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Tanabata, a Festival of Love and Stars

Japanese CultureAlyonaComment

Summer is a very special time in Japan. July in particularly is special, because it is the end of the ‘rainy season’, a time when it quite literally rains every single day for a month. July is also very special, as it marks the beginning of the Japanese summer festival culture. It is the time when communities get together to celebrate, often wearing the traditional 浴衣 (yukata, a light cotton summer kimono) and rejoicing to the sound of music, dancing, parades, 花火 (hanabi, fireworks), and oh-that-so-awesome festival food. The summer festivals kick off with the first one of the season, and perhaps one of the biggest of them all - the Tanabata festival.

七夕 (Tanabata), meaning the “evening of the seventh”, traditionally takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month, but often tends to vary in dates depending on the region. It is a festival inspired by a legend of star-crossed lovers, and is often synonymous with celebrating 恋 (koi, (romantic) love) and casting one's 望み (nozomi, wish).

The Legend, 物語 (monogatari)

昔々 (mukashi mukashi, ‘Once upon a time’), Tentei (天帝, Sky King) had an only daughter, called Orihime (織姫, Weaving Princess), who was known for her beauty and craftsmanship in weaving exquisite garments at her father’s request. Everyday she would sit the at bank of the Amanogawa (天の川, Milky Way, lit. "heavenly river"), diligently weaving new garments to her father’s delight. She was very dedicated to her work, however, alone with no free time to find herself an eligible suitor. Tentei realized that his only daughter was unhappy, and decided to help her find the happiness she deserved. He arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi (彦星, Cow Herder Star), who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way river. They had an instant connection, a love at first sight of sorts. They married shortly after, spending every single minute together, sharing the happiness one can only dream of. 

They were so engrossed with each other, that they forgot about their daily duties. Orihime forgot to weave the garments as she was supposed to. And Hikoboshi forgot to tend to his herd, leaving his cows to go astray. Tentei was enraged that Orihime forgot of her task. And in the heat of anger, he separated them across the vastness of the Amanogawa, forbidding them to ever meet again.

Orihime was extremely heartbroken over her loss of her husband, pleading for Tentei to let them see each other again. Her father was moved by his daughter’s tears, and allowed them to meet once a year on the ‘seventh day of the seventh month’ at the banks of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way river. However, on the first day of Orihime’s re-union with Hikoboshi, she realized that there is no bridge for her to cross the river and be together with her beloved. She cried and cried, until a flock of magpies flew over and created a crossing path with their wings, allowing Orihime to walk over to the other side. The magpies promised the star-crossed lovers that they would come to the couple every year from now on. It is believed that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come, leaving Orihime and Hikoboshi to wait to meet until the following year.

The legend follows the two stars Vega and Altair, represented by Orihime and Hikoboshi respectively. This makes Tanabata a Star Festival, and quite popular with couples. Traditionally and today Tanabata is celebrated with colourful street decorations, music, parades, festival street food, and most importantly by hanging colourful strips of paper from the 笹 (sasa, bamboo) branches. When hanging the paper strip, one also writes his or her wish on it. It is believed that Tanabata is a very auspicious day for wishing, for the powers that allowed Orihime and Hikoboshi to come together on this day can also grant wishes to others.

To many in Japan, Tanabata means dressing up in yukata, coming together as a community to celebrate love, life and the stars. Today, the Tanabata festival can also be experienced outside Japan in many corners of the world with a prominent Japanese community. Check in with your community to see if the festival is held near you.