text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
We know them as Vega and Altair, two of the brightest stars in our skies but the Japanese call them Orihime (織姫, “weaver princess”) and Hikoboshi (彦星, “boy star”) and every summer, in July 7 they celebrate their meeting on the bridge that connects the two ends of the Amanogawa (天の川), the celestial river that we call galaxy. As is usually the case in fairy tales, what separates Hikoboshi and Orihime isn’t only the galaxy but also the wishes of the king-father of the girl, Tentei (天帝) who is also the creator of the universe. And as is to be expected, such a story couldn’t fail to move lovers and make them feel that this day (and its night) belongs rightfully to them.
Even though its origins point to a more personal celebration, Tanabata (七夕the “night of the seventh”) is one of Japan’s most spectacular fairs. Since it occurs in the heart of summer, it is a chance for the Japanese, lovers or not, to wear their summer kimono and their sandals and promenade seeking out some coolness; the beginning of July always overlaps with the monsoon or “tsuyu”, one of the hardest times of the year in Japan with very frequent rains, humidity climbing to 90% and the heat coming close to 104 degrees. So the cities and the neighborhoods become full with hanging decorations which vary from strips of colored papers, usually with wishes for progress in school and attached to bamboo branches to whole suspended carnival floats.
Folk fairs (in Japan and everywhere) are always an excuse for the tightening of the bonds among the members of a community and Tanabata couldn’t be an exception; that’s the reason its decorations are almost always hanged in central places: so more people can go and enjoy them. Food and toy stalls, stages with live music, impromptu performances and, above all, casual walks and chats with friends and acquaintances invariably featuring the arrival of summer; everyday things under splendid, vivid decorations, the Tanabata could be thought of as a model for Tokyo and the other Japanese cities: human stories in a super-human décor.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.