Today is officially Tanabata, the one night of the year when the seperated lovers, herdsman Hikoboshi and weaver Orihime, are allowed to meet! These two are otherwise known at the stars Altair and Vega, which are typically seperated by the Milky Way.
“But wait!” those of you familiar with this holiday might say. “That holiday is July 7th! The seventh day of the seventh month!”
Yes and no. It depends on which calendar you’re going by, and for that matter, which part of Japan you reside in.
Japan has a crazy number of calendars they function by. Anyone who has ever filled out any kind of official form in Japan may have run into confusion over whether to write their birthdate according to the Western calendar or according to the Japanese year-keeping system, which changes according to the reign of the emperor (we’re in Heisei Year 25 right now). What’s more, there is an even older year-keeping system which dates back to the founding of Japan and is only used to record dates in very limited circumstances.
When it comes to yearly calendars, there has long since been influence from China and the lunisolar calendar a good portion of the Asian continent was functioning according to (or calendars similar to it). Many traditional holidays were also imported, or at least held on certain days according to the former Japanese calendar. While we’re mentioning calendars and almanacs, there are even ones that cycle more frequently than the days of the week do, and are only used now for determining things like auspicious wedding dates.
When Japan westernized, they adopted the Gregorian calendar with much more vigor than many of their Asian neighbors did. While the lunar new year is still celebrated at the start of the lunar new year in other countries, in Japan, all New Years festivities are timed according to the Gregorian January 1st. That means that while China will still be in the Year of the Snake until January 31st, 2014, Japan will start the Year of the Horse a month ahead of time. I’m born in January, so this causes some confusion when I tell people what year of the zodiac I was born in.
This means that holidays celebrating seasonal changes have also been changed so that they are too early for the season they are celebrating. Hence, Japan instituted the optional tsuki-okure (“month delay”) system. This means that although a holiday may be nationally recognized according to its date on the Gregorian calendar, different regions of Japan may choose to celebrate it one month after that date.
I bring this up because the San’in region practices tsuki-okure. Like the Touhoku region the weather is a bit cooler, so holidays that commemorate warmer and warmer weather are celebrated in appropriately warmer weather. Hence, Doll Day (usually March 3) is April 3, and Children’s Day (usually May 5) is June 5. Instead of delaying the festivities until those dates, what typically happens is that they start celebrating on the dates according the Gregorian calender (since everyone else is already doing it) and just keep the decorations out a month longer. If you are on a trip to Japan and missed the doll displays or carp banners, now you know where to go.
Back to Tanabata, yes, that would technically put it at August 7th, which still doesn’t quite match up with the old lunisolar calendar. The one-month delay is just meant to get a little closer to the original date. That said, Tanabata festivals typically aren’t held on any preappointed day; instead, individual shrines (and companies or whatever other entity) will choose a date that is convenient. Theoretically, though the starry lovers only meet for one night, you could say the Tanabata season goes on for over a month.
The basic way to celebrate Tanabata in Japan is to write a wish on a tanzaku (strip of paper) and hang it on a decorated sprig of bamboo. You find this in shrines, in shopping malls, or any other public gathering space. Towards the end of the season, they look a little heavy with everyone’s wishes.
It just so happens that on July 7th, we held the closing ceremony for the 23rd Japan-America Grassroots Summit 2013 in Shimane. As far I saw, it seems the summit was a great success, with at least 80 Americans visiting places all over Shimane for homestay and cultural exchange experiences (just a side note, this is a great way for Americans of any age, occupation, or language ability to visit Japan (or host guests with they go to different parts of the states–you’re next, San Diego and Tijuana!)). As part of the ceremony, we had the Americans take part in this 1200-year-old tradition.
As for what the locals have been writing…
Speaking of summer holidays and tsuki-okure, this is right around when a lot of the country celebrates O-bon (think Day of the Dead, only its three days). The timing varies, but several areas choose to line up this holiday a little more closely with its lunisolar date, usually roughly August 15. (The area around Tokyo seems to have a distaste for tsuki-okure, though, so theirs is around July 15. However, the holiday atmosphere still lasts through August because everyone is gone visiting their hometown then!)
To mark the deceased spirits’ return to their world after a brief visit with their living relatives, it is common to float lanterns down a river or the like, toro-nagashi. In Matsue, this year’s toro-nagashi will be on August 16, at the Ohashi River which bisects the north and south sides of the city.
It’s both a little late to be posting these pictures from last year, and a little early to be posting them now–today marks the first day of O-bon here, so the spirits have only just arrived.