Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tanabata! The Star Festival

1852 Hiroshige woodblock print of Tanabata in Old Edo

7/7...July seventh is Tanabata (七夕), the Star Festival, the most romantic festival of the year.

I just love the story behind this one:-))  It goes like this:

"Orihime (織姫 Weaving Princess?), daughter of the Tentei (天帝 Sky King, or the universe itself?), wove beautiful clothes by the bank of the Amanogawa (天の川 Milky Way, lit. "heavenly river"?). Her father loved the cloth that she wove and so she worked very hard every day to weave it. However, Orihime was sad that because of her hard work she could never meet and fall in love with anyone. Concerned about his daughter, Tentei arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (彦星 Cow Herder Star?) (also referred to as Kengyuu (牽牛?)) who lived and worked on the other side of the Amanogawa. When the two met, they fell instantly in love with each other and married shortly thereafter. However, once married, Orihime no longer would weave cloth for Tentei and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over Heaven. In anger, Tentei separated the two lovers across the Amanogawa and forbade them to meet. Orihime became despondent at the loss of her husband and asked her father to let them meet again. Tentei was moved by his daughter’s tears and allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month if she worked hard and finished her weaving. The first time they tried to meet, however, they found that they could not cross the river because there was no bridge. Orihime cried so much that a flock of magpies came and promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come and the two lovers must wait until another year to meet."

Of course, there are other versions of the story, but this is the main one (i.e.-- the one I know:-)).  And, you know, it rains nearly every year on Tanabata. :-(  Poor Orihime.  Poor Hikoboshi.  In the sky, they are Vega and Altair--forever separated by the Ama no Gawa (Heaven's River, the Milky Way), meeting only briefly on July seventh...  This is what happens when you have a Star Festival in the middle of the Rainy Season.  I just checked outside-- cloudy, with a chance of rain.  I wonder whether the Magpies will come if it's just cloudy but not  raining?

Watch this for a minute-- it fills in!
Vega, the Weaver Star (Orihime in the story-- "Ori" means "to weave" and it's part of my daughter's name "Iori"), the brightest star of the Lyre constellation and forming the top of the Summer Triangle...

Altair, the brightest star of Aquila the Eagle at the bottom of the Triangle, is Hikoboshi, her lover.

Deneb, the brightest star of Cygnus, isn't part of the story, but it does form the rest of the Summer Triangle off to the left (as you're looking at the chart over there-- the three stars of the triangle are easily visible at the start, and get a harder to find as stars fill in).
The traditions associated with Tanabata have come partly from Obon traditions (another summer festival)-- things got a little mixed up when they switched from the Japanese lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar.

The first thing to do, is go cut some Sasa (笹, bamboo-- the kind pandas like to eat:-) and tie it up or put it into a vase if it's short enough.

Then you decorate with colorful paper chains, kirigami stars (video below), kirigami Ama no Gawa (fold a piece of origami paper in half and in half again lengthwise... make horizontal cuts left, then right, then left, all the way down the paper, being careful not to cut all the way across... unfold and pull down to make the Milky Way!).

Then you write a wish on a colorful strip of paper and tie that onto the branches-- Tanabata!

 The rectangular strips are the Tanzaku (短冊), sometimes written as poetry, more often a wish to pass an exam or improve in a skill (traditionally in sewing and craftsmanship skills for girls, in handwriting for boys).

Click that photo there, and you can see the "Ama no Gawa" better (it's done in silver origami paper--very easy to make:-).

Here's the Kirigami Star again-- it's pretty if you use foil paper or sparkly or hologram paper.

Even the grocery store had signs up for Tanabata (you can see the little drawing of bamboo with wish papers on it bottom left)... the big kanji on the right    "七夕 " say "Tanabata" (the kanji read as "seven--evening, but the meaning of the word Tanabata is rather more confusing).

tomatoes for 77yen apiece...
It took me a while to figure out why lots of things were on sale for 77yen, or 177yen, or 277yen...

July 7th... 7/7... Star Festival... 77yen.  Duh.  I was slow on the uptake today;-))

Happy Tanabata! :-))

Mata asobou, ne!


  1. i wish we had cool festivals to celebrate star people. Sigh.

  2. That is so much cooler than 'some bloke getting nailed to a cross'.

    And here's the 'it reminded me of a song' link.

  3. Aw, what a sad story...

    That graphic is very cool by the way!

  4. Sarah-- I do love all the festivals here:-))

    Daz-- "Across the river"...brilliant link! Good song, too:-)

    Alice-- isn't that a fun graphic! Found it on Wiki:-)) Such a sweetly sad story, isn't it... the more so since no one would dream of taking it literally;-)

  5. Thanks for everything—story, star map, explanation, photos and the origami. I must go and try to make a star or two!