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The Story of Tanabata by Efrot Weiss – Cultural Insight

This Story of Tanabata post written by my good friend Efrot Weiss. She is a long-term resident of Japan, and intercultural trainer and coach. On July 7th celebrate Tanabata with your family. The story is about love and romance that takes place in the sky. Make a wish and may your love be true. 

The Story of Tanabata by Efrot Weiss The Story of Tanabata

This month’s festival of Tanabata means handwritten hopes and a tale of heavenly love.  “When I was a child, the shotengai [main shopping street] had beautiful Tanabata decorations, and I used to love looking at them. All of the stores had bamboo branches where kids could come by and hang their tanzaku,” says Meg Nakajima-Caldwell of the annual Tanabata festival.

Celebrated on July 7 (or August 7 in some areas), Tanabata is when children write their wishes on tanzaku strips of colored paper and hang them on bamboo branches.

“At home, my mom had bamboo branches ready for the family. We would spend time together making origami Tanabatadecorations on which we would write our wishes. After Tanabata, we would take the branches down and set fire to them in the backyard. The smoke would carry our wishes up to the sky,” Nakajima-Caldwell says.

Besides penning their wishes, youngsters often sing the Tanabata song, with its onomatopoeic lyrics that elicit the sounds and sights of summer. This custom is a rite of passage for young school-age children and the song is a harbinger of the summer holidays, which begin in late July.

Also known as the Star Festival, Tanabata is a variation of a Chinese festival that was adopted by the imperial court during the Heian period (794–1185). It grew in popularity beyond imperial circles during the Edo era. 

The Story of Tanabataimgres-1

The legend behind the festival is about a princess called Orihime, who spent all her days weaving exquisite clothes for her father, the king of heaven. She met a cow herder by the name of Hikoboshi, and the two fell madly in love. But as the two spent more and more time together, they neglected their responsibilities. 

Orihime’s father, Tentei, became angry and separated the two by placing them on opposite sides of the Amano River (Milky Way). Finally, Tentei agreed for the couple to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Unable to cross the river the first year, Orihime cried until a flock of magpies formed a bridge with their wings.

It’s believed, though, that if it rains, the celestial sweethearts will remain separated for another year. As a result, many children rejoice when the weather is good. “As a child, if the sky was clear, I used to go up on the balcony and watch the stars for hours,” recalls Nakajima-Caldwell.

Known by astronomers as the Summer Triangle, the stars representing Orihime (Vega), Hikoboshi (Altair) and the magpie bridge (Deneb) are clearly visible in the summer sky.

Two of the most renowned Tanabata festivals take place in Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, and Hiratsuka, in Kanagawa Prefecture. Elaborate decorations line the streets, along with food stalls and performances. Hiratsuka’s festival is from July 5 to 7.

The 400-year-old Sendai Tanabata Festival takes place from August 6 to 8, in accordance with the traditional lunar calendar, and kicks off with a huge fireworks display on August 5. Sendai residents take particular pride in the special streamers they make out of washi paper, which are meant to represent the yarns Orihime wove.

“When I was growing up, I would go visit my grandparents, who lived in Sendai. We loved the Tanabata matsuri [festival]. We would put on our yukata [summer kimono], look at the beautiful decorations, play the carnival games and watch the big, big fireworks for three nights. I also remember eating watermelon with my siblings and cousins and then having a contest to see who could spit their watermelon seeds the farthest,” says Fumi Lee with a laugh.

Sendai Tanabata Festival

First published in the June 2013 issue of Tokyo American Club’s monthly magazine, iNTOUCH.



The Story of Tanabata


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