The tradition of Tanabata was introduced to Kyoto for the aristocracy in the Heian Period (794~1185) but didn’t really become popular for the masses until the Edo Period (1603~1868). Today it is celebrated all over Japan but the dates and the way it is celebrated varies from area to area with some following the lunar calendar so the event is in August. Here in Kyoto it is celebrated on July 7th. The custom is to write a wish on a strip of paper and attach it to a piece of bamboo. Many chakai also use Tanabata as a theme and one can see the story reflected in the various utensils and sweets.
July 7th is when the two stars Altair and Vega face each other across the Amanogawa (Milky Way). This is the factual basis for the story. The legend itself gets quite convoluted because of all the variations. Originally from China the main theme that runs through most renditions is that of two lovers that are kept apart for the year and allowed to only meet on that one day. The reasons for keeping them apart are as varied as the manner in which the story was passed down.
The two stars in Japanese are called Orihime, often referred to in English as the Weaver Princess and Hikoboshi the Herder Boy. The two fell madly in love with each other to the point of paying only attention to themselves and neglecting their work. In some of the accounts they were being punished for this neglect by being separated across the Milky Way. Then because of their devotion to each other even in separation they were allowed to come together one day a year. On this day it is said they are ferried across the stars in the moon that resembles a boat: usually it is a half moon at that time of year.
Another version has them cross on the wings of magpies! If it rains on Tanabata – as it often does – it is said that the rain is symbolic of their tears both for sadness at being apart and with happiness for the chance to be together… even if only for one day a year! If it rains that night though the lovers can’t meet because the magpies won’t fly!
I like the moon version better. I guess you could call it a heavenly Romeo & Juliet or kind of a Chinese Valentine’s Day. At any rate it could be the beginning of the term star crossed lovers!
John Ashburne adds: The traditional food to eat at Tanabata is somen, a custom that is said to have originated in China, possibly as an offshoot of ancient summer wheat harvesting ceremonies. It is a fabulous dish served ivce cold on a hot July day. Look forward to a feature on it here at FGL soon.
In his book ‘Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture, Paul Fieldhouse observes “Tanabata is a festival held every July 7th, a day when young girls write their wishes on paper strips and hang them from bamboo branches.
Sendai city is known for its elaborate Tanabata celebration. Kokeshi, a wooden doll, is the most popular souvenir of the area. The local ekiben for Sendai station is known as Tanabata Kokeshikko and comprises chicken teriyaki, kamaboko with plum flavour and boiled chestnuts on rice, in a ceramic container decorated with a stylized doll’s face”.
These days the most popular food at Tanabata is likely found at the many yatai outdoor food stalls set up at shrines, parks and other public spaces. Takoyaki octopus balls, yakitori and okonomiyaki savory pancakes are perennial inexpensive favorites.
Where to see Tanabata festivals in Japan: Throughout the country, but especially in Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, and at Kimpusen-ji Temple in Yoshino in Nara, Kifune Jinja shrine in Kyoto, and Kotohira-gu shrine in Kagawa, there are particular celebrations. Kifune’s is a water ritual known as Mizusai, and at the shrine in Kagawa, shrine officials clad in traditional robes kick a ball around in kemari, an ancient form of what British soccer players would call ‘keepie uppie’.