FESTIVALS OF SHINTO
Chapter 7: Tanabata
The “Star” Festival of Japan
Every night people
around the world, in a variety of different countries and cultures, “wish
upon a star” in the hope of getting their heart’s desire. Not only is this
a common practice in Japan, but there is a festival dedicated to star-wishing
that is celebrated all over the country. This festival is Tanabata.
Matsuri – “Star Festival,” Tanabata is held in the Tokyo area
at various times beginning July 7th, but is celebrated in different parts
of Japan at different times all the way through mid-August. The reason
for this is that this festival originally came from China and was once
based on the shifting lunar calendar, when Japan adopted the “fixed” calendar,
different localities made their own decisions as to when Tanabata would
be celebrated. No matter when it’s held, This festival is one of the most
colorful and interesting of all Japanese celebrations, one well worth the
trouble to seek out and enjoy.
But what do stars
have to do with all this?
were originally born from certain myths or legends and this is true of
the “Star festival.” From the earliest times, stars were considered
gods and tales of these gods were very widely believed, especially the
legend of the “star-crossed lovers.”
| Once upon a time
there were two star-gods who were exceptionally beautiful and wise. The
“Princess Weaver” (the star Vega) was the king’s daughter and a beautiful,
accomplished weaver who was responsible for the royal cloth. The divine
Cowherd (the star Altair) was tending his flocks in the hills next to the
palace one day when the Princess happened to gaze out the window. Their
eyes locked and it was love at first sight. They immediately ran to each
other and, after a brief courtship, approached the king for his blessing,
which he granted easily. Unfortunately, problems soon developed. The two
were so madly in love that the weaving and the herds were both neglected,
not a good state of affairs. The king put his foot down and ordered the
two to be separated by the “river of stars” (the Milky Way), except for
one day a year when they could visit each other.
That one day is,
as you’ve probably guessed, Tanabata! It’s the time each year
when the star-gods Shokujo (the Princess) and Kengyu (the
Cowherd) meet, crossing the Milky Way with the help of a bridge formed
of loyal sparrows.
Knowing this myth,
it’s easy to see why this festival has elements of romance, wish fulfillment
and colorful artistry as part of it’s heritage. It also very likely has
a interesting past as an ancient fertility festival as well. Though
the celebration was originally Chinese, the name Tanabata came about because
when the Star Festival was introduced into Japan by the Empress Regnant
Koken in 755 AD, she dedicated it to the worship of the Japanese weaver
goddess Tanabata, deciding that her and the Chinese “Princess Weaver” were
one and the same.
Festival street scene.
once focused on writing elegant poetry upon strips of paper and floating
them down streams during refined sake-sipping parties held by aristocrats.
This eventually evolved into the practice of tying poem-filled strips of
paper (called tanzaku) to sacred lengths of bamboo. By doing so,
it was believed that one would become a better writer or weaver. Here we
see the mixing of Chinese and Shinto ideas, and so the festival soon became
one of wish-fulfillment with poems being often replaced by petitions for
luck or money.
| Later still,
when Tanabata was wholeheartedly embraced by the masses, it became a typically
exuberant Japanese festival in its own right, complete with dances, music,
parades and lots of festival food. The simple wish-covered pole of bamboo
were soon joined by paper streamers, standards, poles and extravaganzas
of paper craft that can be seen in Japan at no other time, truly one of
the greatest sights in this festival-crazy land! Many of the complex
ball-and-streamer Tanabata decorations seen today are said to represent
stars, but you’ll also see some that depict cartoon characters, animals,
dice and almost anything else that can be imagined.
today celebrate Tanabata about the same as their ancestors did, except
that nowadays it is considered much more of a children’s festival. Tanabata
festivities are extended to schools where children decorate their classrooms
and offer poems and prayers for improved penmanship, along with more mundane
Hoshii - star symbols.
Though not as
common these days, it was traditional for everyone to offer fruit and sweets
to the star-gods to celebrate their celestial get-together in the hope
of capturing a little of the event’s joy. Even today, during the festivities,
it is not uncommon to see temporary shrines dedicated to the star-gods
set up with offerings such as sake, fruit and flowers displayed.
No matter what
else, wishes and poems are still the key offerings for this holiday, and
families still gather to write them down on beautiful strips of paper and
tie them to bamboo branches. After these are suitably displayed, they are
often ceremonially tossed into a river or the ocean.
have their own bamboo poles for Tanabata, but those in Tokyo who are too
busy to set one up can stop by almost any JR station. There you will find
a Tanabata bamboo branch, strips of colored paper and a handy marker pen
at your disposal. Feel free to make a wish and tie it to the branch. Any
language is fine, the star-gods are very open-minded.
Festival street scene.
The best place
to catch Tanabata festivities are in localities that make it their big
holiday. In July, such towns near Tokyo as Ogawamachi, and Hiratsuka are
good bets, though many easier-to-reach temples and shrines will have some
sort of activity going on. If you wish to travel farther afield, the most
famous Tanabata festival is held in the city of Sendai from August 6 -
8. Some other large-scale Tanabata festivals which occur at the same
time are the Tanabata Etoro Matsuri in Yuzawa-shi, Akita Prefecture, the
Kenka & Kaijo Tanabata in Rikuzentakata-shi, Iwate Prefecture, and
the Matsumoto-no-Tanabata in Matsumoto-shi, Nagano Prefecture.
Whether you enjoy
this festival in streets filled with streamers and dancers or in the privacy
of your living room, it never hurts to make a wish upon a star, especially
when you’re doing it along with millions of other Tanabata fans!