"The stars twinkle, they watch us from heaven"
So ends the traditional song sung during Japan’s Tanabata Star Festival every summer.
Based on the Chinese Qixi Festival, the Tanabata Festival celebrates the once a year meeting of Orihime, the Goddess of Weaving, and Hikoboshi, the God of Cow Herding. These deities are respectively represented by the stars Vega and Altair. There are varying versions of the legend surrounding Tanabata and Orihime and Hikoboshi but the general story is this: Orihime, the daughter of the King of Heaven Tentei, wove glorious cloth for her father on the banks of the Amanokawa (the Milky Way, but literally “Heavenly River”) and Hikoboshi tended his cows on the opposite bank. While both Orihime and Hikoboshi were satisfied with their work they were both sad because they didn’t have the opportunity to meet anyone and fall in love.
One day Tentei arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi and the two immediately fell in love. They were so wrapped up in each other that Orihime stopped weaving cloth and Hikoboshi stopped tending his cows. Tentei was furious and he separated the two lovers, putting them back on their respective sides of the Amanokawa, forbidding them to meet. Orihime was so saddened and despondent by the loss of her lover that her tears eventually swayed her father into allowing her to meet Hikoboshi once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. This gave rise to the name “Tanabata” (七夕), 7th evening, and the festival that goes with it.
Tanabata was first introduced to Japan in 755 by the Empress Koken. It was known as “Kikkoden,” literally A Festival to Pray for Skills, at the time. It rose to prominence among the Imperial family and ruling class during the Heian Period (794-1185) and in the early Edo period it had spread to the general populace throughout the country as it got mixed in with Obon traditions. Most areas of Japan celebrate Tanabata on July 7th but some still observe the tradition in August based on the Chinese lunar calendar. Besides the singing of the song detailed below, people across Japan put up a bamboo wish tree in their homes or gardens, write wishes on tanzaku paper (strips of paper in five colors) and hang their wishes from the bamboo.
On midnight the day after Tanabata the bamboo trees are either burned or set afloat on a river. Many parts of Japan have their own unique Tanabata customs such as hanging colorful balls and streamers along shopping streets and store fronts, holding parades and outdoor carnivals with games, food stalls along with displaying traditional bamboo wish trees. Tanabata has grown so big that it’s even celebrated in Sao Paolo Brazil!
Who knew the Milky Way contained such romance?
Sasa no ha sara-sara
Nokiba ni yureru
Goshiki no tanzaku
Watashi ga kaita
Sora kara miteru
"The bamboo leaves rustle, shaking away in the eaves.
The stars twinkle on the gold and silver grains of sand.
The five-coloured paper strips I have already written.
The stars twinkle, they watch us from heaven".
Author: NARA Visitor Center & Inn
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanabata Brown, Ju; Brown, John (2006). China, Japan, Korea: Culture and customs. North Charleston: BookSurge. p. 75. ISBN 978-1-4196-4893-9 Sargent, Denny. Shinto and Its Festivals Hearn, Lafcadio (1905). The romance of the Milky Way, and other studies & stories. Houghton Mifflin and company. Retrieved 6 July 2011