TsukuBlog

A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

Make a Wish Upon Two Stars- at a Tanabata Decoration Near You! (and a look at the history of the Tanabata Festival in Japan)

 

Tanabata decorations in Hojo, Tsukuba

Tanabata decorations outside an old house in Sasagi, Tsukuba (July 1st 2013)

Tanabata decorations outside an old house in Sasagi, Tsukuba (July 1st )

Tanabata decorations at  Tsukuba Center (near Shakey`s Pizza) 2016

Tanabata decorations at Tsukuba Center (near Shakey`s Pizza)

By Avi Landau

You might have noticed the colorful Tanabata (七夕) decorations-  young bamboo stalks with slender branches adorned with colorful strips of paper set up at shopping malls, supermarkets, community centers, city-offices, schools and kindergartens around town. This year, 2016, there seem to be many more them than in any recent year. If you look carefully, you will also notice a box filled with blank sheets of colored paper (tanzaku), and some pens or pencils which have been placed somewhere nearby. These are there so that anyone so inclined can write down their wish (or poem) and then tie it onto the tree. These days, it is mostly little kids who enjoy doing this, but you will still see plenty of hopeful teenagers and adults writing their prayers for family health, success in exams, protection from earthquakes, finding romance, etc. Since language is no problem in the Land of Wishes, you should pick up a colored sheet yourself and feel free to write in your native tongue.

Tanabata decorations in Sasagi, Tsukuba (2017)

Tanabata decorations in Sasagi, Tsukuba 

Tanabata bamboos in front of a supermarket in Matsushiro, Tsukuba (July 1, 2014)

Tanabata bamboos in front of a supermarket in Matsushiro, Tsukuba (July 1)

A freshly erected Tanabata decoration in Sasagi, Tsukuba (July 1st 2013)

A freshly erected Tanabata decoration in Sasagi, Tsukuba (July 1st)

 

Children writing out their wishes to hang on the Tanabata decoration in front of a supermarket in Matsushiro, Tsukuba

Children writing out their wishes to hang on the Tanabata decoration in front of a supermarket in Matsushiro, Tsukuba (July 2,)

A Tanabata Tansaku at a supermarket in Tsukuba

An elementary school student writes her wish on a colored strip of paper at a supermarket in Matsushiro, Tsukuba- she will then hang it up on the tree!

As with most other Japanese traditions, the history of Tanabata is complex, and tracing its roots can be confusing. The way it has been celebrated has also transformed DRAMATICALLY over the centuries. Matters are made even worse when you find out that different cities celebrate the festival on different dates, a month apart.

Fastening the wish to the Tanabata Tree (July 2, 2013)

Fastening the wish to the Tanabata Tree (July 2)

This Tanabata tree I found in Sasagi, Tsukuba reminded me of the New Year`s KADOMATSU pines

This Tanabata tree I found in Sasagi, Tsukuba reminded me of the New Year`s KADOMATSU pines

At the Plechef Supermarket, Matsushiro, Tsukuba (2016)

At the Plechef Supermarket, Matsushiro, Tsukuba (2016)

Simply put, the 7th day of the 7th month on the lunar calendar is the day the the stars Vega and Altair are closest in the night sky, and the ancient Chinese developed a romantic story based on this celestial event. Separated for a year by the heavenly river (the Milky Way) two lovers, a cowherd and a weaver-girl get a chance to meet for only one night before being separated until the same time next year. It was on this night that the women weavers and other craftswomen of the ancient Chinese court made supplications to the two stars in the hope of improving their skills. It seems logical enough that wishing on two stars would be more efficacious than wishing on one.

Tanabata decorations at the aquarium in Oarai ( July 5, 2015)

Tanabata decorations at the aquarium in Oarai

In 8th century Japan, everything Chinese was the rage among the aristocracy, so naturally this star festival was adopted at the Japanese court in Nara (the great poet YAMANOUE OKURA, who was sent to China as an Emissary to the Tang Court in the year 702, was one of the people who helped introduce this festival and its customs to Japan). Members of the leisured class made offerings of colorful foods and enjoyed viewing the stars to the accompaniment of koto music.

On the other hand, the reading of the characters 七夕 as tanabata, derives from an indigenous story about a weaver girl- Tanabatatsume (棚機津女), who sat by the riverside weaving beautiful fabrics for the gods. The Tanabata Festival as celebrated in Japan today is a product of the coming together of these these two currents.

Tanabata trees at the Matsushiro Kindergarten

Tanabata trees at the Matsushiro Kindergarten

The custom of writing wishes or poems on colored paper originated in China. The paper colors used today are still those favored in ancient China: blue, yellow, white, black and red. However, the other traditional paper decoration designs on the bamboo trees as well as the famous Tanabata decorations of Sendai are based on the story of Tanabatatsume.

Another completely different aspect of the Tanabata celebration in Japan was that it marked the beginning of preparations for the O-Bon Festival and on that day it was customary to wash hair, religious implements, animals etc. in anticipation of the return of ancestral spirits.

