Tanabata (七夕) is the fourth of five sekku or “seasonal” holidays that happen every year in Japan,1 and has been a big summer festival since antiquity. The origin story of Tanabata is based on a Chinese legend about two young, celestial lovers named Hikoboshi and Orihime who were later forcibly separated by Orihime’s father except for one night each year: the seventh day of the seventh month. On that day, a flock of magpies form a bridge so the two can meet for that evening. Thus, Tanabata in the modern calendar is always July 7th.
There’s even a famous poem referring to Tanabata in the ancient Hyakunin Isshu anthology:
|かささぎの||Kasasagi no||When I see the whiteness|
|わたせる橋に||wataseru hashi ni||of the frost that lies|
|おく霜の||oku shimo no||on the bridge the magpies spread,|
|白きを見れば||shiro wo mireba||then do I know, indeed,|
|夜ぞふけにける||yo zo fuke ni keru||that the night has deepened.|
The reference to the Magpie’s Bridge is from two places: the Imperial Palace at the time had a set of stairs called Magpie’s Bridge, but also the famous legend of Tanabata. Although the poem takes place in the dead of winter, even as far back as the 8th century, the story of the magpie bridge was culturally significant.
The story of Tanabata makes a good theme for a summer night, and not surprisingly, it’s a great excuse to get out, dress up in traditional robes (yukata) and enjoy local festivals, food and people watching. My wife and kids are usually in Japan during this time, but due to work, I tend to arrive later in July, so I often miss the Tanabata, but when I do go, it’s a good time for the family.
One popular tradition is to write one’s wishes on a small piece of paper called tanzaku (短冊)2 and hang it on a designated bamboo tree:
There’s also a song that goes along with this tradition, which my wife would sometimes sing to our kids when they were babies:
|Sasa no ha sara-sara|
Nokiba ni yureru
Goshiki no tanzaku
watashi ga kaita
sora kara miteru
|The bamboo leaves rustle,|
And sway under the eaves.
The stars twinkle
Like gold and silver grains of sand.
The five-color paper strips
I have written them.
The stars twinkle,
Watching from above.
My wife usually only sings the first four verses if I recall correctly, but I can still hear her singing this song in my mind to our newborn kids before they go to sleep. 🥰
Anyhow, Tanabata is a nice summer holiday that young and old can enjoy, and well worth seeing if you happen to be in Japan in the summer.
1 This includes Girls Day and Childrens Day among others.
2 As well as an emoji 🎋