Japanese folklore is some of the world’s most delightful literature, and during my stay in Japan, I read quite a bit of it, mostly about foxes and how they can change shapes and bewitch anyone who looks into their eyes. But my favorite Japanese folktale is the story of Tanabata, which has nothing to do with foxes. The Japanese version of the story is based on a romantic Chinese tale about a handsome young cowherd and a beautiful weaver.
As the story goes, each night the celestial maiden and her beautiful sisters weave the starry tapestry of the night sky; and each day the seven sisters come down to earth to bathe in a pond near the cowherd’s pasture. One day, the cowherd spies the celestial maiden, and while she bathes, he steals the magical robe that gives her the power to fly. When the sisters finish bathing, they take to the skies again, and the celestial maiden is left behind. When the young cowherd comes to her rescue, the maiden is sad because she cannot return home, but she stays with the cowherd and soon falls in love with him.
Over time however, they realize that the sun no longer sets, and there is no nighttime for rest and sleep because the maiden is not there to help her sisters weave the tapestry of the night sky. It is then that the cowherd confesses the theft of her robe, and the maiden knows that she must bid her lover goodbye and return to her home in the sky.
But the maiden is so sad that, as she works her shuttle, her tears fall on the tapestry, each one creating a twinkling star. Over time, she cries so many tears that they become a river of stars. Meanwhile, back on earth the cowherd too is sad. However, a kindly magpie takes pity on him, and once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the magpie enlists the aid of his flock to create a bridge of wings across the river of stars so that the two lovers can be together for one special night.
In the night sky, you can see the two lovers, Orihime the weaver, and Hikoboshi the cowherd, as two bright stars, Vega and Altair, separated by the starry river of the Milky Way. And every year, on the seventh of July, the Japanese celebrate Tanabata, which means Seven Evenings, by decorating the streets with pink streamers tied to the ends of long bamboo poles. The whole city turns pink with them, and lovers write special prayers on tiny pieces of paper and tie them to the streamers in hopes that they will be carried up to heaven where their wishes will be granted by the gods. It’s a tale and a celebration of romance quite unlike any other.