Originally written on July 2021, updated 2023
Tanabata (Japanese: たなばた or 七夕, meaning literally “Evening of the seventh”), also known as the Star Festival (星祭り, or Hoshi matsuri), is a Japanese festival that celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively.
According to legend, the Milky Way separates these lovers, who are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar.
The festival was introduced to Japan by the Empress Kōken in 755.
It originated from “The Festival to Plead for Skills” (乞巧奠, Kikkōden), an alternative name for Qixi, which was celebrated in China and also was adopted in the Kyoto Imperial Palace from the Heian period.
The festival gained widespread popularity amongst the general public by the early Edo period.
Popular customs relating to the festival varied by region of the country but, generally, girls wished for better sewing and craftsmanship, and boys wished for better handwriting, drawing or singing by writing wishes on strips of paper. At this time, the custom was to use dew left on taro leaves to create the ink used to write wishes.
In the most popular version of the story, Orihime (織姫, Weaving Princess), daughter of the Tentei (天帝, Sky King, or the universe itself), wove beautiful clothes by the bank of the Amanogawa (天の川, Milky Way, literally “heavenly river”).
Her father loved the cloth that she wove and so she worked very hard every day. However, Orihime was very sad because, due her hard work she could never fall in love with anyone. Concerned about his beloved daughter, Tentei arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (彦星, Cowman/Cowherd Star, or literally Boy Star, also referred to as Kengyū 牽牛 )who lived and worked on the other side of the Amanogawa.
When the two met, they fell instantly in love with each other and married shortly thereafter.
However, once married, Orihime would no longer weave cloth for Tentei and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to stray all over Heaven. In anger, Tentei separated the two lovers across the Amanogawa and forbade them to meet.
Orihime, desperate at the loss of her husband and asked her father to let them meet again and Tentei, moved by his daughter’s tears, allowed the two to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month, but only if she worked hard and finished her weaving.
The first time they tried to meet, however, they found that they could not cross the river because there was any bridge.
Orihime cried so much that a flock of magpies came and promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river.
But It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come because of the rise of the river and the two lovers must wait until another year to meet.
Not by chance, the rain of this day is called “The tears of Orihime and Hikoboshi”.
This is why people pray for a clear night on July 7th, so that the heavenly lovers will be able to meet again.
The history of Tanabata in Japan is very old: Manyōshū, the oldest existing book of poetry, contains many poems featuring this legend.
Still today, around the Tanabata festival, bamboo trees decorated with colorful strips of paper (blue, red, violet or yellow and white – called tanzaku) are a common sight. Each strip of paper bears a wish written on it. Many towns and cities in Japan host a Tanabata festival around July 7th, and the streets are festive with decorative bamboo displays.
Shopping districts throughout the nation are decorated with colorful bamboo branches and, depite Tanabata is not a national holiday, it is still traditionally observed by Japanese families.
Images from web – Google Research