Nanakusa: Holiday of Seven Herbs

As readers may have noticed from past posts, I have posted about certain traditional Japanese holidays, called sekku (節句). Examples included Girls Day (March 3rd), Children’s Day (May 5th), Tanabata (July 7th) and Day of the Chrysanthemum (September 9th). The last holiday on my list is actually the first on the calendar: Nanakusa (七草) which literally just means “seven grasses / herbs”.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

This holiday is surprisingly old, with origins in ancient custom in southern China whereby people would cook seven herbs as a porridge on the 7th day after the Chinese new year. Elsewhere, I heard that the holiday was also associated with an Imperial tradition in old times to pardon criminals on this date as an act of compassion, though I can’t confirm that now.

The custom has persisted in Japan though in some households more than others. I had it one time many years ago when we visited my wife’s family home in December-January. I saw a bunch of roots and herbs in the kitchen, like the ones shown above, but didn’t give it much thought. The next day, we were served a rice and herbal porridge, pretty bland in taste, for breakfast. That was how I learned about Nanakusa.

Also courtesy of Wikipedia

According to the Wikipedia article, the seven herbs are:

Modern Japanese NameEnglish
Seri (セリ)Water dropwort, specifically a non-toxic variant Oenanthe javanica
Nazuna (ナズナ)Shepherd’s purse
Hahakogusa (母子草)Cudweed
Kohako (繁縷)Chickweed
Koonitabirako
(小鬼田平子)
Nipplewort1
Kabu (蕪)Turnip
Daikon (大根)Japanese radish

Of these seven herbs, I’ve eaten turnips and Japanese daikon radish regularly, but the other five are pretty obscure to me. I doubt most Japanese would easily remember them off-hand either. Supposedly there is a song that’s is sometimes sung while facing the auspicious direction that year (same direction as for Setsubun, I suspect), but no one in my wife’s house sang it, or at least while I wasn’t around.

Anyhow, that’s a look at Nanakusa. I joked with my wife if she’d make it this year, and she flatly refused. While it is a very traditional holiday, the porridge takes a lot of work, especially here in the US where the herbs might be hard to find, and frankly isn’t great tasting. It’s a medicinal porridge more than comfort food. That said, it is a fascinating window into some very old Chinese traditions that still persist in Japan.

1 The 12 year in old in me giggles whenever I read this plant name. 😂

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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