August Seasonal Aspects

August Seasonal Aspects

Tanabata, 七夕, Seven-night, is a great festive observance held on the 7th night of the 7th lunar month. The festivities are more popularly observed on July 7th, however, being a lunar event, it is traditionally held according to the lunar calendar, which occurs on September 22 in 2023. Tanabata is also called Hoshi Matsuri, 星祭, Star Festival, because stars are identified with the lovers Ori-hime, 織姫, Weave-princess and Hiko-boshi, Star-boy-star, a herder of cows. These stars are found in the Natsu no Dai-san-kaku, 夏の大三角, Summer ’s Great-three-corner, the great Summer Triangle.

The Summer Triangle in Japanese is the Natsu no Daisan-kaku, 夏の大三角, Summer’s Great-three-corner. At the top of the diagram above, the star is Vega, ベガ, in the constellation of Koto-za, こと座, Zither-seat. The star at the lower left is Deneb, デネブ, in the constellation of Haku-chōza, はくちょう座, White-swan seat. The star at the lower right is Altair, アルタイル, in the constellation of Aquila, Washi-Za, 鷲座, Eagle-seat.

The star Deneb is identified with the bridge of magpies that crosses the Milky Way, Ama-no-kawa, 天の川, Heaven’s-river. Magpies are thought to carry the souls to paradise. The magpie bridge that across the Milky Way allows the star-lovers, Altair and Vega, can meet. The ‘Star-lovers’ are the personifications of the stars Altair and Vega in the constellations of Cygnus. They are able to meet on the 7th night of the 7th moon, by crossing a ‘bridge of magpies’.

In China, the magpie meat can be used as medicine. Chinese folk regard magpies as a symbol of auspiciousness. The magpies climb up plum blossom branches, ume no ki, 梅の木, prunus ’s tree, to create the bridge across Heaven’s River on Tanabata. Ume boshi, 梅干, prunus dry, are eaten in China on Tanabata.  

Magpies are said to bring fruits, including ume, which are somewhat red and yellow with ripe, and salted umeboshi, which are red. Green ume for umeshu. The ume are sun-dried for a few days and some nights, as the dew improves the flavor. The fruits are then kept in a jar to age 3 months to a year. When the rainy season is over, the umeboshi are ready to be combined with leaves of shi-so, 紫蘇, purple-revive, Perilla frutescens var. crispa, perilla, beefsteak plant, and dried and turned in the sun, and eaten. Aging improves flavor.


Painting of a lyrebird; called a koto-tori, 琴鳥, zither-bird.
Lyrebird displaying; note that his plumage is white, like stars.
Ancient Chinese qin, Jpn. koto, 琴, horizontal zither, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Qin strings are traditionally made of twisted silk. Orihime was a weaver. Note the similarities between the strings of the koto and the feathers of the birds, and they are white, like the stars. In China and Japan, the parts of the koto are traditionally identified with aspects of a dragon. 

The Lyre constellation in Chinese is called, Qin, in Japanese, Koto, 琴, which is the horizontal zither. However, in China the constellation is likened to the lyre-bird, koto-tori, 琴鳥, lyre-bird, because of the lyre-like tail of the bird. The koto has various numbers of strings made of silk, and one of the most familiar koto has seven strings, as pictured above. It is curious that the number of strings of the koto echo the number of stars in the Big Dipper, seven. In the summer sky they are not that far apart.

The Weaver Princess and the Cowherd ‘stars’ were married, and when they neglected their duties, until her father, the king, separated the lovers placing them on opposite sides of heaven. After the Cowherd had eaten forbidden watermelon, he was banished, and the Weaver Princess’s tears became the Heaven’s River.  Out of pity, people wrote wishes and poems on tanzaku and hyōtan papers and hung them on stalks of bamboo called sasa, 笹, bamboo grass.

The Chinese name for this ‘Festival of the Stars’, is Qī-xì Jié, (Chishijie?), 七夕节, Seven-evening Festival, held on the night of the sixth day of the seventh moon. It has been dubbed, the Chinese Valentine’s Day. The Chinese name for Tanabata, Chishi, is close to the Japanese reading of the Kanji for 7, 七, is shichi and nana.    

Offerings are made to the happiness of the Orihime, Weave-princess, a heavenly being, who was a skilled weaver, and her husband Hikoboshi, 彦星, an earthly being who herded cattle. In China, the Star Festival is when people wishing to improve their avocations or professions pleaded to the stars for skills. This is, in part, one of the origins of the Tanabata Festival. 

Pictured above is the plant, chi qua, 节瓜, festival-melon, is the fruit of Benincasa hispida var. chieh-qua, a variety of wax gourd, winter melon, fuzzy melon, etc. In Japan, the fruit / vegetable is called gan, 冬瓜 , winter-melon, wax gourd (Benincasa hispida); ash gourd, white gourd, etc. The fruit, which resembles a cucumber, is a staple of the Chinese diet. It is harvested when it is young, about one week after it blossoms. Like the watermelon, the winter melon can grow to a great size and weight. This could be the forbidden fruit eaten by Hikoboshi. 

