Ando Hiroshige, Tanabata Festival in Edo, 1852
(from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji)
'Among the many charming festivals celebrated by Old Japan, the most romantic was the festival of Tanabata-Sama, the Weaving-Lady of the Milky Way.' When Lafcadio Hearn wrote this at the beginning of the twentieth century, the custom had largely been abandoned in the cities. I wonder if even then light pollution was beginning to make it hard to see the Milky Way (in 2008 the Japanese prime minister asked people to switch off their lights to celebrate the festival). The Chinese legend behind the festival tells of Orihime, daughter of the Sky King, who weaves clothes beside the heavenly river, and her marriage to the herder Hikoboshi. Once married she stops weaving and he lets his cattle stray all over Heaven, so the Sky King forbids them to meet. However, moved by his daughter's tears he relents and allows them to cross the river once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when a flock of magpies create a bridge for them. Today, July 7th, still marks the beginning of the Tanabata festivals, although the exact date varies by region. Lafcadio Hearn's description of how it used to be celebrated is, I think, particularly evocative: ink stones, morning dew, poetry, bamboo planting and offerings to the star deities...
'The popular customs relating to the festival differed according to locality. Those of Izumo—where all classes of society, samurai or common folk, celebrated the holiday in much the same way—used to be particularly interesting; and a brief account of them will suggest something of the happy aspects of life in feudal times. At the Hour of the Tiger, on the seventh night of the seventh month, everybody was up; and the work of washing the inkstones and writing-brushes was performed. Then, in the household garden, dew was collected upon yam-leaves. This dew was called Amanogawa no suzuki ("drops from the River of Heaven"); and it was used to make fresh ink for writing the poems which were to be suspended to bamboos planted in the garden. It was usual for friends to present each other with new inkstones at the time of the Tanabata festival; and if there were any new inkstones in the house, the fresh ink was prepared in these. Each member of the family then wrote poems. The adults composed verses, according to their ability, in praise of the Star-deities; and the children either wrote dictation or tried to improvise. Little folk too young to use the writing-brush without help had their small hands guided, by parent or elder sister or elder brother, so as to shape on a tanzaku the character of some single word or phrase relating to the festival,—such as "Amanogawa," or "Tanabata," or "Kasasagi no Hashi" (the Bridge of Magpies). In the garden were planted two freshly-cut bamboos, with branches and leaves entire,—a male bamboo (otoko-daké) and a female bamboo (onna-daké). They were set up about six feet apart, and to a cord extended between them were suspended paper-cuttings of five colors, and skeins of dyed thread of five colors. The paper-cuttings represented upper-robes,—kimono. To the leaves and branches of the bamboos were tied the tanzaku on which poems had been written by the members of the family. And upon a table, set between the bamboos, or immediately before them, were placed vessels containing various offerings to the Star-deities,—fruits, sōmen, rice-wine, and vegetables of different kinds, such as cucumbers and watermelons.' (The Romance of the Milky Way and Other Studies and Stories, 1905)One reason for mentioning this festival here is that in the Tanabata story the Milky Way has been imagined as a landscape feature in the sky. Hearn begins his essay with a quotation from an 'ancient scholar': 'Of old it was said: "The River of Heaven is the Ghost of Waters." We behold it shifting its bed in the course of the year as an earthly river sometimes does.' At the end of the festival people went down to their nearest earthly rivers. The bamboo that had been planted and fixed to houses (like branches in the European May traditions I wrote about here recently) were then thrown into the water with poems attached to them. Hearn concludes his essay with the reflection that old Japanese poetry based on the Tanabata legend, so remote from our modern worldview, may have little appeal in the West.
'Nevertheless, in the silence of transparent nights, before the rising of the moon, the charm of the ancient tale sometimes descends upon me, out of the scintillant sky,—to make me forget the monstrous facts of science, and the stupendous horror of Space. Then I no longer behold the Milky Way as that awful Ring of the Cosmos, whose hundred million suns are powerless to lighten the Abyss, but as the very Amanogawa itself,—the River Celestial. I see the thrill of its shining stream, and the mists that hover along its verge, and the water-grasses that bend in the winds of autumn.'