Happy Tanabata! Wish upon a pair of (literally) star-crossed lovers

Greetings all! Hisashiburi!

Recently, you may have seen some colourful paper trailing lanterns hanging around, and if not, you might well see them soon. It`s Tanabata! Also known as the STAR FESTIVAL.

Tanabata Streamers

[Tubular Tanabata Streamers]

Tanabata “七夕” means `the Evening of the Seventh`, and it`s an East Asian festival that is celebrated in China as Qixi or Qiqiao, and in Korea as Chilseok. The exact date that Tanabata is celebrated varies by region in Japan, but the first festivities usually begin on July 7th, and is held on various days in July and August.

It`s officially listed as having been imported to Japan in 755AD by the Empress Kouken, and it gained a lot of popularity during the Edo period.

Tanabata Edo

[Tanabata celebrations in Edo, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1852]

Tanabata celebrates both a real celestial event that happens in the night sky, as well as an old piece of Chinese folklore called “The Weaver and the Cowherd.”, which I`m about to lay down for you.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I`ll begin.

Tanabata Lovers

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess called Orihime, daughter of the Sky King. She was very good at weaving, and wove beautiful clothes by the banks of the Amanogawa, also known as the Milky Way. She was so skillful that her father loved the clothes very much, but Orihime was lonely because she worked so hard that she could never meet and fall in love with anyone.

Now the Sky King loved his daughter, and so arranged for her to meet a cowherd called Hikoboshi, who lived and worked on the other side of the Amanogawa. When they met, they fell in love with each other instantly and married each other. However, because they were so in love and spent all their time together, Orihime was no longer weaving her beautiful clothes, and Hikoboshi`s cows were wandering all over heaven.

Angry, the Sky King separated the two lovers on opposite sides of the Amanogawa, and forbade them to meet anymore. Orihime was heartbroken and cried bitter tears, asking her father to let them meet again. The Sky King loved his daughter and was moved by her tears, and so relented – if she finished her weaving, he would allow them to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month once a year.

Tanabata Lovers 2

The first time Orihime and Hikoboshi tried to meet however, they discovered there was no bridge across the Amanogawa, and they could not cross to each other. Orihime cried once more, and this time a flock of magpies were so moved that they promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. And so Orihime and Hikoboshi were able to meet once more, and spend one day of the year together.

However, it is said that if it rains on Tanabata, then the magpies cannot come and make the bridge, and so Orihime and Hikoboshi are unable to cross and must wait for another year before they can try again to see each other.

(There`s also a another version of this story where it is the crescent moon boatman that comes to take Orihime across the Milky Way, and if she hasn`t finished her weaving the the Sky King makes it rain and the boatman cannot come. In this case, the magpies will spread their wings and make a bridge themselves. Pick whichever version you prefer.)

Cute, huh? It gets even better – this story is apparently inspired by actual stars. The stars Vega (often called in Japan the Weaving Princess Star) and Altair (The Cowherd Star) sit on opposite sides of the Milky Way. At this time of year, these stars are very prominent and easily visible on a clear night, as Altair and Vega are two thirds of the summer constellation The Summer Triangle, along with Deneb.

Tanabata Stars[Altair on the left and Vega on the right of the Milky Way, with Deneb above]

So how is this festival celebrated in Japan?

In modern times, people write wishes and poetry on tanzaku, which are small strips of paper, and then hang them on bamboo. They also make beautiful coloured streamers, particularly the hanging tube streamers which float in the wind like rainbow jellyfish.

Tanabata Tanzaku 2[tanzaku]

Tanabata Shibuya

[Tanabata streamers in Shibuya, Tokyo. Remember them at orientation, fellow first-years?]

Tanabata festivities also vary with region, and may include the bamboo and decorations being set afloat on a river and burned after the festival around midnight or on the next day. This is a custom inspired by the Obon festival which happens later in the year, as the two festivals used to be quite close together. Other celebrations include decoration competitions, parades, carnival games and all that general Japanese festival goodness. Tokyo Disneyland even has a special Tanabata greeting Parade with Mickey as Hikoboshi/Altair and Minnie as Orihime/Vega!

Tanabata DisneyIf you`re interested in taking part in the Tanabata festivities in Ishikawa then there`s various crafty things happening in the area underneath Kanazawa Station between June 27th and August 20th – there`s a special event happening THIS SATURDAY July 4th from 10am to 5pm where you can write your own tanzaku and watch the live event. GO and check it out if you’re not going to Abare Matsuri!

Check out the website here (It`s in Japanese)


If you find out about any other Tanabata events happening in your area then please let one of the Area Leaders or AJET council members know! We`d love to invite everyone along!

Happy Tanabata everyone! May your wishes all come true!  Tanabata Haruhi

Francesca is a first-year ALT in Kanazawa City. She enjoys eating at Mr Donuts way too often, doing ikebana, and crying over Korean celebrities. Her Tanabata wish is to pass the JLPT!

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