top of page

The River of Heaven - Tanabata in Japanese Poetry

star maiden crossing the bridge of magpies at tanabata

Curious this day

on which long ago they must

have pledged their troth;

like the River of Heaven's waves

rising - this is sent out.

This is sent to

the one so curious

about the River of Heaven;

one even forgets that this is a story

that was unhappy in the end.


mukashi no kefu no

yukashisa ni

ama no kaha nami

uchiidetsuru kana

tachi idzuru

ama no kahabe no

yukashisa ni

tsune ha yuyushiki

koto mo wasurenu

Ahh, Tanabata! What could be more romantic than a festival dedicated to a young couple separated by the stars?

Much of Japanese culture is orientated around a deep connection to nature and the seasons. Going right back to the pre-Heian Nara era (710-784), the calendar and the turning of the seasons was punctuated with festivals that celebrated all types of natural beauty such as moon-viewing; the transience of cherry blossoms; brocade-like vermilion autumn leaves; and the special festival we will be looking at today - Tanabata, Japan's Star Festival.

Kyoto heian court illustration

Many of the festivals that we know today were originally adapted from Chinese observances by the Kyoto Imperial court. Tanabata derives from Kikouden and is first recorded in the Court Calendar in 734. It is described as follows:

Festival of the Weaver Star.

Leaves are spread in the garden of the Emperor's Residential Palace and, when it is dark,

His Majesty and his court seat themselves there to watch the meeting of the Weaver and the Herdsman [the stars Vega and Altair]. Poems are dedicated to the two stars, music is played all night,

and the Magpie Dance is performed. Similar observances take place in private households, and women pray to the Weaver for help in weaving, sewing, music, and poetry.

In the Heian era, a poem was written on the leaf of a kaji (a kind of mulberry tree) and then offered up to the two stars. This can perhaps be seen as a precursor to the wishes that are written onto strips of brightly coloured paper (tanzaku) nowadays.

Tanabata is one of the Five Sacred Japanese Festivals: the go-sekku, and it occurs every year on the 7th day of the 7th month, in the hot summers of clear skies.

Tanabata celebrates the meeting of two lovers. Just like in the Japanese Fairy Tale illustration from London above, on this one night of the year magpies gather to form a bridge with their wings over which the lovers can meet. The Herd Boy and the Weaver Girl were separated by an irate god of heaven when they neglected their respective duties, but he relented and allowed them to meet for just this one special night. The lovers were transformed into the stars Altair and Vega in order to cross the River of Heaven (the Milky Way).

Heian era Tanabata

heian era illustration

Tanabata has long been popular in Japan, and to the Heian nobility, it was an opportunity to invoke the celestial lovers in their own love poetry.

One of my favourites is the scene of sad longing set by Izumi Shikibu in her Diary, when she is describing the expectation of a knotted letter from her absent lover, the Prince Atsumichi:

'While Prince Atsumichi and I were thus exchanging letters, July had arrived. On Tanabata, the evening of the seventh day, I received many love letters from amorous men writing, 'You are my Alpha. I am your Altair. Let us meet tonight.' Yet they did not catch my fancy.

Can it be, I thought, that the prince, who has never missed an opportunity in the past to write me a letter at such an elegant occasion - can it be that he has now forgotten all about me?

At last there came a poem, but all he wrote was:

Alas! that I should become the one

who can only gaze at the weaving one

beyond the river of heaven.

Despite the irony of it all, I saw that he could not forget me and was pleased:

How can I look towards the heavens,

even a heaven watched by you,

on this Weaver's Festival

when I do not star in your firmament?

Here, the lovers are separated by circumstances, and Izumi Shikibu is not without her suspicions!


Japanese art of heian court

Incidentally, the art that I'm using to illustrate these Heian waka is Edo-era art which illustrates a Heian dream story about Tanabata, which is in the Keio University collection. The art indicates the dream with stretches of gold clouds woven into the illustrations.

I believe it's about Amewakahiko, and the story is a strange and wondrous one featuring a dragon-king, a snake that turns into a beautiful young man who later returns to heaven, his adoring wife's climb to heaven on the stem of a gourd, and Amewakahiko's father mis-hearing how often the couple meet. It is set at once a year!


Murasaki Shikibu and The Tale of Genji

Japanese art of heian court

Izumi Shikibu served at the Kyoto court of Empress Shoushi. The Empress had curated a salon of highly educated ladies that included another of the Heian court's leading writers: Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji.

As we discovered in our January in Japan Bookclub event, the poetry of Chinese Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi is a significant influence on the opening chapter of The Tale of Genji. Genji's father, the Emperor, mourns the loss of Genji's mother, his beloved Kiritsubo, and he clearly identifies with the poem which concerns the grief and loss of the Chinese Emperor for his beloved concubine Yang Guifei.

When we revisit Bai Juyi's poem, we see that it culminates with a romantic reference to the celestial meeting of parted lovers: the story that we know as Tanabata:

And she sent him, by his messenger, a sentence reminding him

Of vows which had been known only to their two hearts:

"On the seventh day of the Seventh-month, in the Palace of Long Life,

We told each other secretly in the quiet midnight world

That we wished to fly in heaven, two birds with the wings of one,

And to grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree."

Earth endures, heaven endures; some time both shall end,

While this unending sorrow goes on and on for ever.

We can see that the story of the parted lovers of Tanabata is also a reference for those praying to be reunited in the afterlife.

