Thursday, July 7, 2016

star festival -- children's

osanara no
kasari kaketaru
hitomoto no
sasa ni tusure naki
tanabata no ame

star festival — children’s
wishes on colored paper 
tied to bamboo trees —
sadly rain prevents star-crossed 
lovers their one chance to meet 

When I was in Japan last month, my hostess, Goto-sensei, kindly gave me her sumi-e (ink wash painting) of a tanka (five-line poem with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables) written in her graceful sosho, (cursive shodo or calligraphy) about the Star Festival. Together we translated the waka (poem) into English. Goto-sensei did not know who the author of this particular poem was. Man'yoshu, the oldest existing book of poetry, contains many poems about the legend behind the Star Festival, and Kaknomoto no Hitomaro wrote 137 poems about Tanabata.

Tanabata, the Star Festival, is one of five traditional seasonal festivals, or gosekku. It is celebrated all over Japan on the evening of 7 July. The festival traces its origins to a legend about the stars Vega and Altair in the constellations Lyra and Aquila, respectively. According to the ancient Chinese legend, Hikoboshi (Altair), the cowherd star, and Orihime (Vega), the weaver star, lovers separated by the Milky Way, are allowed to meet just once a year  on the seventh day of the seventh month.

According to the folktale, Orihime, a gifted weaver, the daughter of Tentei, the king of the sky, wove beautiful cloth into clouds on the bank of Amanogawa, the heavenly river. She worked hard to please her father, but she was sad that she could never meet anyone to marry. 

One day Tentei allowed her to have a day off. Wandering along the heavenly river, she saw Hikoboshi, a cow herder who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa. His cows provided the milk for the Milky Way. They met on the only bridge crossing the river and immediately fell in love and got married. They were so in love that Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to wander all over heaven. Tentei became angry, destroyed the bridge and forbade them to meet. 

Despondent at the loss of her beloved, Orihime wept all day. Moved by her tears, her father agreed to let them meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month (seven being a lucky number), as long as they both worked hard during the rest of the year. 

Of course, the first time they tried to meet, they could not cross over because there was no bridge. Orihime cried so much that a flock of magpies agreed to make a bridge with their wings so she could cross the river. Unfortunately, if it rains on 7 July, the river floods and the magpies cannot come, so the star-crossed lovers must wait another year to meet.

During the Star Festival, children and adults write their wishes on tanzaku, long, narrow strips of colored paper which represent the weaving of threads, and hang them on bamboo branches placed in the backyards or entrances of their homes. They then pray for good weather so that they can catch the reflection of the two stars in a tub of water, the sign that the two lovers will meet and their own wishes will come true.

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