Nanakusa: A Japanese Epiphany? (Holidays part 3)

On January 7th, we ate nanakusa-gayu at home. Nanakusa literally means “seven grasses” and “gayu” (kayu, o-kayu) means “porridge.” So basically we ate veggie gruel to mark the official end of the Japanese New Year’s holiday season.

The custom is said to come from China in the early 3rd or 4th century CE. Like many food- and drink-related customs, this one is supposed to bring good health to those who eat it.

My wife bought the plants in the local supermarket a few days prior and froze the porridge in sealed tupperware containers. After we zapped them, the porridge tasted pretty good, actually. My kids even asked for seconds.

The “seven grasses” are all supposed to be wild plants, although in practice they seem to be deliberately cultivated:

  1. seri (water dropwort)
  2. pen-pen-gusa (shepherd’s purse)
  3. haha-ko-gusa (cudweed)
  4. hakobe (chickweed)
  5. ko-onita-birako (nipplewort)
  6. kabu (turnip)
  7. daikon (radish)

Note that the last two are not the vegetable themselves but the greens.

I found more information online, which gave alternative names in some cases (for example, “gogyo” for haha-ko-gusa and “hotoke-no-za” for ko-onita-birako). Some of the plants have interesting names related to parents and children (“haha-ko-gusa” means literally “mother-child plant” for example).

An interesting twist is that the day is evidently related to Chinese astrology. Many modern Japanese calendars include notations to mark the start of a “solar period” in the 24-solar period cycle. Each solar period corresponds to a location of the sun in the sky. For example, “small cold” (sho-kan) indicates when the sun is at a “celestial altitude” of between 285 and 300 degrees, usually from January 5th to 6th to January 20th. The next solar period (“dai-kan” or “big cold”) is the final period of winter, after which the new year starts. So basically this solar cycle is a kind of ancient almanac that is still used today.

It seems like no coincidence that Nana-kusa is at the beginning of the final solar period of winter. In fact, at New Year’s time in Japan, you often see greetings such as “kangei-shin-shun” 歓迎新春 which means “welcome new spring,” showing a completely different time sense from what I’m used to in the middle of winter.

Actually, there are more coincidences. For example, “Epiphany,” which I learned as a child as the day when the “wise men” visited the baby Jesus, is January 6th…one day before Nana-kusa. The Eastern Orthodox churches also celebrate Christmas on the same day as Nana-kusa, January 7th. So there seems to be something in various parts of the world that makes people want to do something special in the dead of winter.

Bringing green plants into your house when everything outside seems dormant or dead is a commonality among cultures with seasonal changes. I find it interesting that in Japan we eat the greens to celebrate. Don’t know if we’ll all be healthy the rest of the year, but at least it tasted good.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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