Today is Tanabata (七夕, “Evening of the seventh”), also known as the Star Festival, a Japanese festival which grew out of the Chinese Qixi Festival. It celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar. The date of Tanabata varies by region of the country, but the first festivities usually begin on July 7 of the Gregorian calendar. The celebration is held at various days between July and August.
The festival was imported to Japan by the Empress Kōken in 755. It originated in “The Festival to Plead for Skills” (乞巧奠 Kikkōden), an alternative name for Qixi, which was celebrated in China and also was adopted in the Kyoto Imperial Palace from the Heian period.
The festival gained widespread popularity amongst the general public by the early Edo period, when it became mixed with various Obon or Bon traditions (because Bon was held on 15th of the seventh month then), and developed into the modern Tanabata festival. Popular customs relating to the festival varied by region of the country, but generally, girls wished for better sewing and craftsmanship, and boys wished for better handwriting, by writing wishes on strips of paper. At this time, the custom was to use dew left on taro leaves to create the ink used to write wishes. Bon is now held on 15th August in the solar calendar, close to its original date in the lunar calendar, making Tanabata and Bon separate events now.
The name Tanabata is remotely related to the Japanese reading of the Chinese characters 七夕, which used to be read as “Shichiseki”. It is believed that a Shinto purification ceremony existed around the same time, in which a Shinto miko (auxiliary priestess) wove a special cloth on a loom called a Tanabata (棚機) near waters and offered it to a god to pray for protection of rice crops from rain or storm and for good harvest later in autumn. Gradually this ceremony merged with Kikkōden to become Tanabata. The Chinese characters 七夕 and the Japanese reading Tanabata joined to mean the same festival, although originally they were two different things.
Like Qixi and Chilseok, Tanabata was inspired by the famous Chinese folk story, “The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd”. Some versions were included in the Man’yōshū, the oldest extant collection of Japanese poetry.
Orihime (織姫 Weaving Princess), daughter of the Tentei (天帝 Sky King, or the universe itself), wove beautiful cloth 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 another year to meet.
The following variation of the story is known in China and Japan:
A young farmer named Mikeran discovered on his farm a robe which, unbeknownst to him, belonged to a goddess named Tanabata. Soon after, Tanabata visited Mikeran and asked if he had found it. He lied and told the goddess that he hadn’t but would help with her search. Eventually the pair fell in love, were wed and had many children. However, one day Tanabata noticed a piece of cloth which had once belonged to her robe on the roof of Mikeran’s hut. His lie discovered, Tanabata agreed to forgive him on the condition that he weave one thousand pairs of sandals and bury them under a bamboo tree and they’d surely meet again. Mikeran wove the sandals and buried them under the bamboo tree as Tanabata had asked. When the tree grew, Mikeran climbed up to find that he was one step short. In his haste, he had made one sandal fewer than necessary, causing the tree to grow one step short. Mikeran called out to Tanabata and she came and lifted him up. Mikeran’s father wasn’t pleased so he gave Mikeran the difficult job of watching a melon field for three days and nights without touching a single melon. Mikeran however grew very thirsty watching the melons that he touched one. The melon immediately turned into a flowing river forever separating Mikeran and Tanabata. Tanabata pleaded with her father to let her see Mikeran again. Feeling sorry for his daughter, he allows them to see each other on the 7th day of the 7th month.
In present-day Japan, people generally celebrate this day by writing wishes, sometimes in the form of poetry, on tanzaku (短冊), small pieces of paper, and hanging them on bamboo, sometimes with other decorations. The bamboo and decorations are often set afloat on a river or burned after the festival, around midnight or on the next day. This resembles the custom of floating paper ships and candles on rivers during Obon. Many areas in Japan have their own Tanabata customs, which are mostly related to local Obon traditions. There is also a traditional Tanabata song:
The bamboo leaves rustle,
shaking away in the eaves.
The stars twinkle
on the gold and silver grains of sand.
The five-color paper strips
I have already written.
The stars twinkle,
they watch us from heaven.
The original Tanabata date was based on the Japanese lunisolar calendar, which is about a month behind the Gregorian calendar. As a result, some festivals are held on July 7, some are held on a few days around August 7 (according to the “One-Month Delay” way), while the others are still held on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar, which is usually in August in the Gregorian Calendar.
Large-scale Tanabata festivals are held in many places in Japan, mainly along shopping malls and streets, which are decorated with large, colorful streamers. The most famous Tanabata festival is held in Sendai from August 6 to August 8. In the Kantō area, the biggest Tanabata festival is held in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa for a few days around July 7. A Tanabata festival is also held in São Paulo in Brazil around the first weekend of July.
Although Tanabata festivals vary by region, most festivals involve Tanabata decoration competitions. Other events may include parades and Miss Tanabata contests. Like other Japanese annual festivals, many outdoor stalls sell food, provide carnival games, etc., and add to the festive atmosphere.
Takoyaki is a hugely popular Japanese food made by from fried round dough balls with small pieces of octopus inside. This is a classic festival food and so popular in Japan, they have fast food chains that specialize just in this delicacy. Some of them let you make your own at a brazier at your table – especially in Osaka. There are various sauces including the ubiquitous Japanese prepared mayonnaise.
Yakisoba is a dish of fried noodles, usually mixed with cabbage and pork, all topped with yakisoba sauce and Japanese mayonnaise. This is a classic festival snack food that is usually available at street stalls at Japanese festivals.
Yakitori is a common sight both at Japanese festivals and roadside “yatai” stalls. Yakitori is usually grilled chicken meat cubes on a skewer, but can also be made with chicken livers, chicken hearts, chicken skin or other chicken bits.
Cold somen is, however, the dish most representative dish of Tanabata. The noodles are said to represent the “river” of the Milky Way. There are three components: the somen, a dipping sauce, and vegetables (some of which are cut like stars). You can buy little vegetable cutters like cookie cutters for this. At street stalls the vegetables are placed on the noodles, but at home you can serve them on the side for guests to choose. The important thing is to have bright colors to contrast with the noodles. You can make the dashi (fish and seaweed stock) yourself from konbu and bonito flakes, or make it from stock powder. The former is better, but I usually use the latter for convenience. Dashi is as common as light stock in the West in a good Japanese kitchen
Star Festival Somen
14 oz dried somen noodles
For dipping sauce
1 ½ cups dashi
¼ cup light soy sauce
¼ cup mirin (sweet cooking wine)
1 cucumber, thinly sliced then cut into stars
2 eggs and 1 tsp of mirin, beaten
4 okra, boiled and cut into ¼ inch thick pieces
2 oz imitation crab (sea legs), shredded
4 small tomatoes, sliced into thin rounds
1 carrot sliced very thin and cut into stars
Bring the mirin, soy sauce, and dashi soup stock to a rapid boil in a saucepan. Immediately turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature.
Sprinkle salt on the cucumber stars and let them sit for a few minutes. Then press them with a paper towel to squeeze out the excess water.
Oil a small skillet or crepe pan and pour in a ladle of the egg mixture to make a thin omelet. Make a few sheets and cut them into thin strips.
Arrange the toppings on a plate.
Boil water in a large saucepan. Add the dried somen noodles and cook until soft, gently stirring with chopsticks.
Drain the noodles in a colander and cool them under cold running water. You can then place them in the colander in a bowl of iced water for a few minutes. Make sure you drain them thoroughly.
Serve each guest a bowl of dipping sauce and a portion of noodles, with the vegetables on top or on a common serving dish.