July typically marks the end of the rainy season and the official entry into the sweltering summer season. In the old calendar (kyuureki), July is known as fumizuki or fuzuki which can be written using the same kanji characters i.e. 文月. As to how this name came about, this is said to be related to the ears of the rice plants which expanded during this period so the month is also known by names such as hobumizuki (穂含月), fukumizuki (含月), and homizuki (穂見月).
In July, the most significant festival would have to be Tanabata (七夕) which currently falls on July 7 in the Western calendar. The festival is actually celebrated not just in Japan but also in countries such as China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam on varying dates. Tanabata used to be celebrated on July 7 in the lunar calendar and was said to be closely associated with the Obon festival which was around July 15 in the lunar calendar. However, with the adoption of the Western calendar since the Meiji era, Tanabata is now celebrated one month earlier than Obon so the link between them has become less apparent than before.
Tanabata has its roots from China’s Qixi Festival which was said to be inspired by the Chinese folklore “The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl.” In the story, Orihime (織姫) and Hikoboshi (彦星) were said to have been so much in love with each other and neglected their respective duties of weaving cloth and taking care of his cows. This resulted in them being separated across the Amanogawa (天の川) as a punishment by Tentei (天帝) where they were only allowed to meet once every year on the 7th day of the 7th month. Legend has it that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies which form a bridge for the lovers to cross the Amanogawa will not appear so the couple will have to wait until the next year to meet.
During Tanabata, people also pray for the improvement of their skills as part of the Kikkouden (乞巧奠) so as to remind themselves not to follow the footsteps of Orihime and Hikoboshi and be punished for neglecting their own duties. Nowadays, the standard practice is the writing of their wishes on small pieces of paper called tanzaku (短冊) which are hung on bamboo branches. Traditionally, the tanzaku came in five colors only i.e. black, white, yellow, red, and blue which was said to represent the five pillars of Wu Xing – white for metal, blue for wood, black for water, red for fire, and yellow for earth. Depending on what you would like to wish for, the color of the tanzaku to use will be different. For example, if your wish is related to business or monetary success, you should be using the yellow tanzaku; while if you want to wish for success in your studies or exam, it is recommended to use the black tanzaku. Nowadays, you will probably notice that the colors of the tanzaku are no longer restricted to these five colors only. After the festival, the bamboo and decorations are burned or sent off on a river which is similar to the custom during Obon where paper ships with candles are set afloat on a river. Celebrating Tanabata used to be something which the nobles would do until the Edo era where the commoners made use of this festival to pray for the improvement of their skills.
As part of the Tanabata celebrations, the signature wagashi to eat during this period will have to be the Kikkouden which contains 7 types of wagashi:
1) Negai no Ito (願いの糸) which means “the wishing thread,” is a square-shaped wagashi made from kudzu starch and contains strained bean paste. It is then wrapped in two pieces of bamboo leaves and tied up with strings in three colors. In a Kikkouden wagashi set, it is placed in the center.
2) Amanogawa (天の川) i.e. the Milky Way, is usually in light green with gold stars so as to represent the night sky on Tanabata. It is usually placed on top of Negai no Ito in the Kikkouden set.
3) Ari no Mi (ありの実) is actually made to resemble a pear but the Japanese pronunciation for pear is “nashi” which means “nothing” so it was regarded as inauspicious. Due to this reason, the name of this wagashi was changed to “ari no mi” since “ari” means to have. It is made from grated yam and toasted over fire to produce the grainy texture on the surface and contains strained bean paste within.
4) Uri Tsufuri (瓜つふり) is meant to represent a melon being cut into half so the sweet rice jelly on the outside is usually green in color while the inside is filled with strained white bean paste.
5) Mayu (繭) is a type of rakugan (落雁) i.e. dry confection made from rice or barley or soy flour along with sugar and sculpted to look like a football used in the palaces of ancient Japan. This wagashi contains strained bean paste as its filling.
6) Sokubei (索餅) is a rice cake which is dyed with gardenia thus giving its orange-yellow color and is made into long strips. This is Japanese’s oldest wagashi which has been traditionally used to offer to the gods and said to have been passed on from China to Japan during the Nara era as one of the Chinese snacks with Buddhism influences. The sokubei was also said to be the original form of the somen (素麺) i.e. vermicelli or fine noodles.
7) Konashi (梶の葉) is made to look like two pieces of paper mulberry leaves and contains strained bean paste in between the two leaf-shaped mochi. The paper mulberry tree is regarded as a sacred tree and has been used as family motifs and shrine crests such as for the Suwa Shrines (諏訪神社) across Japan. Before bamboo came to be used for the hanging of the tanzaku during Tanabata, the paper mulberry branches were used instead.
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Depending on the wagashi maker, there may be slight differences in the appearances of the 7 wagashi. In recent years, there have been Tanabata wagashi sets which tend to have items differing from a Kikkouden set or there are lesser items than the usual 7. As shown in the picture above, the Tanabata wagashi set here only has four items and not everything resembles the traditional Kikkouden items. Although the Amanogawa here has the same name as that in the Kikkouden set, its shape is somewhat different from the usual rectangular ones and the stars are on the surface rather than being placed within the wagashi. As for the Negaitake and Tanabata, they are actually modifications of the Konashi and Negai no Ito with a different design but similar concept. As such, while buying a Kikkouden set to enjoy during the Tanabata, be sure to check the composition of the items in the set so that you know if you are getting the traditional type or those which have been modified.
If you happen to be in Japan during this season, why not bring along a Kikkouden set to enjoy with your friends and family while celebrating the Tanabata festival?