It also became customary in Japan for boys and girls to pray for better skill in calligraphy and poetry. Many older Tsukabans, as children,would wake up early Tanabata morn and gather the dew from the leaves in the garden. This water would be used to make ink for that day`s calligraphy on the tanzaku. The day after the festival, the tanzaku (strips of paper) were cast off into rivers or the sea. These customs  remain almost only as fond memories in the minds of older generation.

An Edo Period woodblock print showing the city of Edo all decked out with Tanabata decorations- note Mt. Fuji looming in the background

In the Edo Period (1600-1868) Tanabata decorations experienced a GOLDEN AGE with townspeople trying to outdo each other in putting out the more outstanding decorations. This tradition lives on at the famous Tanabata festival in Sendai, where merchants line the shopping district with spectacular decorations.

A strange turning point in the history of Tanabata was surely the adoption of the western calendar by the Meiji Government after 1868. The seventh month is August according to the lunar calendar, but is July in the new calendar. These days the 7th day of the 7th month is NOT the time when Vega and Altair meet. This occurs in August. And more to this, the beginning of July is still the rainy season and stars can rarely be seen at all! Sounds ridiculous, but it is true. The festival is celebrated a month too early.

The great Sendai Festival, however sticks with the correct timing, as do the festivals in Yamaguchi City and Oita. For major NEW CALENDAR events (I mean in July) head for the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival in Kanagawa.

There are many historical details which I have left out and you are probably glad for that. The important thing is that if you spy a colorfully decorated tree in this season, remember the story of the lovers. Maybe you too will be inspired to jot down a poem, or a special wish.

In the Aiai Mall at Tsukuba Center (2016)

In the Aiai Mall at Tsukuba Center

One of the many Tanabata decorations to be found at the Lala Garden Shopping Center in Tsukuba

One of the many Tanabata decorations to be found at the Lala Garden Shopping Center in Tsukuba (June 30)

 

A close-up of the wishes- written and drawn onto colorfull strips of paper- hanging on a Tanabata decoration in Matsushiro (July 2nd 2013)

A close-up of the wishes- written and drawn onto colorful strips of paper- hanging on a Tanabata decoration in Matsushiro Tsukuba (July 2nd)

 

July 2, 2013- a table set up in front of a supermarket in Tsukuba for writing ones Tanabata wishes

July 2 – a table set up in front of a supermarket in Tsukuba for writing ones Tanabata wishes

 

SAKUBEI- a food eaten on the seventh day of the seventh month (the TANABATA FESTIVAL) by the aristocrats of Nara and Heian Period courts. This was apparently the popukar food eaten on the festival day in Tang China. It was made from wheat and rice flour made into a dough which was stretched out to look like rope.

SAKUBEI- a food eaten on the seventh day of the seventh month (the TANABATA FESTIVAL) by the aristocrats of Nara and Heian Period courts. This was apparently the popular food eaten on the festival day in Tang China. It was made from wheat and rice flour made into a dough which was stretched out to look like rope and then deep fried.This is said to be the ancestor of today`s SOMEN- a popular summer food (cold, thin, wheat noodles) which was for centuries closely connected with Tanabata

Is there a special food for Tanabata?

Anyone who knows even a little about Japan knows how important FOOD is to make an event complete. You will often find that your Japanese friends who have been to see the Kabuki Theater, Sumo, cherry blossoms, or a professional baseball game will not tell you about the  CONTENT of what they saw when you ask them- they will tell you about the good foods they enjoyed at the venue!

Japanese festive days also have their own particular festive foods. So I found it extremely puzzling when I asked my friends and neighbors (including some elderly people) what the special food for TANABATA is, they thought about it for a few seconds and then answered: Nothing!

I found this impossible to accept, and hit the books to find out what the story was. It turns out that the food which was for centuries most closely associated with the festival- SOMEN (素麺)- cold, thin wheat noodles- became disassociated with the festival with the changing of the Japanese calendar.

Somen, is still a typical food for the hottest days of Japanese summer, and in ancient times its string-like shape also reminded people of the Tanabata story- thread for the loom, and also suggested other improtant ideas connected with the festival- koto strings.

But since now Tanabata is celebrated in early July (instead of August) in most of Japan, it is not the hot somen season- but the cool and wet rainy season. Thus the connection between somen and Tanabata has been all but forgotten.

Still this year I have heard that schools included Somen in their special Tanabata lunches- along with star shaped croquettes.

Tanabata motifed sweets on sale at the Seibu Department Store in Tsukuba

Tanabata motifed sweets on sale at a Department Store

Of course, Japanese sweet makers, always creative have created myriad dainty treats which have some symbolic significance for the festival. There are new items every year. At what is probably Japan`s fanciest confecioners, TORAYA, I found some sweets meant to represent the milky way, and another showing various kinds of weaving patterns.

Tanabata sweets are often wrapped in bamboo leaves which look like Tanabata decorations.

At the Toraya confectionary shop- milkyway-motifed sweets for Tanabata

At the Toraya confectionary shop- milkyway-motifed sweets for Tanabata



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