Tanabata – Star Festival

The 7th day of the 7th month is Tanabata in Japan. The one night in the year that  the two lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshsi, separated by the milky way are permitted to meet. People mark the day by writing wishes on colourful paper, tanzaku. When in Japan, my two daughters spent the days leading up to Tanabata making paper decorations and writing wishes to hang on bamboo.

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On that night we would have star themed meals,  star carrots in chirashi-zushi (scattered sushi) or last year the farm shop in Ayabe Tokusankan was selling star and heart shaped cucumbers! We created a huge salad with a grated carrot milky way, and lots of cucumber stars.

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This year being back in the UK, I didn’t have the usual reminder of hanging tanzaku leading up to the entrance of the kindergarten. It was my daughter who happen to ask the day before “wasn’t Tanabata coming up soon?”.

We are still not back in our house nor unpacked our belongings so we had a make-do celebration that evening. When she came home from school we wrote down our wishes and she strung them up on a nearby tree. We had chirashi-zushi for supper, unfortunately without any stars or hearts, but still a Japanese meal to mark the day.

七五三 Shichi-Go-San Festival

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The Seven-Five-Three Festival is a rite of passage for young children in Japan. Girls aged 3 or 7 and boys aged 3 or 5 dress up in kimonos, often for the first time, and visit their local shrine (and of course take lots of photos). It takes place on November 15th, some say because this is the sum of 3, 5 and 7.

The origins of this festival date back to the Heian period when children were not registered until they were 7. Odd numbers were considered lucky, and in a time of high infant mortality people visited the shrine to give thanks when their children reached the lucky ages of 3, 5 and 7.

Our little 7-5-3 ceremony took place in January rather than November when my mother-in-law was visiting and could bring the kimonos and dress my girls. Unlike most Japanese families it was a low-key affair, with no elaborate hair-dos, accessories, wigs or make up.

We went to the simple but beautiful local shrine called Hachimansan. As there was snow on the ground they had to wear wellies to the shrine and then change into their geta sandals. It was very cold but they stood patiently while we took more photos then necessary. We celebrated with a hot chocolate at home and then to the nearby hot spring to warm up.
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At 7 a girl is allowed to wear an obi, elaborate sash, for the first time.

 
My children adored dressing up in formal Japanese clothing for the first time, made even more special by wearing kimono handed down through the family. My 6 year old wore her aunt’s kimono,  the eldest girl in my husband’s family. When he was five, my son wore his grandfather’s kimono and hakama made over 70 years ago.

 

Hina Matsuri

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March 3rd is Hina Matsuri also called dolls day or peach blossom day
 
Girls display their hina ningyo, dolls that represent the Empress and Emperor of the Heian court. Simple sets will just have the imperial couple but more elaborate ones will have several tiers that include court ladies and musicians, ministers and samurai.  
 
These are often passed down through the generations. My niece was gifted a full set as a baby and when set out fully has an impressive seven tiers, which virtually reaches the ceiling. 
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We have yet to buy sets for our daughters, mainly because I’d like to buy a simple pair rather the elaborate, but plastic, hina ningyo sold in the shops. For the moment we do just fine with my son’s origami and decorations made by the girls at kindergarten.
Sets are displayed from mid-February but after hina matsuri are quickly packed away as people used to believe that dolls left out after the 3rd March would delay their daughter’s chance of marriage. 
 
Decorations and food feature the colours pink, white and green, representing plum blossom, snow and the new green shoots that are appearing this time of year. 
 
My mother-in-law changes the scroll in the alcove of their Japanese style room for this one depicting the Empress and Emperor.
 

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As with all Japanese festivals there is particular food to eat on this day. Like many families we had chirashi-zushi, scattered sushi, ours was simple without lots of raw seafood; strips of egg, nori, cucumber, shiitake, carrots and prawns. Followed by a sweet non-alcoholic sake, amazake, and hishi-mochi, a diamond shaped layered rice cake of pink, white and green. 
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冬至 A Japanese Winter Solstice