The Chinese word, as seen above, chi and jie, 节, means festival; holiday; node; joint; section; segment; part; to economize; to save; to abridge; moral integrity; classifier for segments, e.g. lessons, train wagons, biblical verses. The Chinese character, 节, is not used in Japanese, but has been translated into various Kanji: festival, matsuri, 祭り, and node, fushi, 節. The word fushi, with reference to the nodes of bamboo, might evoke the connection between bamboo and Tanabata and its decorated bamboo. 


Vines for gourds and melons are grown on a framework called a tana, 棚, trellis, In Chanoyu, there is a charming display stand for utensils called a ‘Hisago-dana’, 瓢, gourd-shelf. It is interesting to note that the brace for the shelf is bamboo and may have been influenced by Tanabata. This tana is a choice of Tantan-sai, XIV Iemoto of Urasenke. Hisago is part of the word hyōtan, and tan may be hidden word-play on Tantansai. 

In Japan, one variety of winter melon is kamo-uri, 氈瓜, carpet-melon, wax gourd, Benincasa hispida; kamo/carpet refers to the fuzzy surface of the unripe winter melon. In Japan, felt mats, mō-sen, 毛氈, hair-felt, are sometimes spread out for guests at a Tea gathering. Felt is not woven like fabric, but is made like traditional Japanese paper, wa-shi, 和紙, harmony (Japan)-paper.

On the 6th of August, there is the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, 仙台七夕まつり, Hermit-support Seven-night Festival. The city of Sendai celebrates Tanabata around the 7th of August, in an homage to the lunar Tanabata, although not usually on the actual seventh night of the seventh moon. The decorations are enormous and colorful.  

The Kanji that reads tana-bata are tana, 棚, shelf, and hata, 機, weave. Somehow, the Kanji, 七夕, were used to read tanabata.



Hōzuki, ホウヅキ, 鬼灯, demon-lamp, also 酸漿, sour-drink, ground cherry, Physalis alkekengi var. franchetii, husk tomato, Chinese lantern plant​.

Hōzuki plants for sale at the Hōzuki Ichi, 鬼灯市, Demon-lamp-market, held annually on July 10 – 11 at the temple of Asa-kusa Kan-non, 浅草観音, Shallow-grass See-sound, Tōkyō. Since the Heian period, such markets have been held at various temples around Japan. The hanging bamboo basket is for easily transporting   the plant, which may be planted in one’s garden. It is interesting to note that the baskets are made of green bamboo, similar to the green bamboo that is decorated with tanzaku and other adornments. The bamboo basket of hōzuki, and the bells are subject to the miracle of wind.

In the picture, the small glass globes with a pendant tanzaku are E-do fū-rin, 江戸風鈴, Harbor-door wind-bell. When the wind catches the tanzaku, it causes a glass pendant to touch the side of the globe creating a tinkling that is one the great sounds of summer. It is thought the delicate sound has a cooling effect in the heat of summer. The glass can be simply plain or with elaborate designs, and they are extremely fragile.

Shinto priests conducting o-harai, お祓い, hon.-purification, with long bamboo poles with leaves and shi-de, 四手, four-hand, purifying / dusting for the new year.

Print of children preparing for Tanabata, hanging tanzaku and other decorations on a stalk of leafy bamboo. Various relevant objects include hyōtan-shape papers, suzuri, 硯, inkstone, for writing on the papers, red-orange hōzuki with opened calyx, some ribbons, and a slice of watermelon. The square sheet of paper, hung from a corner creates a lozenge, hishigata, 菱形, diamond-shape. The Kanji, hishi, 菱, also refers to the water chestnut.

Wishes written on kaji-no-ha, 梶の葉, oar-’s-leaf. The leaf is from the paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera. The bark of the tree is used to make paper, hence writing on the leaf. In the pictured print, there are paper cutouts of oak leaves​. 

A much-loved summer treat is the watermelon, sui-ka, 西瓜, west-melon. Something close to the appearance of watermelons are illustrated on ancient Egyptian paintings. Watermelons in Asia can be traced through India, China, and into Japan, possibly as early as the 8th century AD. The first definitive written record of watermelons in Japan was in 1696. 

Although watermelons are often round like a basket ball, the Japanese like growing individual watermelons in boxes, so that they mature as cubes, and called shi-kaku, 四角, four-corners. It helps to keep them from rolling around. The Japanese also love to eat every part of the fruit, including the rind, which is pealed and pickled. Watermelons are auspicious as they have flesh that is red that scare away demons, and they have many seeds for fertility. And, they are naturally sweet.


Tanzaku with messages hanging from a stalk of bamboo. Valentine candy with messages. Like the tanzaku and gourd paper on the Tanabata bamboo. Valentine heart-shape origin – two forms joined to create one form.

Tanabata is the start of seven days of purification in preparation for O-bon, お盆, Hon.-tray, when departed spirits return to their family homes. Obon is also time for dancing and joyful excess.

The dances for these festivals are called Bon-odori, 盆おど. Perhaps the greatest of the Bon dances is the A-wa-odori, 阿波おどり, Praise-wave-dance, Toku-shima, 徳島, Virtue-island, held in mid-August. In 2023, the festival held on August 12 – 16. Thousands participate in groups and singly, watched by thousands in organized festivities, and is one of the most enjoyed events in Japan.

