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Tanabata: The ultimate in wishing on a star

By Vicki L Beyer

When Shakespeare coined the phrase "star-crossed lovers", he was thinking astrology. But his phrase could equally have applied to the principal characters in the ancient Chinese legend of the weaver and the cowherd, two lovers who literally cross the stars to be together. According to the legend, which was popularized in Japan more than 1,300 years ago, Orihime, the weaving princess, fell in love with Hikoboshi, the cowherd, and so great was their passion for each other that both neglected their work. No cloth was woven and the cows wandered everywhere. This so angered the king that he banished the two lovers to the heavens, separating them by the Milky Way itself. Orihime became the star Vega and Hikoboshi, the star Altair.

Orihime was so distraught at this separation that she begged the king to reunite the lovers and the king relented, agreeing to permit the two to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month -- in Japanese, “tanabata.” Because the lovers are allowed to meet on this one night of the year, Tanabata has come to be regarded as the most romantic night of the year, a reference used even by James Michener in “Sayonara,” his early novel of inter-racial love.

Inevitably, a legend like this spawns a festival. Indeed, Tanabata is one of the five major festivals (“gosekku”) that have been celebrated in Japan for centuries. Its symbols are ubiquitous in Japan in the early summer season.

The principal symbol is the bamboo wish tree, a long stalk-like trunk with light, leafy branches protruding from it. These trees, often erected at a slight angle so they bow, are decorated with colorful paper streamers, symbolizing the threads woven by Orihime. A popular variation on the streamers are short strips of slightly stiff paper. These "tanzaku" are tied to the tree with string or ribbons through a hole on one end, after individuals have inscribed them with wishes. Elegant traditionalists will write their wishes as poems. Sometimes paper celestial symbols, such as stars and moons, also adorn the tree.

Yoko Ono, avant garde artist and widow of former Beatle John Lennon, drew her inspiration from this Tanabata tradition in introducing her Wish Tree participatory art project in the early 1980s.

Tanabata festivals can be found across Japan. Often organized by local merchants, they usually feature a major shopping street or district decked out with decorated wish trees and other themed streamers as well as street performances and sometimes parades. Most visitors enjoy the party-like atmosphere by strolling through, admiring the decorations and enjoying the way the breeze makes the streamers dance around them. Since the festivals are usually sponsored by the merchants, there are often sales in the local shops, too.

The three largest and most famous festivals are held in Hiratsuka, Ichinomiya and Sendai. Although it would seem that the seventh day of the seventh month is pretty unequivocal, thanks to the exigencies of the lunar calendar and the adoption by Japan of the Gregorian calendar, these three festivals are actually held at different times, giving die-hard romantics a chance to take in all three festivals.

Hiratsuka (Kanagawa Prefecture) - July 4-6

The Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival is the largest of its kind in the Kanto area, with several square blocks of decorated streets and regularly scheduled street performances, especially on the last day. Many of the decorations are so large that they are hung from steel girders spanning the street, rather than from the traditional bamboo wish trees. These are large lantern-style affairs on traditional or modern themes. (The action starts just outside JR Hiratsuka Station.)

Ichinomiya (Aichi Prefecture) - July 24-27

In Ichinomiya, the Tanabata Festival centers on the 500 meter-long Honmachi Shotengai, which forms the approach to Masumida Shrine. In addition to a parade through the shotengai festooned with wish trees and streamers, there is a "Miss Tanabata" contest featuring the local beauties. (Access from JR Owari Ichinomiya Station or Meitetsu Ichinomiya Station; although it's easily walkable, there's also a free shuttle bus.)

Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture) - August 6-8

Sendai's Tanabata Festival is probably the largest and best known Tanabata festival in the country. The modern festival dates to the beginning of the Showa period (1927) and was conceived as a "pick me up" for consumers. Sendai originated the use of a “kusudama” ball of paper flowers as a topping for the paper streamers, a practice which seems to have caught on elsewhere as well.

Other symbols used especially in Sendai include a paper kimono hung at the top of the wish tree to symbolizes a wish for good sewing skills, streamers of a thousand origami cranes which are a traditional symbol of a wish for long life, a paper fishing net to symbolize a wish for good fishing catches, and a traditional waist purse symbolizing a wish for prosperity. It's especially fun to search out these traditional symbols amid the bright decorations.

Legend has it that the first time the lovers tried to meet, they were still separated by the Milky Way and a flock of magpies made a bridge with their wings to allow the lovers to be together. Now it is believed that if it rains on the night of the seventh the magpies are unable to form their bridge and the lovers have to wait a year to meet. For this reason, people pray for good weather on that night. Fortunately, since the rainy season is usually finished by the first week of July, those prayers often seem to work out.

Tanabata is such a popular festival that it is also observed in more modern surroundings. Tokyo Disneyland (and from this year, DisneySea as well) features Disney Tanabata Days from June 24 through July 7. After all, what better place than Disneyland to “wish upon a star?” Visitors can write their wishes on special Disney-styled "Wishing Cards" and will also see Mickey and Minnie dressed as Hikoboshi and Orihime for the occasion.

Tokyo Tower, long a popular trysting spot for lovers, is also in on the act, with special blue lighting on the main observation deck through July 7 to recreate the Milky Way that separates the lovers.

Other Tanabata Festivals to watch for:

• Shitamachi Tanabata Festival (Asakusa) - July 4-10. Streets will be closed to traffic (open only to pedestrians) from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the 5th and 6th. There will be a parade, food stalls and performances.

• Kanda Myojin Shrine, a few minutes walk from either Ochanomizu or Akihabara Station, features a special ceremony from 4 p.m. on July 7 in honor of the star-crossed lovers. From June 1 to July 7, they also sell special "en-musubi" (tie the knot) amulets, for the benefit of real-life lovers.

• Maebashi Tanabata Festival (Gumma) - July 10-13. More than 650 decorated wish trees, as well as live entertainment and an all-comers yukata contest.

• Fukaya Tanabata Festival (Saitama) - July 11-13. In addition to wish trees and streamers, this festival offers entertainment for the kiddies, including a petting zoo and miniature steam locomotive.

• Mobara Tanabata Festival (Chiba) - July 25-27. Sunday will be the most exciting, as there will be a parade and traditional dancing.

• Anjo Tanabata Matsuri (Aichi) - August 1-3. Rivals the nearby Ichinomiya Festival in size and activities.

• Tanabata Shrine (Ogori, Fukuoka) - August 7. What better place to celebrate Tanabata than at a shrine dedicated to this love story? Here the outdoor decorations are more rustic and natural, lending a more traditional atmosphere.

• Asagaya Tanabata Festival - August 6-10. Possibly the largest Tanabata Festival in Tokyo, it particularly features large papier mache figures suspended from the ceiling of the shotengai; reminiscent of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

© Japan Today

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