Make a Wish Upon Two Stars- at a Tanabata Decoration Near You! (and a look at the history of the Tanabata Festival in Japan)
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.
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.
Simply put, the 7th day of the 7th month according to 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.
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 way the Chinese (Kanji) characters 七夕 are pronounced in Japan (as TANABATA), derives from an indigenous story about a weaver girl- Tanabatatsume (棚機津女), who is said to have 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 cultural currents.
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.
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 this festival was 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 (only a 26% chance in early July compared with a 53%* chance in August in Tokyo)! 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.
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.
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.
`In the old days, before the calendar changed, rain on a Tanabata night was called SAIRUI U (催涙雨) – Rain of Tears, because the Weaver Girl was unable to meet the Shepherd Boy and wept.