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Home » 5. Rites and Festivals » Rituals in Daily Life
Tanabata
"Seventh Night"; Held on the seventh day of the seventh month (i.e. July 7), tanabata was one of the "five seasonal feasts" (gosekku) recognized and established by the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is also generally known as hoshi-matsuri (The Star Festival)., This celebration is first mentioned in the seventh Century Ryō no Gige as one of the year's events, though it originated as a Chinese folk custom. According to an ancient Chinese story, the two star-crossed lovers the Herdsman (Altair in the Aquila Constellation) and the Weaver woman (Vega in the Lyra Constellation), traversed the sky separately, able to cross the Milky Way and be together but once a year if the sky is clear. Their reunion has come to be called "tanabata" in Japanese because the Chinese myth has come to be blended with the similar indigenous myth of the saintly maiden weaver, Tanabatatsume (lit. 'girl of the shelved loom'), who awaits her annual one-night visit from a kami at her riverside (i.e. Milky Way-side) hut. Also related to this celebration is a festival called kikōden (kikkōden), during which women pray for improvement in their weaving and calligraphy skills. In the Heian period, the court developed a practice of skewering various fruits of the mountains and the sea (including pears, peaches, and dried bream) on seven gold and seven silver needles and threading them with five-colored string (blue, yellow, red, white, and black) as a tanabata offering. This was accompanied by a banquet, during which the emperor would observe the meeting of the stars, with performances of poetry, songs, and instrumental music. Nowadays on tanabata, people commonly write poems and wishes on fancy strips of paper (tanzaku), cut out brightly colored paper stars, and decorate a bamboo stalk with these. The next morning, the decorated stalks are customarily released into the ocean or into rivers and streams. Some think that this latter practice originated and spread during the Edo period as a product of the diffusion of education in handwriting. In some areas, horse-shaped puppets or other objects are substituted for bamboo stalks, and in others, the celebration involves a lighting of torches. There is another custom in some areas of lighting tanabata lanterns known as nanoka-bon (7th day bon), a practice originating from the blending of that celebration with the Lantern Festival for the dead (O-bon) held shortly thereafter. Common to all tanabata celebrations, however, is the idea that it is a time to welcome the gods and one's departed ancestors and then, when the night was over, sending them on their way. Several well-known, large-scale celebrations of tanabata include those in: Sendai, where the festivities were begun as part of an effort to revive the economy in the postwar years; Aomori, where it has been combined with the nebuta Festival, in which papier-mâché lanterns (tōrō) of varying sizes and shapes are paraded; and Akita, where men parade through the streets balancing numerous paper lanterns on tall bamboo poles (kantō), for which the festival is named. All three clearly have the markings of tourist events.

— Yumiyama Tatsuya
The Tanabata festival in Sendai.

Miyagi Prefecture, 1999

©Fujii Hiroaki

Footage of the tanabata celebration at Tōkyō Daijingū. Worshipers write their wishes on short paper slips and tie them to bamboo twigs.

Tokyo, 2007

©Ōsawa Kōji

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