Lily looks at Tanabata wish cards :)
Two Tanabata Poems
Don't look up
at the sky where stars meet -
the wind from the Milky Way
How I envy the Tanabata Stars
their once-yearly lovemaking tonight -
in this world,
there is a woman
who doesn't know what love's future may be.
10th/11th century Kyoto court poet, Izumi Shikibu
This romantic and melancholy poem was written by one of the greatest poets of the Japanese Heian era: Izumi Shikibu. But why is she gazing at the stars, and what does she mean by Tanabata?
Brightly coloured decorations for Tanabata at Kibune station!
What is Tanabata?
One of the most beloved and most celebrated events that happens in Japan during the summertime is Tanabata 七夕, the Star Festival! This special event is celebrated every year on July 7th.
Tanabata Festival (tanabata-sai) was originally a Heian-Kyou imperial palace festival which had been borrowed from China. The festival takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month, and it celebrates the romantic meeting in the heavens of the celestial lovers Orihime (Vega, Weaver Star) and Hikoboshi (Altair, the Herdsman Star). On this one night of the year the separated lovers cross the Heavenly River (the Milky Way) by means of a bridge and they briefly meet.
Tanabata is also a type of weaving loom, and in this festival the stars come to symbolise concepts of time interwoven with space, and enduring love.
There are five seasonal festivals in Japan which are known as sekku 節句, and each is associated with a plant or flower. Tanabata is associated with bamboo, and is also known as shichiseki no sekku 七夕の節句 .
The five sekku are seasonal festivals:
O-Shogatsu on the 1st day of the 1st month
Hinamatsuri on the 3rd day of the 3rd month
Tango no sekku on the 5th day of the 5th month
Tanabata on the 7th day of the 7th month
Kikumatsuri on the 9th day of the 9th month.
Ito Shinsui, Tanabata Festival
The Legend of Tanabata
The princess of the Heavens, Orihime, lived by the Heavenly River (the Milky Way). On the other side of the Heavenly River lived a hard-working young cow-herd called Hikoboshi.
Orihime made beautiful kimono and she was very skilled at weaving, but because she worked so hard she had no time to find love. Her father was the god of the Heavens, and he didn’t like to see his daughter sad, and so he allowed her to meet with Hikoboshi.
They fell in love and got married, and they were so delighted and enraptured with each other their work began to suffer. Orihime neglected her weaving, and Hikoboshi’s cows grew thin and became ill.
So the god of the Heavens, Orihime’s father grew angry, and he forbade the two lovers from meeting each other. He separated them on either side of the Heavenly River.
But then he saw how sad his daughter was, and so he relented, and he allowed the young lovers to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month.
Tanabata and Wishes
Bamboo decorations have been made for Tanabata since the Edo period. Bamboo symbolises vitality because it has very strong roots and grows fast. The hollow stem encourages people to believe that gods may dwell in that hidden space.
During the Star Festival, people come together to write their wishes on brightly coloured strips of paper called tanzaku which are then hung upon the branches of bamboo. These wishes may be anything, like hope for love or career success: they may be drawn pictures, written poems, or brief thoughts.
At the end of the festival, the wishes are burned with the bamboo branches, so that the wishes float to heaven in the smoke. The festival is full of colour and light and hope for a bright future.
Tanabata and Popular Culture
Tanabata is such a romantic festival it has of course woven its way into popular culture.
Beloved Japanese author Miyazawa Kenji’s most iconic work, Night on the Galactic Railroad is illuminated by the starry skies of Tanabata. In this classic short story, two small boys board a train which carries them through the summer Milky Way on the night of a fictional festival which has all the atmosphere of Tanabata and Obon. Miyazawa describes the galaxies in an astonishingly colourful and dreamlike way:
The train really was going much faster, and many of the passengers were holding on tightly
to their seats to avoid being thrust forward as they descended the slope. Giovanni and Campanella couldn’t help giggling. Suddenly the river of the Milky Way was flowing beside them once again,
appearing even more dazzling than before. Pink flowers were in bloom along the riverbed..
Miyazawa’s imagination soars as his train journey through the heavens ‘spans a universe of ideas and philosophies, blending science, religion’ (Kris Kosaka, Japan Times), including what it is to be happy. His writing is an influence on Ghibli Studio's Miyazaki Hayao, in the curiously imaginative Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro.
The train in Spirited Away
Tanabata has long been a part of Japanese celebrations, literature, and culture, and it's romantic story has influenced many modern stories and films including the beautiful anime by Makoto Shinkai.
5 Centimetres per Second by Makoto Shinkai
Make Tanabata Origami Stars!
Tanabata Festival by Ito Shinsui recoloured with our washi tapes :)
We've made some cute Tanabata origami stars to make a wish on! :)
You could even have a try at making these amazing origami Tanabata decorations here!
We hope you have enjoyed reading this blog! You may like to read more about two more of the Japanese Go-sekku by clicking on the links to What is Hina Matsuri? and Children's Day, Koinoburi, and the Iris.
Thank you for reading, and see you soon!
Cathy and Yukki
Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani (trans.), The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, (Vintage Classics, p.74).
Makoto Shinkai, 5 Centimetres Per Second
Miyazawa Kenji, Night on the Galactic Railroad & Other Stories from Ihatov, (One Peace Books, p.97).
Miyazaki Hayao, Spirited Away
Japan Society: Tanzaku
YouTube with niceno 1: Origami Tanabata Decoration