Once a year, a legend about two star-crossed lovers takes hold of Japan. More than a festival, the Star Festival called Tanabata is a celebration of love and life that has earned its place as a summer tradition.
A Tale of Two Lovers
The tale behind the Tanabata Festival, which has its origins in the Chinese legend of Qixi, tells the story of two lovers bound to see each other only one day a year.
Princess Orihime, the seamstress daughter of the God of Heavens, tried to hide her angst about not finding her love since she was occupied day and night with weaving beautiful clothes by the holy river – which nowadays it is known as the Milky Way.
The God of Heavens, who loved her daughter above all things, fell in despair when he discovered her unhappiness and swore to himself that he alone would grant her wish of true love. Thus, He crossed the Milky Way to find a cow herder with a pure soul called Hikoboshi and introduced him to Princess Orihime.
The instant they met, the Princess’ and the Herder’s spirits became one, bounding their fates forever through their marriage. Their happiness and their love for each other was so profound that Orihime didn’t weave anymore and Hikoboshi’s cows were left to wander the skies.
When the God of Heavens stopped seeing his daughter’s beautiful creations and realized that his newfound son’s cows roamed freely through the galaxy, he was angry beyond words and forbade the lovers ever to meet again.
Orihime begged his father for forgiveness and asked him for mercy in exchange for them to continue their duties as Weaver and Herder. The God of Heaven’s will softened at the sound of his daughter’s pleas and agreed to a meeting once a year between the two lovers.
On the day 7 of the 7th month, after her first year away from her lover, Orihime was set to cross the Milky Way for their yearly reunion. However, when Hikoboshi and Orihime were each at one side of the river, they were in despair because the river was too difficult to cross.
The lovers’ cries were carried to the heights, where a flock of Magpies, compassionate of their tragedy and moved by the Princess’ beauty, swept to the river and built a bridge for Orihime to walk along.
The love between Orihime and Hikoboshi was preserved through time, and now they are known as the stars Vega and Altair. And to this day, every year, on the day 7 of the 7th month, they cross the Milky Way to meet one another.
The Japanese celebrate their yearly reunion with the Tanabata Festival and pray for the skies to stay clear, as the rain prevents the Magpies from forming the bridge and the two lovers are forced to face another full year before being reunited again.
Celebrating Love: Japan’s Wish-Filled Celebration
Japanese celebrate the Tanabata Festival all over the country, the largest of these celebrations are the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri, the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri, and the Anjo Tanabata Matsuri.
During Tanabata, people hang their wishes, written on colored pieces of paper, on bamboo trees along with other iconic decorations. For their dreams to become true, they later burn the trees or set them afloat on rivers.
The Star Festival changes depending on the region, but it’s common to see float parades, streets or malls decorated, Orihime look-a-like contests, food stalls, games, and even fireworks displays.
Even though the form changes, this iconic summer celebration is, within all of its depth, a celebration of love lasting through distance and time.