping a spray of purple melia flowers around purple paper, or an iris leaf around leaf-green paper, or in the case of white paper a white iris root. At the sight of a lovely long iris root enclosed with a letter gives a wonderfully elegant feel.

The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, Heian, iris, Tango no Sekku

Hotaru chapter in The Tale of Genji by Tosa Mitsunobu, (c. 1469-1522)

Murasaki Shikibu

In the Hotaru (Fireflies) chapter of The Tale of Genji, Genji hosts an archery contest on the riding grounds of his magnificent Kyoto estate to celebrate the Iris Festival on the 5th May.

Melissa McCormick writes: ‘On this day, tall green water plants (ayamegusa), which because of their length, deep roots, and medicinal properties symbolized longevity, were offered to the Emperor along with prayers for longevity and the avoidance of calamity.’

This scene opens with a wonderful view of Genji:

Over a gown exquisite in gloss and hue he casually wore a dress cloak so perfectly right that one wondered how it was possible, for the dyeing appeared beyond the craft of anyone in the world; even its colour, the same as always, seemed to her a miracle on this Iris Festival Day..

..The women were pleased to be able to watch, and the page girls from the west wing came to join them. Fresh green blinds were hung in the gallery entrance, and curtains in the latest style, darkening towards the hem, stood across it; the page girls, servants, and so on wandered about behind them. The page girls in iris layered gowns and violet silk dress gauze gowns seemed to be the ones from the west wing; and the four pleasantly practiced servants in bead-tree trains darkening towards the hem and Chinese jackets the colour of young pink leaves were especially well dressed for the day’s festival.

In the illustration above of the Hotaru chapter in The Tale of Genji by Tosa Mitsunobu, (c. 1469-1522), you can see the horseback archery competition in action at Genji’s Rokujo-in. You can see the ‘fresh green blinds’ and the hint of the ladies robes behind them, and you can also see the bright green iris leaves like spears over at the edge of the small painted pond.

The Tale of Genji, Japanese art, ukiyoe, Japanese literature, Murasaki Shikibu

Yoshio Okada, Hotaru

A Beloved Japanese Flower

Japanese art has long been inspired by the poetry created for the Heian Kyoto court, with paintings such as uta-e illustrating poems, and genji-e illustrating chapters of Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th-century The Tale of Genji.

fusuma-e, screen, gold, iris, painting, Japanese art

Ogata Korin, Iris Screen

This gilded 18th century screen featuring flowering iris is a national treasure in Japan, and it is Ogata Korin’s most renowned painting. The irises are believed to illustrate an episode in The Tales of Ise, and it may be poem 52, where the fictionalised court noble and poet Ariwara no Narihira sends ‘someone’ a poem in return for a gift of rice cakes beautifully wrapped in iris leaves.

French Impressionists, art, Van Gogh, iris, painting

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises

Copies of the screens are believed to have inspired this beloved painting of irises by Vincent van Gogh.

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Our Summer Iris tenugui is available here!

Our Iris Tenugui

Thank you for reading our blog about Children’s Day and its wonderful history and literature! Whenever we look at our gorgeous Summer Iris tenugui we think of those Kyoto gardens where they still flourish in the summertime :)

We hope you have enjoyed this article, and if you have, why not take a look at our article about another one of the five Japanese festivals: hinamatsuri. You can read it here!

Thank you for reading,

Cathy and Yukki


Zusetsu Store, plum blossom, flower, logo


Children’s Day: Wikipedia.

Tango no sekku: Wikipedia.

Melissa McCormick, The Tale of Genji: A Visual Companion, (Princeton University Press, 2018, p.122).

Sei Shonagon, Meredith McKinney (trans.), The Pillow Book, (Penguin, 2006, p.42).

Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler (trans.), The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Books, 2001, p.459).

Michitsuna no Haha, Edward Seidensticker (trans.), The Gossamer Years, (Tuttle Publishing, p.158).

Tosa Mitsunobu, The Fireflies (Hotaru), illustration to Chapter 25 of the Tale of Genji, Harvard Art Museums.

Ogata Korin, Iris Screens, Wikipedia.

Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, Wikipedia.

Hasui Kawase, Iris Garden at Meiji Shrine,

Utagawa Hiroshige, Horikiri no Hana Shobu,


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