Summer Nights and Tanabata

Taken at a local festival near Hiratsuka, Japan in 2015

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 noWhen I see the whiteness
わたせる橋にwataseru hashi niof the frost that lies
おく霜のoku shimo noon the bridge the magpies spread,
白きを見ればshiro wo mirebathen do I know, indeed,
夜ぞふけにけるyo zo fuke ni keruthat the night has deepened.
Translation by Joshua S. Mostow

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:

★Kumiko★ from Tokyo, Japan / CC BY-SA (, courtesy of Wikipedia

There’s also a song that goes along with this tradition, which my wife would sometimes sing to our kids when they were babies:

ささのは さらさら
のきばに ゆれる
お星さま きらきら
きんぎん すなご
ごしきの たんざく
わたしが かいた
お星さま きらきら
空から  見てる[9]
Sasa no ha sara-sara
Nokiba ni yureru
Ohoshi-sama kira-kira
Kingin sunago
Goshiki no tanzaku
watashi ga kaita
Ohoshi-sama kirakira
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.
Translation provided by Wikipedia

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 🎋

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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