Two days before Obon, fires are lit in front of homes, and are called mukae-bi, 迎え火, welcome-fires. After Obon, fires are lit again in front of homes to aid the visiting spirits back to paradise. These are called okuri-bi, 送り火, farewell-fire. In Chanoyu, when having drunk the tea, one bows to the next guest, which is called okuri-rei, 送礼, farewell-bow. One of the great okuri-bi is in Kyōto, and is called Dai-mon-jiyaki, 大文字焼, Great-character-letter-fires.


Do-suzu, 土鈴, earthenware-bell; low-fired pottery with designs in orange and grey of the Kanji dai, 大, great, and the Shijō bridge, and on the reverse, funa, 船, boat, and pines. Inscribed Go-zan no okuri-bi, 五山の送り火, Five-mountain ’s farewell-fires. August 16, 2023. A tiny bead inside makes a rather clunky sound, to summon a divine spirit.

Bon okuri-bi, 送り火, Tray farewell-fire, is when spirits return to their eternal home. Great fires in the designs of several Kanji, including dai, 大, great, a boat and a torii, are lit on hillsides surrounding Kyōto. In 2023, in Kyōto, on August 16 Obon fires are lit called Go-zan no okuri-bi, 五山の送り火, Five-mountain’s farewell-fires. The event is called Dai-mon-jiyaki, 大文字焼, Great-character-letter-fires; similar events are held around Japan. Because of fire hazards, in some places, LED lights are used instead.  

Tanabata is in its special way the start of the second half of the year, and there are purification rites that should be offered. For the New Year, there is a rite that is in the form of a game called ha-ne-tsuki, 羽根突き, feather-root-thrust, which is played like shuttlecock and battledore, badminton. The ‘racket’ is called a ha-go-ita, 羽子板, feather-of-board, and the ‘shuttlecock’ is made of a seed with five colored chicken feathers attached. It should be remembered that the chicken is associated with Amaterasu, the Shintō sun goddess. 

An important aspect of the Obon season is the hōzuki, 酸漿, sour-drink, and also written, 鬼灯, demon-lamp. People adorn shrines and their homes with various offerings to welcome ancestral spirits, including the ‘lanterns’ of the hōzuki. There are many varieties of hōzuki, and small fruits are regarded as a kind of candy. Part of the enjoyment of the hōzuki, is taking the paper calyx, and gathering them atop the berry, which resembles the hane, 羽, feather, of the solemn game of hanetsuki, 羽根突き, one of the New Year’s activities.


Left: hōzuki, ホウヅキ, 鬼灯, demon-lamp, also 酸漿, sour-drink, ground cherry, tomatillo. Emblem of summer. Center: hane, 羽, feather, for playing ha-netsuki, 羽根突き, feather-root-thrust. Emblem of spring . Right: winged seed of tsuku-ba-ne, 衝羽根, collide-feather-root. Emblem of winter.

Pictured above on the right is a seed pod of the tsuku-ba-ne, 衝羽根, collide-feather-root, Buckleya lanceolata, is a species of parasitic deciduous shrub related to sandalwood. The winged-seed fruits are the origin of the tsuku bane that are batted to and fro with a wooden paddle, hagoita, 羽子板, feather-of-board. The goal is to keep the feather in the air. If it falls to the ground, the person who was unable to keep the feathers in the air,  gets some ink brushed on his or her face. This seeming punishment is in truth is to keep demons away, as they are afraid of the color black. And red. 

The hane with the colored feathers is modeled after a plant that has a berry with a few ‘leaves’ attached. A similar looking object is a variety of hōzuki, 鬼灯, demon-lamp, ground cherry, that has a papery covering of five ‘calyx’ that are gathered together to resemble the hane of hanetsuki.

Left: ha-go-ita, 羽子板, feather-of-board, used in playing ha-ne tsuki, 羽根突き, feather-root strike. Ha-go-ita, 羽子板, feather-of-board, with an ura-e, 裏絵, back-picture, design of take, 竹, bamboo, and ume, 梅, apricot, and stamped hon-kiri, 本桐, a standard traditional length of 15 sun kane-jaku. It is curious that the image of bamboo on the hagoita, is similar to the live bamboo that is used to purify sacred places for the New Year. 

Right: Shintō Kan-nushi, 神主, god-master, priest and mi-ko, 巫女, shrine-woman, clean the rafters of the shrine with long bamboo poles adorned with paper shi-de, 四手, four-hand, for New Year purification. 



At home and other places, Tanabata purification festivities prepare to welcome spirits of ancestors home with decorated bamboo stalks placed before the front of the house.  Similarly, O-shō-gatsu, お正月, Hon.-correct-month, New Year, like Obon are times when families get together in the home, and bamboo acts as a kind of purification. For the New Year, people place in front of their homes, and elsewhere, a welcoming display called kado-matsu, 門松, gate-pine. Pine boughs are part of an arrangement of three graduated stalks of bamboo and ume, 梅, prunus, which are the ‘three friends of spring’.