Summer has come to Japan, and with it the preparations for the big festivals across the country. Tickets to fireworks shows are available at every convenience store, and in Kyoto, there is a tingle in the air––a hidden pulse of excitement for the festivities Gion Matsuri and Obon will bring. In Kyoto, Obon, like the fireworks festivals, is all about illuminating the night. Five mountains across Kyoto will be lit with burning kanji characters, lighting the way for the departed making their way back to where they came from.
But before all of those festivals of splendor, there is a smaller, more intimate festival known as Tanabata, or the “Eve of the Seventh”, which was held yesterday, July 7th. This festival sees longs branches of bamboo outside homes and shrines with hand-written wishes tied to their wiry branches. Tanabata was one of the first Japanese festivals I ever learned about, and since I didn’t get to take part in the festivities this year due to work and a bad memory, I thought I’d share with you all the story of behind the festival, in lieu of photos.
Many millennia ago, before even our barest hint of memory, there was an immortal man who sought only to ease the sufferings of humans. Once he had vanquished the monsters of earth, he ascended to heaven and destroyed the demons that had overpowered every other god. Due to his great might and compassion, this immortal came to be known as the Jade Emperor, and was chosen to rule the pantheon.
The Jade Emperor married the Celestial Queen Mother, and in turn they had a daughter, Orihime. Orihime, whose name means “Weaving Princess”, was so named for her beautiful brocades. Not only was she responsible for the weaving of all of the beautiful clouds in heaven, she also wove the Silver River, which we know to be the Milky Way.
Orihime worked hard every day on her brocades, and the Jade Emperor was happy. However, Orihime found herself lonely. She spoke her lamentations to her father, who in turn decided to rectify her situation. He arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder. Hikoboshi lived and worked on the other side of the Silver River.
On the day that Orihime and Hikoboshi met, they fell madly and instantly in love. Where once Orihime had been happy to weave every day, now her looms sat empty. And in Hikoboshi’s case, he so abandoned his livestock that they wandered all of the heavens, devouring every green thing in their path.
Naturally, the Jade Emperor was not pleased. In a fit of uncharacteristic anger, he separated the lovers and forbid them to ever meet again.
Orihime, beyond grief at this decision, wept. Her brocades sat stained with her tears, and every day her strength waned. Hikoboshi could not think straight for his broken-heartedness. Orihime begged her father to allow them to meet one last time.
The Jade Emperor reconsidered his punishment for the lovers, and decided that if Orihime and Hikoboshi could meet just one day a year, then all parties could be happy. He told Orihime that on the seventh day of the seventh month, the two could meet with his blessing.
Ecstatic, the two waited eagerly for the day––yet on the seventh, they found that the Silver River was too deep and too dangerous to cross, and they could only look at one another from across the banks. This was too much for Orihime, who again wept.
Her tears moved the magpies that roosted in a tree nearby, and they came to her aid. With their very wings, the magpies created a bridge for the two to cross, and so Orihime and Hikoboshi could at last hold one another in each other’s arms.
And so it is that one day a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, Orihime and Hikoboshi meet, and we on earth who also desire our wishes fulfilled tie our entreaties to the branches of the lucky bamboo.
© Alex Hurst
And so ends the story of Tanabata, originally imported from China by an Empress of the Heian era in the 800s. It occurred to me as I was writing this that, actually, Orihime and Hikoboshi were very irresponsible and lazy people, and in the context of Eastern thought, the Jade Emperor is in fact the benevolent being in the story, despite the fact that when I heard this for the first time, I thought he was the antagonist. It does say a lot about the values we place on certain things … but, I digress. I hope you enjoyed the story.