Nanakusa (the seven herbs of spring) (七草)
The seven herbs of spring (Nanakusa) is a custom of eating hot soup containing seven vegetables on the morning of Jinjitsu no Sekku, the so-called Person-Day Festival (January 7). Originally, the Chinese characters 七草 meant the seven flowers of autumn; the custom on January 15, the Lunar New Year, is written in Chinese characters as 七種, which are also pronounced as 'na na ku sa,' but generally the custom on January 7 is written as 七草 in Chinese characters. Today, the custom's original meaning is lost, so only the form of the custom remains; but it's considered that the custom of Jinjitsu no Sekku and the custom of the Lunar New Year have been intermixed, so that the custom of eating "Nanakusa-gayu" on January 7 (rice porridge with seven spring herbs) has emerged.
The old-time Nanakusa
The old-time Nanakusa is different from the following 'the seven herbs of spring (Haru no Nanakusa)' or 'the seven flowers of autumn (Aki no Nanakusa).'
Rice, foxtail millet, panicum miliaceum, Japanese millet, sesame, azuki bean, American sloughgrass (Mino, Mutsuoregusa)
The seven herbs of spring
The seven herbs of spring comprise the following seven grasses:
('Hotoke no Za' is different from the henbit of Lamiaceae.)
The rice porridge containing the seven chopped vegetables is called Nanakusa-gayu, and people regard Nanakusa-gayu as a good fortune that removes evil from the body and prevents all kinds of diseases. Nanakusa-gayu not only has the occult meaning but also has the effect of calming a stomach irritated by New Year's dishes, and can make up for the loss of nutrients in winter, when vegetables are scarce.
People chop the seven vegetables with a kitchen knives on a cutting boards the night before the festive day while singing an accompanying song, and on the morning of the festive day they add the chopped vegetables in the rice porridge. The accompanying song is derived from a song to drive birds away; it's believed that the event of Nanakusa-gayu and the custom of praying for a good harvest have been brought together. The lyrics of the accompanying song are like this: 'Seven herbs, shepherd's purse, birds from China, towards the land of Japan, towards the place where they do not cross to, now together, Batakusa Batakusa ('Nanakusa nazuna toudo no tori ga, nihon no tochi ni, wataranusaki ni, awasete, Batakusa Batakusa)'; the song varies, depending on the area.
The event of the seven herbs of spring is also known as 'the game played on the day of the mouse.'
In relation to the event, there was a custom of picking young grasses in the fields on the first day of the rat in January.
"The Pillow Book" also says, 'On January 6, a person brought young grasses for January 7, and people got excited....'
These grasses are mostly lowland weeds or the ones that grow in fields. It is assumed that these grasses were picked around the area of a rice paddy.
In China, on this day, there was a custom of eating 'Nanashusainokan' (hot soup with seven vegetables) and praying for good health. In Japan, too, there has been this custom through the ages: in the "Engishiki" (an ancient book of codes and procedures on national rites and prayers) there appears Nanakusa-gayu, which is called Mochi-gayu and written as 餅粥 (望粥). Mochi-gayu was served on January 15 (by the lunar calendar) each year, and it contained seven ingredients, such as rice, foxtail millet, panicum miliaceum, Japanese millet, American sloughgrass, sesame and azuki bean. It was believed that eating Mochi-gayu would remove evil. There are many questions regarding the origin of Mochi-gayu, but "Ononomiyanenjugyoji" (the precedents for annual events of Ononomiya) says that Mochi-gayu was already mentioned at Shusuishi (water office in charge of acquiring water and cooking porridge) in the Konin-shiki Code; moreover, Emperor Uda wrote that he introduced the folk custom into the imperial court during the Kanbyo era ("Udotennoshinki (the diary of Emperor Uda)," February 30, 890). This custom appears in "Tosa Nikki (Tosa Diary)" and "The Pillow Book."
Later, people began to add vegetables which grew in the early spring (the New Year in the old lunar calendar falls at about the beginning of February on the modern calendar, which was early spring in those days) into the porridge; there are various theories on what kinds of vegetables they were, and the types of vegetables varied according to the area.
The present seven kinds first appeared in "Kakai-sho Commentary" (commentary on "Tale of Genji" by Yoshinari YOTSUTSUJI, written in around 1362), which stated 'Japanese parsley, shepherd's purse, gogyo, hakubera, henbit, suzuna and suzushiro, and those are the very seven kinds.'
Around the Edo period, Nanakusa-gayu became popular among samurai families and ordinary people; the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) held the ceremony as their official event in which all samurai warriors including the seii taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians") ate Nanakusa-gayu.
The seven flowers of autumn
The seven flowers of autumn consist of the following seven wildflowers:
It is believed that the origin of the seven flowers of autumn comes from the following two poems written by YAMANOUE no Okura (the second poem is Sendoka (a type of waka)).
In the autumn field, I counted the wildflowers in bloom, and seven kinds of wildflowers were there (Aki no no ni sakitaru hana wo yubiori (oyobiwori) kakikazuureba nanakusa no hana) (Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), Vol. 8, 1537).
There are various theories as to what 'Asagao no Hana' would indicate; some say it refers to the morning glory, the rose of Sharon, the California rose and the balloon flower, but the most widely held theory is the one supporting the possibility of the balloon flower.
Unlike the seven herbs of spring, there is no special event related to the seven flowers of autumn. The autumn field, where wildflowers bloom, is called 'Hanano' (flower field), and since early times people would walk around the field and compose Tanka (poems of 31 syllables) or Haiku (poems of 17 syllables). People have a good time viewing the seven flowers of autumn, but they neither pick nor eat the flowers.
How to remember
"Osukina fuku wa" (What dress do you like?)