What were you doing last Saturday (7/7/7)? Perhaps playing the lottery and hoping to hit the jackpot? That’s what I would have been doing had I remembered that last Saturday was the 7th day, of the 7th month, in the year 2007. Not that I’m a suspicious person by nature but those are a lot of 7s! I can only imagine what the lucky travelers in Las Vegas were up to that night.
Actually, last Saturday I was working at Smith’s Kyobashi. I hadn’t really been thinking of the significance of all those 7s because my mind had been fixated on Tanabata (literally translated as ‘Seven Evenings’). Not many of my friends celebrate this festival because it’s mainly for children. Aside from the fact that I had learnt about Tanabata in Japanese school, I hadn’t really seen a lot of activity for it in my previous years in Japan. So, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it at first. This year, a few of my friends with children were all chatty about this festival. Most of them were excited… except for one mother who had been coerced into babysitting a camping trip filled with four-year-olds.
The legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi
Going into a little bit more detail about Tanabata… it’s a legend based on the Chinese star festival known as Qi Xi (in Mandarin). In this legend, two lovers – who are otherwise separated 364 days of the year by the Milky Way – are granted a meeting once a year on July 7th. This festival came about during the Heian Period in the Kyoto Imperial Palace and spread to include the general public at the start of Obon. Both the legend itself and the ways the Japanese people celebrate intrigued me enough to do a little research on Tanabata.
So who are these two lovers? There are at least two different variations (not including the versions provided by people who can’t quite remember the story) but I’ve chosen the more popular one to go with. A very long time ago, a young princess named Orihime (the daughter of the Sky King Tenkou) wove beautiful cloths for her father by the Milky Way. She worked hard to please her father with her creations but she was not entirely satisfied with her life because she had never fallen in love. In order to help his daughter out, Tenkou set her up with Hikoboshi who worked on the opposite side of the Milky Way. The pair instantly fell in love. And this would have made for a beautiful love story except that Orihime and Hikoboshi became too distracted with one another and began to neglect their duties. Orihime ceased to make her father happy with her woven cloths, and Hikoboshi (who had been a cow herder) failed to control his herd, eventually allowing them to run loose all over Heaven. As punishment, Tenkou separated the two lovers on their opposite sides of the Milky Way and prevented his daughter from seeing Hikoboshi. However, Orihime became so distraught and love-sick that she cried constantly, her tears eventually moving her father into giving her some leeway. Tenkou agreed to let Orihime and Hikoboshi cross the Milky Way once a year on July 7th, provided that Orihime continue to weave him beautiful cloths. The final complication in their ability to see each other was that they had no way of crossing the Milky Way. Luckily for Orihime, a flock of magpies took pity on her and gathered across the Milky Way, making a bridge for her with their wings. And as the legend goes, if it rains on the fateful day that Orihime and Hikoboshi are to meet, the magpies will be unable to assemble and they will be forced to wait another year without seeing each other.
This story is both sad and fascinating. Orihime and Hikoboshi are represented in the sky by actual stars as well. Orihime is known as the star Vega, and Hikoboshi is known as the star Altair.
Wishes on Tanzaku
When I asked Smith’s students what they had done for Tanabata, an overwhelming percentage told me that they had written wishes. This is done on Tanzaku (oblong cards), which are then hung from bamboo. Afterwards, the wishes are gathered up and set adrift on a river or burned after the festival around midnight. I remember seeing this in Kyoto one year and wondering what the little boats had symbolized. Now my curiosity has been satiated. Similar scenes had turned up in mangas that I’d glanced at in the past (having been unable to read them at the time) or in one anime that I’d watched. It’s incredibly useful to now be able to explain the meaning of those scenes to my sister who has also taken an interest in the Japanese culture. Other students told me that they had seen colorful streamers hanging around the streets. In one class, I had fun trying to guess what a Tanzaku was with three students excitedly throwing out descriptions at the same time. Thank goodness for electronic dictionaries!
Out of the many tales that I heard from both friends and students regarding Tanabata, I thought that I’d share some of the more unusual ones, in as much detail as I can remember.
