“Fumizuki ya/ muika mo tsune no/ yo niwa nizu”
“On the night before the lovers meet there is the electricity of anticipation in the air” 1
As the long grey days of incessant rain continue during rainy season, the colorful and romantic festival called Tanabata (Star Festival) makes for a particularly enjoyable diversion. According to the ancient legend, every July 7th, the weaver star Vega/Orihime and her lover the cowherd star Altair/Higoboshi, travel across the Milky Way to be reunited just once a year.
The lovers are celebrated in Japan with bright decorations and messages written on long, narrow strips of colored paper called “tanzaku”. In the lead up to the festival, many handmade ornaments are hung from bamboo branches and can be seen in all manner of public and private spaces: from shopping malls to family homes. Before the tanzaku are attached to the bamboo, personal hopes and wishes are written on them. Personally, I am always moved by this display of public petition. Exposing one’s dreams for anyone to see has a poignant quality of intimacy about it in a society where there is such a clear divide between the public and private persona. Not surprisingly this year, I witnessed a large number of messages praying for the abatement of the COVID-19 pandemic amidst earnest hopes to grow up as a professional soccer player.
What I also love about this festival is the playful sense of community engagement at all levels. In the last few days I’ve enjoyed seeing mothers riding bicycles on their way home from kindergartens, their children in tow brandishing small bamboo branches with origami paper decorations fluttering in the breeze. Young lovers also embrace this festival and even more pragmatic elderly folk have a soft spot for this tale of love triumphing (if only once a year) over adversity.
According to the legend, the Emperor of Heaven, Tentei had a daughter Vega/Orihime who lived on the east bank of the Milky Way “river” (Amanogawa) and was particularly devoted to her craft of silk weaving. At a certain point, her father became concerned for her welfare and so married her off to Altair/Higoboshi (a cowherder) who lived on the west bank of the river. However, Vega/Orihime started to neglect her work after marriage and her father became so incensed that he forced her to return to the east bank of the river. Being exiled to opposite ends of the Milky Way caused such sadness that the Emperor took pity on the lovers, granting them just one yearly rendezvous on the seventh day of the seventh month. However, should there be rain on the evening of the seventh, Vega/Orihime would not be able to cross the swollen river. In that case, magpies spread their wings to make a bridge for her. The lovers are permitted to meet annually so long as they diligently fulfill their work duties the other 364 days of the year. The underlying moral does strike me as being somewhat “Confucian” in its emphasis on reward for hard work.
Based on the legend, there was a custom to worship these two stars on July 7th in China and this observance came to Japan in the Nara period (710-794). When the Tanabata festival first arrived in Japan, aristocrats in the Imperial court would compose poetry while gazing up at the night sky. At that time it became one of the five traditional seasonal festivals known as gosekku that originated in China and began to be observed by the Japanese Imperial court some 1200 years ago. Tanabata became an observance for the broader population in the Edo period (1603-1868). It was at this time that the tradition of writing hopes and dreams on tanzaku and hanging them on bamboo branches first appeared.
Bamboo is thought to have been incorporated in the Tanabata tradition because it tends to grow tall and straight, therefore bearing wishes to heaven as it sways in the breeze. On a more practical note, bamboo is also believed to deter insects and has a history of being displayed to protect the emerging crops.
This year I particularly enjoyed the Tanabata decorations at my local shopping arcade called the “Demachi Shotengai” as well as the grand shrine Kitano Tenmangu. Visiting the shrine on the west side of town allowed me to visit the famous traditional Japanese sweet shop Oimatsu, where luckily I was still in time to order the seasonal sweet “Natsu Kantou”. I’ve had my eyes on this confection for some years and it is an extravagantly priced specialty of this old Kyoto shop. Until July 20th Natsu Kantou is available. It is made from a whole Japanese citrus fruit known as “natsu mikan” which is characterized by a sweetness tempered by a slight bitter astringency. The flesh of the whole fruit is scooped out and reconstituted as a refreshing jelly, a perfect treat for these sultry days in the rainy season.
The 31st micro-season marks the transition into another of the 24 seasonal points known as Shōsho. It is the fifteenth day from the Summer Solstice, usually around July 7th. It’s the time that temperatures really start to rise. It’s not uncommon to have maximum temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius accompanied by minimums of over 20 degrees. Everyone in Kyoto realizes that now is the real beginning of the long hot summer.
- Sasaki, Sanmi. Chado: The Way of Tea. Translated by Shaun Mc Cabe and Iwasaki Satoko, Tuttle Publishing, 2002