Once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a pair of lovers meet across a bridge of magpies. Any child growing up in Asia would have heard some version of this fairy tale at some point. This is the bittersweet reality for the star-crossed lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi, the Weaver and the Cowherd star who fell in love, and as all tragic love stories go, met with the usual family objections and were separated forever until the King of Heaven, (or the Jade Emperor if you’re Chinese) took pity on their pining and allowed them to meet once a year. But because they were separated by the Milky Way, a bridge of magpies would form for the lovers to meet – at least, that’s the romantic version. I have a more cynical one. I think the King of Heaven was not so much against the match as the fact that the weaver slacked off on the weaving because the two lovers were too busy making moony eyes at each other! And this was his best weaver too!
In any case, this story forms the basis for the famous Tanabata festival in Japan which takes place in summer. All over Japan, at various days in July or August, you might see towns and shopping arcades decorated with pretty paper streamers, the signature of the Tanabata festival.
But only in Sendai do you see it celebrated in such style as hundreds of streamers and flower balls vied to top the other as the prettiest of them all. And I can tell you, it’s a hard fight as wave after wave of streamers, all painstakingly hand-crafted from delicately patterned paper, seemed more lavish and more beautiful than the rest.
I walk through, head back, snapping picture after picture. I’m lucky not to fall or trip.
The shopping arcades in downtown Sendai have never looked their prettiest and for good reason too as this yearly festival draws more than a million visitors. Businesses and organisations competed to see who could outdo the other in the most elaborate decoration.
2011 summer being barely six months after the earthquake and tsunami which struck at Tohoku and Sendai, healing and grieving were also part of the picture as booths were set up for people to leave their thoughts and well-wishes. Language was no barrier as we added our own wishes for Tohoku to recover:
In a season where traditionally, wishes for beauty, scholastic success, good business, bountiful harvests, health and safety are made during the Tanabata, that year of tragedy and loss made these paper wishes all the more heartfelt and poignant. Like this one below – I don’t read Japanese and I have no idea why there is a picture of a young girl on the streamers, but I can only guess.
For the people of Sendai, deciding to carry on with the Tanabata celebrations was to stand tall and carry on with life, to acknowledge the loss but also to move on, to honour those who were gone but also to celebrate the living, with even more vibrant colours and elaborate designs than ever before. Interestingly enough, the kusudama, the huge flower ball atop the streamers was initially conceptualised to console the spirits of the dead.
So it was summer, and hot. I was never more grateful for my paper fans, freely given by shops and organisations along the way. It was interesting to see how people coped in different ways:
This year, right now, even as I write, the biggest Tanabata festival in all of Japan is once again happening. How I wish I could walk under the streamers once more!