At the mercy of four-year olds
As I mentioned earlier, one of my friends found herself on a camping trip with a small platoon of youngsters clinging to her ankles. She knew that she’d be roughing it and had feared the worst given that nature just wasn’t her ‘thing’. When she arrived at the campgrounds with her son, she immediately felt uneasy because of the size of the tents. They were a pretty tight fit, even for the children. However, as more children and parents began to gather, so did the spirit of Tanabata. By the time she’d gotten everything set up, her son was chasing excitedly after frogs and other creatures in the vicinity of the tent. Soon after, the barbecues were started up, grilling meat, sausages, and marinated chicken. At the sight of food, everybody gathered around to help out in preparing dinner and getting things organized. Even the children lent a hand by handing out napkins and paper plates. Once the barbecue had settled down, everyone dug into their food while lively chatting about the trip and other unrelated events. My friend commented that the barbecue alone was entertainment enough but the best part came later on. Once the sky had darkened significantly, all of the young campers and their parents became entranced with the stars above. A few people had brought various gadgets like electronic cameras (not much use in the dark), binoculars, and mini-telescopes. While munching on potato chips, and other exotic snacks like dried squid, they passed most of the night away by star gazing. Whether or not Orihime and Hikoboshi successfully crossed the Milky Way during that time remains a mystery.
Onigiri at the top of the mountain
One of my students and his family spent the evening of Tanabata hiking up a nearby mountain in the Kansai area. His youngest daughter loves to collect insects and rocks from the mountains so they go there often, although not so much at night. On the way up the mountain, they passed the time by filling each other in on what had happened during the week because weekends are always used for doing some catching up. Although his wife is not very fond of insects (much like myself), she still enjoyed the exercise and the chance to have a family outing. Once at the top of the mountain, they assembled their telescope and sat down to have a late-night snack of onigiri (rice balls). Since his entire family is very interested in astronomy, there was no need to explain the theme of Tanabata to his children. They’d already discussed it in school the previous day, including me in their observations afterwards. I’m not sure how much interest their pet dog would have had in watching the stars but she probably didn’t mind the opportunity to stretch her legs.
I wish for…
The remaining students that I spoke with had made wishes – either verbal or written – and were anticipating those wishes coming true. Making wishes is very important in Japan during these types of festivals, I’ve been told, and all sorts of things pop up on the Tanzaku. Of the people I asked, most were only too eager to share their wishes with me. This surprised me because in Canada, due to superstitions surrounding wishes, you’d be hard pressed to convince even a family member to divulge what they had wished for after blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. However, perhaps because the wishes for Tanabata were openly displayed after being written, people generally didn’t feel so inclined to keep them a secret. Many students and other people I knew had wished for good health or financial success. One person had explicitly asked for a pretty girlfriend. Another (now suffering from what could be the Measles) wished for her condition to clear up quickly. Some others chose to wish for happiness within their families or good friendships. Yet another student regretfully complained that he should have wished for an easier way to learn English. The wishes themselves, along with the humorous way in which they were described, made for some very interesting conversations.
7/7/7 = JACKPOT!
Aside from wishes, I’d seen a large crowd of people in front of the lottery booth earlier on in the day but hadn’t figured out why up until now. After a helpful student pointed out to me that 7/7/7 equals JACKPOT, it suddenly made sense why so many people would choose that day to buy a lottery ticket. I wonder what the odds of winning the lottery are in Japan? Maybe one lottery ticket plus a carefully phrased Tanzaku would double my chances of investing in some real estate in Japan. A nice 3LDK would be nice… Come to think of it, I should have participated in the wish-writing after all!
I hadn’t meant to celebrate Tanabata at first but when it turned into the perfect excuse to spice up an otherwise dull Saturday night, I thought “why not?!” Coincidentally, my local Tsutaya was having a half-priced rental night that Saturday, an offer too good to pass up because I hadn’t watched any good movies in quite a while. So I picked up a movie after work and stopped off at the supermarket to pacify a sugar craving. And after 10pm on any night, a lot of the merchandise is discounted so I had no trouble saving some money there either. I chose some colorful mochi-like sweets that were clearly labeled ‘Tanabata’ and an iced tea and headed on home. On the way back, I looked up to the sky, trying to see the stars – any stars. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see much from my area and so I eventually gave up. The sweets turned out to be incredibly sweet, another indication that they had been aimed at children, but not so bad if eaten with some vanilla ice cream. As for the movie… I’m still not sure what to make of it but it’s a work-in-progress.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt from Tanabata, it’s that the people who participate in it usually do their best to include their family or loved ones. And judging by the various excursions that I heard about, it’s especially good for bonding with one’s children. Legends and myths have always been a little side-hobby for me so I’m glad that I was able to enjoy the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi, as well as share the excitement of the people that I encountered on – and after – that day. Next year, I intend to catch one of these festivals on the night of Tanabata in order to watch the wishes being sent into the river on their individual journeys.