August 20, 2015
by Kasumi Sakamoto, Yuki Nakajima and Momoko Fukui
Tanabata, The Star Festival, is celebrated on July 7th each year. It is one of the traditional annual events in Japan. It is said to have originated from Chinese legend of the two stars. One star is Altair, which is said to be a cowherd boy, named Hikoboshi. The other star is Vega, which is said to be a weaver girl, named Orihime. They loved each other and got married. Since then they stopped working hard to meet each other. The king got angry and sent them separately to the big river called the Milky Way. They cried a lot every day since then, and the king was moved by their sadness and allowed them to meet each other once a year only on July 7th, as long as they worked hard. On that special night of July 7th, people in Japan decorate branches of cut bamboo with strips of colored paper and decorations made of origami to celebrate their meeting again. Bamboo is believed to have talismanic power from ancient times. Japanese people also believe that if they write their wishes on the strips of paper and hang them on the bamboo, their wishes will come true. Many tanabata events are held in July 7th all over the Japan.
Tanabata vs. Kyo-tanabata
It is generally said that tanabata is on July 7th in many parts of Japan. However, some regions, like Kyoto, hold tanabata festivals on August 7th or at the beginning of August. What is the difference? Actually, present day tanabata on July 7th is based on the modern solar calendar, while tanabata on August 7th is based on the ancient Japanese calendar. In the old days, Japanese tanabata used to be held on August 7th. Interestingly, another Japanese traditional event, Obon, is held from the beginning of August to the middle of the month. Obon is the period of time when the souls of dead people come back to earth from the heaven and gather together.
Did you know there is a close relationship between obon and tanabata? In fact, tanabata used to be a part of obon in the past, and people considered tanabata as the day to welcome their ancestors. However, obon and tanabata have come to be separated in most parts of Japan. This is because of the Meiji Restoration during the Meiji Era. This restoration revised the Japanese calendar and changed it from the old calendar to the Western calendar. Therefore, most tanabata events are held on July 7th, but in traditional places like Kyoto, they are also held on August 7th.
Kyoto has many tanabata events from the beginning of July to the middle of August. Among of all, Kyo-no-Tanabata is one of the most famous. It is a collection of events held every August, usually sometime in the first two weeks of the month. Every year, it brings Kyoto residents and visitors the real feeling of summer.
Visitors can enjoy Kyoto-style tanabata as they walk along Kyoto’s two main rivers, Horikawa and Kamogawa. The Horikawa section of the festival spans from Oshioike to Shimochoujamachibashi. It is separated into four sections, First Meeting, Romance, Wish, and Meeting Again. In this way, visitors can enjoy the romantic story of tanabata as they stroll through the area. Next to the entrance, the main gate is made up of lanterns that invite festival viewers into a dreamy world. Various decorations and artistic lights beautifully express the romance of Hikoboshi and Orihime.
One of the most beautiful sections is the Milky Way of Light. It is in the area of Meeting Again because the Milky Way is the place where Hikoboshi and Orihime were allowed to meet again. This section spans from Shimotachiuridori to Shimochojamachidori, in the middle part of Horikawa site. The arch is made of bamboo, while LED lights represent the Milky Way. Upon seeing it for the first time, it is said to take visitors’ breath away.
At the Kamogawa site, visitors can feel the atmosphere of kyo-tanabata beside the Kamogawa. This area of the festival ranges from Oikedori to Shijodori. The wind chime lanterns, called furinto, is the main attraction of this area of the festival, and has become symbolic of the Kamogawa site. Many lanterns are lined along the right side of Kamogawa. Each lantern consists of a bamboo basket and a wind-bell, which is made with a traditional technique. Seeing and hearing the lanterns, visitors can feel coolness in the heat of the Kyoto summer. The best time to enjoy this section of the festival is during the evening because it is easy to see the lanterns are lighting up the dark sky.
Furthermore, visitors can get some perks if they wear a kimono or a yukata during Kyo-no-tanabata. Some restaurants or cafes near the festival sites will treat visitors with a warm reception. For instance, the Chourakukan Cafe in Higashiyama offer customers a 5% discount on their bill. Another advantage is that visitors are offered a special dressing service. For example, a yukata shop called Yumeyakata in Shomogyoku has a special dressing campaign for women. They dress female visitors in beautiful summer kimono, all for only 3,500 yen plus tax. And the visitors get to keep the kimono! Therefore, it is truly a good opportunity to wear a yukata or kimono during Kyo-no-Tanabata.
Access to Kamogawa
From Kyoto station, take bus No.4, 17, or 205 and get off at Shijo-kawaramachi. From there it is a 5-minute walk.
Access to Horikawa
From Kyoto station, take bus No.9 or 50 and get off at Nijojo mae. From there, just walk for about 2 minutes.
Kyo-Tanabata at Jishu Temple
Jishu temple is one of the sub-temples in Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu Temple. It is well-known throughout Japan for its power to make people’s prayers and wishes come true. Every day Jishu temple is bustling with not only Japanese people, but also foreign visitors. Most of them pray for love.
In the season of Tanabata, Jishu temple holds a Tanabata a special event using something made of paper, called tanabata kokeshi. ‘Kokeshi’ means Japanese limbless wooden dolls. Visitors write their name and their partner’s name on the back of the paper. And if they don’t have a partner at the time, they can write down the name of their desired partner. If visitors do this, it is said that they and their partner will be able to live with together happily, or they will able to encounter their partner in the near future.
On July 7th, we went to Jishu temple and wrote our wish on tanabata kokehi. In the shrine, there were many tourists, especially from places like China. The Chinese also have a culture of Tanabata. However, the Chinese people consider the solar calendar to be more important than the old calendar. Therefore, tanabata for Chinese people is always on July 7th, which is why Chinese people visit Jishu temple at that time.
Access to Jishu Temple
From Kyoto station, you take the buses No. 206 or 100 and get off at Gojo-zaka. It takes about 12 minutes. Opening hours is from 9:00 to 17:00.
In conclusion, kyo-tanabata has a concept that respects both modern tanabata and traditional tanabata. So, it is accepted by various people, from children to elderly people, and also foreign people. Especially, tanabata events held at Horikawa and Kamogawa are flexible for tourists because the events last for 10 days. So you can visit on the day you prefer. If you are in Kyoto during the month of August, don’t miss it!