Sunday, July 08, 2007

The story of Tanabata

Tanabata is a Japanese festival celebrated in most parts of the country on July 7. It commemorates the story of the stars Altair and Vega. There are many versions of the story; this is the one my family tells.

Once upon a time, Seven Fairy Sisters lived east of the River of Heaven. They all wove beautiful clothes, but Orihime, the Weaver Princess, wove the most beautiful of all.

Meanwhile, west of the River of Heaven lived Ushikai, the Cowherd, with his elderly Ox. One day, the Ox suddenly spoke to him. "Seven Fairy Sisters are coming to the River of Heaven to bathe. When they do, you must take Orihime's kimono and hide it."

Ushikai hid in the rushes at the edge of the River. The Seven Fairy Sisters came to the river and removed their beautiful kimonos and began to bathe. Ushikai found Orihime's kimono and hid it.

The frightened Fairy Sisters hastily put on their kimonos, turned into birds, and flew away. Except for Orihime, who could not fly because she had no kimono to put on. "Marry me," said Ushikai, "and I will give you back your kimono." Orihime agreed to become Ushikai's wife.

Eventually, they had a boy and a girl. Orihime and Ushikai were very happy together. But O-Ubasama, the Goddess of Heaven, found out about them and grew very angry. She sent Heavenly Messengers to bring Orihime back to Heaven. They dragged the weeping Orihime away from her husband and children and carried her off to Heaven.

Ushikai was very sad. Right away, he put their children in bamboo baskets on a pole across his shoulders and set off on Orihime's trail. He ran on and on. Day and night he ran. If he had to, he was determined to pursue Orihime across the River of Heaven and into Heaven itself.

But when Ushikai reached the place where the River of Heaven had always been, it was gone! It was now high in the sky, shining brightly. O-Ubasama had raised the river into the sky so that Ushikai could not cross it in pursuit of Orihime.

Ushikai and his children returned to their home in despair. They cried and cried. The elderly Ox spoke up again. "Don't cry," he said. "When I die, take my skin and use it to make a kimono. Put it on, and you'll be able to climb to Heaven." As soon as he said this, the Ox fell down dead.

Ushikai did as he was told and made a kimono from the Ox's skin. He put the children in their baskets again and shouldered them. One basket was a little lighter than the other, so he picked up a ladle and put it in the lighter basket. Then he began climbing high into the sky.

Stars were shining brightly. Ushikai and his children passed between them as they climbed. Finally, they reached the River of Heaven. The children were delighted and called out for their mother. "Mommy! Mommy!"

Just as they were about to cross the River, O-Ubasama appeared and took out a hairpin. She drew a line down the middle of the River.

As soon as she did, the gentle, shallow River of Heaven began to rage with billowing waves. There was nothing Ushikai and his children could do. They hugged each other and wept.

Eventually, the girl child looked up. "Father," she said, "let's start scooping the River with that ladle. We'll scoop until the River is dry."

"That's right," said Ushikai. "We'll scoop out the River." They dried their tears and began taking turns scooping. When one grew tired, the next took over. Day and night they scooped, with never a break.

O-Ubasama was watching and took pity on them. Once a year, every July 7, she allows them to cross a bridge carried by magpies and meet Orihime.

Ushikai and his children went on living in Heaven. If you look in the sky on a clear summer night, you can see one bright star on each side of the Milky Way. Those stars, Altair and Vega, are Ushikai and Orihime, and the Milky Way is the River of Heaven. The two smaller stars next to Ushikai are their children. And every July 7, on Tanabata, Ushikai and Orihime meet again in the middle of Magpie Bridge.

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THE END
(You can read a little about our family Tanabata celebration right here.)

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