Boy’s Day in the Garden


Boy's Day Banner: Leaping Carp and Samurai Crest

The Japanese have been celebrating Boy's Day on the movable lunar calendar - the 5th day of the 5th moon - since the early 7th century. But, with their switch to the Gregorian calendar in the late 1800s, Boy’s Day was permanently attached to May 5th. 

After the war, Japan changed Boy's Day once again. They called it Children's Day and designated it a national holiday, making it the last day of a whole slew of festivities called Golden Week.

Although having a whole day set aside to honor young males has been usurped, the original symbol associated with Boy's Day persists to this day: the carp. 


Photogravure c. 1930, Boy's Day Banners

Children's Day is also called the Festival of Banners.

When it was still just Boy's Day, people would display banners of fierce Samurai warriors and Samurai family crests with their colored streamers. But mostly, people would hang windsocks shaped and painted like a carp.

This tradition survives to current times. These windsocks are called koinobori, literally "carp banner." In just the right breeze, their motion will mimic the undulation of a swimming fish. 



J.M.W. Silver 1872 watercolor of Japanese banners courtesy Project Gutenberg

So how did the carp become associated with Boy's Day? 

Like many other religious and aesthetic disciplines, Boy's Day and its mythological connection to the carp had its origins in China and to this day Boy's Day is celebrated in many countries throughout S.E. Asia. Every spring, carp would be seen returning to their spawning grounds in China's great freshwater rivers. Often this involved swimming great distances and overcoming cataracts and waterfalls along the way.


Japanese Clay Roof Tile of Leaping Carp

Eventually people associated this perseverance with the boys who studied for the Imperial Civil Service exams and the motif of carp grouped together in the pool under a waterfall was likened to the candidates waiting for their test results. 

Japan had diplomatic and trade relations with the Chinese Imperial court and Chinese Buddhist monks regularly visited the Japanese islands so it's easy to see how honoring adolescent males and the carp legend leapt across the East China Sea. But how does all this relate to the garden? It starts with the second half of the carp story and involves one of the Chinese creation myths of dragons.



Pre WWII photo of a Dragon's Gate and Dragon's Gate Hills in Shanxi Province, China

Garden roots: Dragons
In their long river journey the carp would eventually reach a waterfall that was so high and the water so fast that it was seemingly impossible to climb. But since they didn't know this they'd press on (there's that tenacity again) continually leaping up at the falling water. This fast moving water would often form a smoke-like mist in the pool at its base.

Over time the falling water would carve the stones at the bottom of the falls into upright, prow-like shapes and these stones so resembled carp about to leap that they were called "carp stones." On the Yellow River, at a point where it's tightly squeezed between two hills, is a particularly treacherous stretch of falls. These hills so resemble the gatehouses on the main roads that they've taken on their name: Dragon's Gate. In a parallel to the idea that out of the many boys who applied to the civil service only a very few would be chosen, the legend has it that every once in a great while, a leaping carp would succeed against the impossible. It will reach the top of one of these falls and be changed into a dragon. Hence the name Dragon's Gate Falls

Today in China, as in many other locations all over Asia and throughout the world, natural waterfalls with carp stones at their base are often named Dragon's Gate Falls. But how did the conceit of a Dragon's Gate waterfall first spread beyond China and ultimately to the Western World? Well, what's found in nature is often imitated in the garden. 


Golden Pavilion Dragon's Gate Falls in Kyoto, Japan

How did Dragon's Gate Falls migrate?

In Japan's medieval times, about the year 1400, the most powerful military leader in Japan (and the true power behind the Imperial Throne) Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, decided to express his dominance by building a palace in Kyoto, then Japan's capital, that would rival that of the Emperor. 

The refined aesthetics of the Chinese in design and architecture were very influential to a class of Samurai who were eager to demonstrate their superiority in everything, including the tastes of the court. The Shogun's palace and surrounding gardens are a reflection of this. Still in existence today the Golden Pavilion and its gardens are one of Japan's most popular heritage sites and you can see the Chinese influence in the design of the Golden Pavilion, in the stone placement within the gardens and in the existence of the first known built Dragon's Gate waterfall outside of China. 


Missouri Botanical Garden Dragon's Gate in St. Louis, Mo.

Although both Chinese and Japanese garden design have traditionally been based on nature filtered through Chinese ink paintings, Japanese design is more spare and sedate. This could be because of the differing nature of garden use in their respective cultures. Whereas the Chinese scholar would sit in his garden pavilion playing drinking games and having raucous poetry contests with his friends, the Japanese gardens were reflective of the more contemplative nature of their style of Buddhism. It was Shogun Yoshimitsu's wish that upon his death his Golden Pavilion would be converted to a Zen Temple. 

The West seems to prefer the more serene Japanese style as can be seen by the proliferation of both Japanese influenced gardens and those little desktop sandboxes with their tiny rakes. 

Whether it's a dry set of stones or a real waterfall, a Dragon's Gate in a garden can always be spotted by its carp stone. Sometimes the designer will add ledges to a taller waterfall as stopping points for the (imaginary) leaping carp and even put a carp stone part ways up the cascade to show a carp's progress. Next time you visit your local Botanic garden, look more closely at the waterfall: it may be a Dragon's Gate. 

Happy Boy's Day! 



Great Job

Excellent Article and photos -you really took us on an adventure through time - nicely presented - thanks.

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