Japanese traditions: Tanabata

Here comes that time of the year when you realize it’s Summer! Depending on the region you’re in, Tanabata takes place on July, 7 or August, 7, or near these dates; if you’re visiting, check the local information about it.


photo credit: Patrick Vierthaler Kitano Tenmangu 北野天満宮 via photopin (license)

The legend of Tanabata (or 七夕) was born in China and became a common story in the Japanese court only after the Heian period (794 – 1185). Although there are different versions of the legend, it revolves around the figures of two lovers, whose fate is to meet only one day, precisely on the seventh night of the seventh month. And it’s always interesting when astronomy is involved.

The legend tells the fortunes of Orihime (織姫), daughter of Tentei (天帝), God of the Sky, weaver of the gods garments, who, after complaining with her father on the lack of social interactions, is given in marriage to Hikoboshi (彦星), the cowherd. Soon, the two are overwhelmed by their love and passion and spend all the day together, deserting their own responsibilities and, consequently, causing the ire of the gods. Although Tentei reprimands them, the situation doesn’t change, so that the god decides to punish the two lovers by separating them.


photo credit: peter-rabbit 07072015_109 Tanabata Evening at Shitennoji Temple, Osaka JP | 大阪・四天王寺 七夕のゆうべ via photopin (license)

From this moment, the legend of Tanabata references the myth of creation of the Milky Way, or the silver river that should forever separate Orihime and Hikoboshi, the Vega and Altair stars. If you live in the Northern hemisphere, you can easily spot the two stars, in the Lyra and Aquila constellations, respectively, as part of the Summer Triangle along with Deneb.

Although Orihime and Hikoboshi should live forever apart, their sadness moves the gods, who make the decision to allow the two lovers to meet once a year. Depending on the version, the bridge connecting Orihime to Hikoboshi is a flock of magpies, traditionally associated with marital bliss and happiness, or it is represented by Deneb; the star, in another version, is the chaperone who accompanies Orihime to her husband.


photo credit: Patrick Vierthaler Tanabata 七夕 via photopin (license)

Today, during the celebrations for Tanabata, seven different types of decorations are used. The most famous one in the Western is probably the tanzaku (短冊), a colored small strip of paper on which people write their wish, later hung on bamboo branches. Other decorations for Tanabata include the senbazuru (千羽鶴), origami shaped as good luck forms like cranes; the kuzukago (屑籠 ), paper baskets; the toami for good fishing; the fukinagashi (吹き流し), symbolizing Orihime’s fabrics; the kamigoromo, paper kimono; the kinchaku (巾着), small paper bags for money, meaning a no-waste ability.

You can enjoy Tanabata as many other Summer festivals or as a particular celebration, like the famous Sendai festival held in August. So, you can choose to wear a yukata and visit the stalls, but don’t forget to celebrate with someone you love, whether this is a partner, a friend or a sibling!

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