What do you see when you look at the night sky? There are as many answers to this question as there are cultures around the world. The moon alone holds a variety of images depending on who you ask. In America, we see the face of an old man looking down on the earth, while in India they see the hands of a goddess. And here in Japan, a rabbit pounds rice cakes with a mortar and pestle. Add that to the multitude of constellations, astrological phenomenon, and human creativity, and the night sky becomes a tapestry of imagination.
But look up into the Japanese sky tonight, the seventh of July, and stargazers are captivated by Amanogawa- the River of Heaven- known in English as the Milky Way, and the stars Vega and Altair. This is the night of Tanabata, the star festival, an ancient Chinese story of two lovers (our two stars) named Orihime and Hikoboshi. Star-crossed lovers, indeed!
Tanabata festival decorations in Fukuyama
Gather round, all, for story time!
Mukashi, mukashi ... (Long ago and far away...)
The princess of the heavens, Orihime, was the daughter of Tentei, King of Heaven. She would go every day to the Amanogawa to do her weaving, which was of the highest quality. It always pleased her father to see how seriously she took her responsibilities. But one day, while she was weaving on the banks of the river, there appeared Hikoboshi, the heavenly cowherd, bringing his cows to the river to drink. They gazed at each other across the river, and instantly they fell in love. At first, King Tentei was overjoyed that his daughter had found her true love, and blessed their match with all his heart. The two were quickly married, and lived together happily, their love growing every day. However, as their love grew, they began to neglect their duties. Orihime stopped weaving in order to spend more time with her husband, and Hikoboshi did not attend to his cows, allowing them to freely roam across the heavens.
At first, Tentei didn't mind, thinking that the two lovers would return to their work once they had had a chance to settle into their marriage, but as time went on and the two showed no signs of returning to their duties, he became angry. In a rage, he seperated the two lovers with the Amanogawa, and vowed that they would never again meet as punishment for their irresponsible behavior. Cry as she might, Orihime could not sway her fathers decision, and the two remained seperated. As the years passed, Orihime became more and more despondent, until she no longer smiled, or laughed, or sang, but pined for her absent husband. Finally, her sorrow reached her father, and he agreed that one night a year, the two lovers could be reunited, as long as they completed their work to his satisfaction before the night of the meeting. Gratefully, Orihime and Hikoboshi agreed to the terms, and spend the year diligently attending to their tasks. On the night of July 7th, if the sky is clear, then Tentei bridges the Amanogawa, and the two lovers are united until sunrise.
Medetashi, medetashi! (And they all lived happily ever after.)
So the story goes. Of course, there is the small matter of what happens when it rains on the night of the lovers meeting. Sadly, the two remain separated, as the river cannot be bridged in the rain. And July 7th lies smack in the middle of rainy season here in Japan. In the seven summers I've spent here, it has failed to rain only three times I believe, leaving our two little stars only meeting about half as often as we hope they could.
Little Huka enjoying the Fukuyama Tanabata Festival
As with all festivals, the story is only half of the fun. Tanabata Festival has a series of traditions that make for a fun evening, even if the rains. The main event is the decoration of bamboo branches with foil shapes, paper chains, and tanzaku, which are colorful strips of paper on which people write wishes. Usually done by children, tanzaku were originally for wishes like, "I want to be better at handwriting" or "I want to become a great seamstress," (following the tradition of Hikoboshi and Orihime vowing to be diligent about their work.) These days, however, those kinds of wishes are rarely seen. Much more common now are wishes like "I want to get more Pokemon cards" or "I want to become a hip-hop dancer."
Every year for Tanabata, I have my students write tanzaku in English. The kids seem to really enjoy the exercise, and I try to encourage them to think of wishes beyond their current English ability. Nothing helps you remember a foreign language better than using it to express something that is really meaningful to you. So far, my favorite has been, "I want to be a super hero," from a 10 year old girl, complete with drawing of her standing on top of the planet in a cape.
In the days, weeks, and sometimes even a month leading up to Tanabata, most cities offer a night festival, where kids and their parents can write out tanzaku and hang them on waiting bamboo branches, buy festival food (always a favorite) such as snow cones, fried noodles, or takoyaki, play games like goldfish scooping, shooting games, and lottery chance games, and so on in the evening. Usually these mini festivals are Saturday and Sunday evenings only, though it depends on the city. Kids usually dress up in traditional clothing, either a yukata which is a colorful cotton kimono especially for the summer, or a jinbei, an outfit with shorts and a wrap around shirt. My first year in Japan, I really enjoyed visiting the Fukuyama Tanabata festival, where a kindergarten I taught at (contracted through ECS) had put up their own decorations, and I ran into many of my little students having a great time with their families.
Sadly, this year my son is too young to enjoy the Tanabata festival. Alas, for the sky is clear today, and it's very likely that Orihime and Hikoboshi will cross the Amanogawa. I haven't had the chance to go to the night festivals in several years now, though I think that I should every year. I'm really looking forward to going in a few years, and for the first time, I'll go not alone, but as a family.
Two of my students, the girl in a kimono and the boy in jinbei at the Fukuyama Tanabata Festival