In Chapter 41 of The Tale of Genji, our Shining Prince Genji is grief-stricken and suffering from the loss of his beloved Lady Murasaki:

'At the height of the summer heat Genji gazed out from a somewhat cooler spot and noticed that the lotuses on the lake were all in flower. "There are so many!" [Genji's exclamation references an earlier poem by Ise: 'There are so many tears of one who is suffering a mounting burden of sorrow.'] - that was his first thought, and he remained absorbed in melancholy contemplation until at last the sun sank low. The cicadas were singing shrilly, but yes, it was sad to be all alone, admiring the garden pinks aglow in the light of the setting sun.

How their voices cry, as though reproaching me on a summer's day

for spending my idleness on sighs and on ceaseless tears.

Countless fireflies were crisscrossing before him, and he murmured as so often an old line that matched his mood, "Fireflies roam before the evening pavilion." Then he went on,

Fireflies rule the night, and it is sad to see them when at every hour

one burns with the searing flame of love now forever lost.

On the seventh night of the seventh month very little resembled earlier years, for Genji had no music and spent the day in blank monotony. No one watched the meeting of the stars. Very late that night he got up by himself and opened the double doors. The near garden was thick with dew. He glanced through the door and along the bridgeway and then went out.

Far above the clouds the Tanabata stars meet in another world,

while below, gathering dews water the garden she left.'

Genji's glance along the bridgeway is possibly towards the East Wing of the villa where Lady Murasaki once lived. Genji's poem is weighted down with sorrow at being still in the mortal world and far from his beloved.


Heavy dew in Heian poetry is a metaphor for sorrow. The following Heian poem by an anonymous author weaves another reference to nature and the changing seasons into the few waka syllables:

Longing and longing

tonight at last we meet:

may the mist rise thick

on the River of Heaven

and keep the day from dawning.


au yo wa koyoi

Ama no kawa

kiri tachiwatari

akezu mo aranamu

Isn't this romantic! The Heian court was a place of secretive, night-time trysts, and in this verse we find someone longing for the day of the lover's separation never to come. I love how the thick mist suggests the layers of obscuring robes that the lovers would have lain beneath!


Tales of Ise

Japanese art of heian court

Waka 82 of the Ise Monogatari finds the young prince Ariwara no Narihira out on horseback with his mates, and preferring to drink sake and compose poems in Japanese under the cherry blossoms than to be hunting. At the end of the day, and looking for lodging, they come to Ama no Kawa, 'the river of heaven'. This lends itself to some poetry banter!

I've spent the day hunting

and now will seek lodging

from the Weaver Maid

for I have come

to the River of Heaven.

She who waits patiently

for a lord who comes

but once a year

will not, I am sure,

lodge any other.

Here the slightly inebriated men conclude that if they were to try and lodge with the mythical Weaver Girl, she wouldn't allow it, as she is waiting only for the Herd Boy!

Japanese art of heian court

95: The Herd Boy's Star

'Long ago, the man was in the service of the Empress of the Second Avenue. He would constantly see a lady who was also in service there, and he began to court her. He said to her, 'I've been so vexed by burdensome thoughts. Even if only before a screen, please find a way for me to meet you, so that I might clear my heart.' Accordingly, the lady met him very discreetly with a screen between them. During their conversation, the man recited a poem.

My love shines brighter

than the Herd Boy's star,

and though the barrier between us

is not as great as the Milky Way,

please tear it away now.

Deeply affected, the lady permitted him to pass the night in her company.'

In the Heian era, a noble lady lived her life secluded from the male gaze. In this verse, a screen represents an insurmountable barrier to love as big as the River of Heaven, until the lady relents!


tanzaku and tanabata

On a summer night, just as the season begins to turn to autumn, Altair and Vega are the two brightest stars in the night skies. But there is a caveat to this romantic legend: if the night is rainy and clouds obscure the skies, the two lovers cannot meet.

In the 17th century, renowned Japanese poet Basho writes from an earth-bound perspective!

for the Star Festival

even when hearts cannot meet

rainy rapture

paper wishes and tanabata

Nowadays, people make wishes by writing them on tanzaku coloured paper strips and tying them to bamboo branches. You can read more about it here in our earlier blog about Tanabata!

We hope you have a lovely Tanabata. Thank you for reading, and see you next time!

Cathy and Yukki x


Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, The Sarashina Diary, Sonja Arntzen and Itou Moriyuki (trans.), (Columbia University Press), pp.17-18.

Izumi Shikibu, Annie Shepley and Kouchi Doi trans., Nikki, (Toyo Press), pp.40-42.

Bai Juyi, The Song of Unending Sorrow, Poetry Hunter.

Murasaki Shikibu, Royall Tyler trans., The Tale of Genji, (Penguin Classics), chapter 41, p.775.

Haruo Shirane (ed.), Traditional Japanese Literature, An Anthology: Beginnings to 1600, (Columbia University Press), p.155.

Haruo Shirane, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, (Columbia University Press), pp. 158-159.

Peter Macmillan (trans.), The Tales of Ise, (Penguin Classics), Verses 82 and 95.

Ivan Morris, The World of the Shining Prince, (Kodansha Publishing), p.162.

Jane Reichhold (trans.), Basho, The Complete Haiku, (Kodansha Publishing), Haiku 14 on p.16 and notes on p.237.

Kitagawa Hidemaro, Tanabata ukiyoe,

Hanano Hashimoti, Tanabata.

Grace James, Tanabata illustration, Green Willow and other Japanese Fairy Tales (London: Macmillan, 1910), British Library

Edo era art from Amewakamiko, Keio University.

Nara e-maki from Keio Object Hub.


bottom of page