七夕 Tanabata Festival: The Festival of Lovers in the Stars

Orihime and Hikoboshi, lovers separated across the Milky Way, are allowed to meet once a year. Represented by the stars Vega and Altair their meeting is a time of wish granting for lovers and hard workers. On the 7th day, of the 7th month of the lunisolar calendar, they are permitted to meet, and the stars Vega and Altair draw closer together than at any other time of the year.

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In modern times, young bamboo stalks with leaves still present, are cut and decorated with origami and traditional streamers. Wishers will write their desires for love or skill, in honour of the two qualities the lovers demonstrated, on slips of paper and attach them to the trees. Often, these wishes will be expressed in the form of poetry.

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But who were these lovers, and why were they separated in the first place?

Perhaps it’s story time.

Orihime was famous in the star kingdom for weaving beautiful clothes. Indeed, her name means Weaving Princess. She would often weave them whilst sat on the banks of the Amanogawa (The Milky Way). Her father was Tentei , (King of the Sky), and was incredibly proud of her and loved the clothing she created. But he started to notice his daughter’s loneliness, as she had no time for anything but weaving.

Wanting to help his daughter, he introduced her to Hikoboshi (The Cow herder). They fell in love at first sight, as you do, got married, and spent all their time together. But Hikoboshi let all his cows wander unattended all over the Milky Way, getting in everyone’s way. All the while Orihime was neglecting her weaving in order to spend time with him. Tentei, being angry at the pair for neglecting their duties, separated them.

Then his daughter wept so hard, and pleaded with him so sweetly, that he agreed to let them meet once a year, if they both worked hard and if Orihime, in particular, completed her weaving.

However, the first time they tried to meet they couldn’t cross the river as there was no bridge. Orihime cried again, and some obliging magpies saw her, and decided to band together to make a bridge. These days, it’s believed if it rains on Tanabata the magpies won’t come, and the lovers will wait yet another year to see each other.

The festival having been present in Japan since 755, it’s been represented in many tales, artworks and traditions, including by Japan’s most famous artist, Hiroshige, in the form of his Japanese woodblock prints.

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Tanabata is a time of reflection upon our skills, what more we can achieve, and the people we care about. Due to its proximity to Obon, an important week-long festival in which the Japanese honour their passed relatives and ancestors, it inherits a sense of existential questioning, threaded with thoughts of the expansiveness of the universe, unsatisfied wants, and the humbling concept of eternity.

Or, like one elementary school student I met, you may just wish for new beyblades.

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