It’s early May. The Japanese countryside is blanketed with some of the most beloved symbols of Japanese spring: passionate irises and yomogi, the Japanese “wonder herb”.
The love affair with irises and yomogi runs deep in Japan’s national psyche, weaving a fascinating tale going back to the 7th century, when Japan was ruled by empress Suiko, its first female monarch.
Traditions of May
According to the official Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki, 720 AD), Empress Suiko, an avid fan of nature and its gifts decreed the 5th day of the 5th month of every year to be the public day for collecting wild irises and yomogi leaves.
On this day, a royal expedition was held and the public was encouraged to make time to visit the countryside. The day is known as Medicine Hunt (kusuri-gari).
The tradition is still in practice today, and in early May Japanese display decorations made from iris and yomogi leaves (kusudama, medicine potpourri).
To this day, on 5th of May Japanese prepare a bath with shōbu iris leaves (shōbu-yu) for children to promote good health and to ward-off evil.
Shōbu, also known as sweet flag, belongs to a family of plants called Acoraceae and is loved for its fragrant roots and leaves
Also in May, iris and yomogi leaves are bunched together hung at entrances and under the eaves of homes to drive away evil spirits. The practice is called noki-shōbu.
Yomogi, the Japanese mugwort, is a member of the chrysanthemum family of plants. It’ scientifically classified as Artemisia princeps.
A sumptuous Japanese tradition on May 5th (officially celebrated at present as the Children’s Day) is to prepare a special treat called kashiwa-mochi, made from yomogi flavored rice cakes with sweet azuki beans wrapped in oak leaves.
Yomogi, with its immense health benefits, is known as the “Japanese wonder herb”. Besides culinary uses, it is also used to make a soothing herbal tea (yomogi cha), in herbal bath preparations (yomogi yu) and for making soap (yomogi sekken). Yomogi leaves extract is widely used in skincare cosmetics and age-spot treatments.
About Japanese Irises
Japanese irises come in three distinct species: Ayame, Kakitsubata and Hanashōbu
Ayame – Long, erect, narrow leaves and bearing purple, blue, red and occasionally white flowers. The deeply-hued, passionate ayame irises are an unmistakable sign of spring and early summer.
Tale of Power and Grace
She began her reign in year 593 A.D. in a critical time when Japan faced the prospect of civil war.
A devout Buddhist, she enacted Japan’s first constitution. This remarkable 17-article document codified statements such as “The path of a Minister is to turn away from that which is private, and to set face toward that which is public” and “Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone.”