Asians are known to be hard working. They are also renown for their artistic achievements. Those two traits have been recorded in myths and folktales for centuries. One such story from long ago is the Tanabata. It weaves together the threads of several traditions, making a unified and touching whole.
The Tanabata legend actually comes from ancient China. It says that long ago there was a beautiful lady named Orihime, the Weaver Princess. This talented woman was not only a weaver, but also a seamstress. She loved taking pieces of her woven tapestries and putting them together to make unified patterns of outstanding beauty. With time this gracious lady became famous for her hard work and finely made clothes.
One day when she was diligently working, she looked up and saw an exceedingly handsome man wandering by. She immediately fell in love with him, an ox herder named Hikoboshi. Every day this stunning gentleman came into her view as he tended his exquisite beasts, the best and most famous in all the land.
Some versions of this story claim they were allowed to marry. Others say they became lovers. Whichever, they were so much in love that the heavens rang with their delight and pleasure.
In China the telling of this legend stresses the importance of working hard and of making efforts to improve one’s talents and skills. In Japan the message is similar, but the celebration of love is also emphasized. In addition, the Japanese have taken the original Chinese story and have woven in threads of Shinto belief.
Tanabata decorations are made with long bamboo poles. They line the main streets, bowing low to graciously form arcades of beauty. Suspended from these supporting bamboo poles are symbolic origami figures. There are paper cranes, of course. They express the wish for the long life and health of one’s family. There is a fishing net, because Japan depends on the sea for its survival. Then comes a kimono, representing prosperity and good luck. And a purse is a reminder to save, and not spend frivolously. Surprisingly, there is even a trash bag. It tells us that we are responsible for keeping the world clean and our thoughts pure. Finally, there are “Tanzuku”, or slips of paper where people can write their wishes.
For over a thousands years Tanabata has been celebrated in Japan as a magnificent display of talent, handiwork, and beauty.
The same attitude is returning now. Since the 03/11 earthquake, Tanabata “Fukinagashi” designs have become more gorgeous and varied. This is done as a way to encourage people in their efforts to move forward. There is always respect for the past, which is the springboard for the present. So on the tips of the long bamboo poles, you can see the six original origami shapes: cranes, a fishing net, a kimono, a purse, a trash bag, and “Tanzuku” with messages written on them.
Now the long “Fukinagashi” streamers are imaginatively decorated in delightfully new and imaginative ways. The themes often reflect the shops near them. For example, during this year’s Tanabata, a sweet bean shop had vivid green steamers, a glasses store had eye exam charts, Fujisaki had displays of traditional paintings, while a craft shop had regional kokeishi dolls.
At this time as we reweave and stitch together the scattered pieces of our lives, the unity and beauty of the Tanabata Festival are more significant than ever. They are an inspiration to continue working towards a cohesive world that blends hard work and beauty, duties and eternal love.