Tanabata is a Japanese festival that is celebrated every year on 7th July. When this time of year comes around, people write their wishes on strips of paper and hang them on bamboo trees, along with decorations. You can see this almost everywhere in Japan. While there are stories that are similar to Tanabata in many Asian countries, the Japanese version of the story is a mixture of a Chinese legend and local beliefs, so the story is told differently in different areas of Japan.
The legend is explained:
A long time ago, there was a young man who lived in a small village. One day as he was on his way home from working in the fields, he discovered something amazing: the most beautiful clothes he had ever seen. He wanted the clothes very badly, so he quietly put them in his basket and started on his way home.
Just then, a voice called out, “Excuse me.” The boy was startled and said, “What? Did somebody just call me?” A beautiful girl answered, “Yes, I did. Please give back my robe of feathers. I live in heaven, and I just came down to this pond to take a bath. Without my robe of feathers, I can’t go back.”
The girl looked as though she were about to cry, but the boy pretended not to know and answered, “Robe of feathers? I don’t know anything about that.” Unable to go back to heaven, the goddess was forced to remain on earth. She began to live with the young man.
The goddess’s name was Tanabata. Tanabata and the young man got married and were living together happily. One day several years later, though, while the young man was working in the fields, Tanabata found her robe of feathers hidden between two beams in the ceiling. “I knew it. He’s been hiding it,” she thought to herself. She put on the robe of feathers and right away began to feel like the goddess she had once been.
That evening when the young man came home, he was surprised to see Tanabata wearing the robe of feathers, standing in front of the house. Tanabata began rising up toward heaven and called out to the young man, “If you love me, weave a thousand pairs of straw sandals and bury them around the bamboo tree. If you do that, we’ll be sure to see each other again. Please do this. I’ll be waiting for you.” Tanabata rose up higher and higher and returned home to heaven.
The young man was very sad, but he knew what to do. On the very next day he began making straw sandals. He continued weaving them day and night. At last he finally finished making his last pair and buried them all around the bamboo tree.
Right away the bamboo tree began to get bigger and bigger, and it grew higher and higher into the sky. The young man immediately began climbing the tall bamboo tree. He climbed higher and higher until he was almost able to reach heaven. But because he had wanted to see Tanabata with all his heart, he had hurried when making the straw sandals and had actually made only 999 pairs. The tree stopped one step short, and the young man’s hand could not reach heaven.
“Hey! Tanabata! Tanabata!” the young man cried out to heaven. “Oh, it’s you!” Tanabata exclaimed. She extended her hand to the young man and pulled him over the clouds. “Tanabata, I missed you so much,” the young man said. The two of them were overjoyed to see each other once again.
Tanabata’s father was not happy that she had married a man from the world below. He gave the young man hard work to do, hoping to make him miserable. “You’ll guard the melon field for three days and three nights,” he said. Watching the melon field made the young man extremely thirsty, but if he ate one of the melons, it was said that something terrible would happen. Tanabata told him, “You absolutely cannot eat one of those melons.”
But as the three days went by, the young man grew thirsty and became unable to bear it any longer. He reached for a melon. The instant he did, water burst forth from the fruit and became a flowing river. “Darling!” “Tanabata!” In an instant the two were pulled apart from each other.
The two lovers looking across the river at each other became the stars Altair and Vega. Tanabata’s father allows them to meet, only once a year, on the night of the 7th July. To this day these two stars face each other across the Milky Way, shining brightly.