Ain’t No River Wide Enough: The Tanabata Festival of Japan

Summer festival season in Ishikawa has kicked off with Noto’s famed Abare Matsuri, and the JLPT summer date has – for better or for worse – come and gone. Give yourself a little break tonight and go star-gazing with that special someone! Why, you ask? Because today is Tanabata!

Tanabata (七夕; meaning ‘The Seventh Night’) is a traditional holiday celebrated all over Japan and was once described to me as ‘kind of like a Japanese Valentine’s Day.’ Well – another one, because we already have two of those here. It is also called the Lover’s Festival or the Star Festival. The legend of Tanabata is an old one, originally imported from China during the Empress Koken’s first reign in 755. It tells the story of two literally star-crossed lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi, and their unbreakable, eternal vows of love to each other over their many years of separation.

According to the story, the King of the Heavens had a talented daughter named Orihime (Weaver Princess), and she made the most beautiful clothing in all of the universe.

No, not that Orihime!

He loved to wear the clothing she made so much that she spent every waking moment weaving so that he would be happy. However, this meant she had no time to find a suitor, and she was very lonely. So, the King of the Heavens arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (Cow-herd-star), a cowherd who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa (The Heavenly River), a nearby river. They met, fell in love instantly, and got married.

Unfortunately, the Heavenly King’s plan worked a little too well; as they now spent all of their time together, Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi let his cows stray. This made the king furious so he separated the lovers once again. However, his daughter came to him and begged him to let her see her husband. So moved was he by his daughter’s tears that the king relented and said the lovers could meet on the seventh night of the seventh month  before returning to their respective sides of the Amanogawa and going back to work.

This story is all very romantic and sad, but it’s made even sweeter by its heavenly counterparts. Orihime is actually the star Vega, and Hikoboshi is Altair, and they are in fact separated by an ‘Ama No Gawa:’ the heavenly river of the Milky Way. On the seventh night of the seventh month every year, if the weather is clear and the stars are visible, it is said that stargazers can see the lovers cross the river and meet for their requisite one night a year – which happens when Altair and Vega intersect. If the weather is bad, Orihime cannot find the bridge that crosses the Amanogawa to see Hikoboshi, and she must wait another year to visit her husband.

Altair and Vega, separated by the milky way. If your long distance relationship is shorter than 14.81 light years then I don't wanna hear you complaining.

Altair and Vega, separated by the milky way. If your long distance relationship is shorter than 14.81 light years then I don’t wanna hear you complaining.

Tanabata is celebrated throughout the month of July and into August all over Japan . The festival is old enough that the old lunar calendar’s seventh-month actually lines up more with August, so traditionally, many towns celebrate on the 7th of August instead of the 7th of July. The most famous is in Sendai, and has been held every year from August 6th to 8th since the city was founded during the Edo period. Other famous festivals take place in Kanagawa and Tokyo Disney Land – Mickey and Minnie even dress up as Hikoboshi and Orihime! There are even Tanabata festivals outside of Japan, with large celebrations taking place in California, New York, and São Paulo. There are many different traditions from different regions, but there are some that remain the same no matter where you go:

tanabata

A woman in yukata hanging her wishes out for the stars to see.

The same cosmic forces that allow Orihime and Hikoboshi to cross the Amanogawa and meet every year are said to be able to grant wishes, so many people will write their wishes on tanzaku – thin vertical strips of paper – and hang them on bamboo trees. It is not uncommon to see bamboo stalks at shrines and other popular places filled with tanzaku on Tanabata, all of them containing wishes for the future: for love, for a good marriage, for passing exams and getting into a good high school, or just for happiness. Other common sights include chains of paper cranes, kusudama (which are those origami balls that hang above streamers), fairy lights, and other star-shaped decorations that are intended to bring good fortune and love into one’s life.

As you might imagine, Tanabata is also a popular couple’s festival and date night. It’s not uncommon to see couples dressed in yukata tying their tanzaku on bamboo together, or going out to dinner, or having picnics in popular star-gazing spots to see Altair and Vega intersect.

Unfortunately for those of us in Ishikawa, Tanabata falls right at the beginning of the rainy season (and it is one of the rainiest in Japan!) – so as I write this post and stare out the window near my desk in my faculty room, all I can see are grey skies stretching out over the Nihonkai. Perhaps, on this rainy Tanabata, Orihime will not be able to find the bridge to cross the Amanogawa and she will have to wait another year to see Hikoboshi. However, don’t let that stop you from taking part in the festivities! If you can, head over to Kanazawa’s Omicho Market and add your own wishes to the tanzaku display there. And while perhaps this weather is not conducive to star gazing, there’s nothing more romantic on a chilly rainy night than cooking dinner and watching a movie with that special someone.

stardust

I recommend Stardust.

Frances Visintainer is a first year Junior High School ALT in Kahoku. You can follow her misadventures in the wide world of teaching at her blog, Footsteps in Education. Her Tanabata wish this year was for Orihime to build a boat or something, because seriously girl, this bridge nonsense was getting old 1,000 years ago. Go get yo’ man!

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