Tanabata is a Japanese festival usually celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month, although in some parts of the country it is celebrated in August. The story originates from a Chinese legend about the meeting of two deities — Orihime (represented by the star Vega) and Hikoboshi (the star Altair). Over the years Tanabata has merged with other festivals and changed somewhat. It came over from China in the Heian period but didn’t gain popularity until the Edo period where it mingled with the various local Buddhist Obon traditions. Around the same time there was also a Shinto purification ceremony and so that got added into the mix, bringing together the tanabata festival that we know of today.
The love story begins with Orihime, the weaving princess who was the daughter of the Sky King. Every day Orihime would sit by the banks of the Amanogawa (heavenly river/Milky Way) and weave beautiful cloth for her father because she knew he loved it so much. As time went by Orihime became sadder and sadder, as much as she loved her weaving she realised that she would never meet someone and fall in love. The Sky King was worried about his daughter so he arranged a meeting with Hikoboshi, a cow herder who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa, and of course, as soon as they met they fell in love and got married. The happy ending was short lived as Orihime stopped weaving cloth for her father and Hikoboshi let his cows run free all over the kingdom. The Sky King got angry and separated the lovers, sending Hiroboshi back to the other side of the Amanogawa and forbade them to meet again.
Orihime pleaded with her father to allow her to meet Hiroboshi again and finally he agreed to let them meet on the 7th day of the 7th month, if she finished her weaving. When the day came they discovered that there was no bridge to cross the river. Orihime cried so hard that a flock of birds came and promised to use their wings to make a bridge so that the couple could meet. It is believed that if it rains on the 7th that the birds are not able to make the bridge and so the star crossed lovers are unable to meet that year.
The story and traditions that go with it vary somewhat from region to region. The most common tradition is to make a wish tree. The tree is usually a piece of bamboo which is then decorated with bamboo streamers. Children and adults write their wishes and poems on the streamers then tie them to the tree. Other paper decorations are made too, usually using colourful origami paper. Paper cranes are for good health, paper purses for good wealth, paper nets for good fishing/harvest and paper strips for good studies.
The photo above shows my son with his tanabata wish tree that he made at kindergarten. It took three days to make all the different decorations and he learned a song to go with it:
Sasa no ha sara-sara
Nokiba ni yureru
Goshiki no tanzaku
watashi ga kaita
sora kara miteiru
The bamboo leaves rustle-rustle
Shaking in the eaves
The stars twinkle-twinkle
On gold and silver sand
Five colour paper strips
I already wrote
The stars twinkle-twinkle
Watching from the sky
Jojoebi is a Brit living and working in Japan. She is a designer of adorable sewing patterns and crafts for kids and can be found blogging at A Bit Of This and A Bit Of That and her goods are available on Etsy and PDF patterns on Craftsy.