“Autumn Lovers,” a Tanabata Sequence

Tanabata is a Japanese star festival derived from the similar Chinese celebration of Qixi. Meaning “seventh night,” Tanabata marks the yearly reunion in late summer or early fall of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (Weaver Princess and Boy Star), which correspond to the stars Vega and Altair. In the mythology and folklore of China and Japan, Orihime wove beautiful cloth for her father the sky god on the banks of the Milky Way (Ama no Kawa, “River of Heaven”). She was lonely, so her father introduced her to Hikoboshi, the cowherd of celestial kine. They fell in love, but neglected their duties. The sky god separated them, placing each on either bank of the Milky Way and allowing them to reunite one evening each year.

During the commemoration of their meeting, celebrants often write their wishes in the form of short poems on small pieces of paper that they then hang on bamboo trees. This is part of a long tradition of poetry concerning the divine rendezvous, which includes the following sequence of anonymous tanka from the medieval anthology Kokinshū.

Ever since the day
autumn winds started to blow,
not a day has passed
that I’ve not stood on the banks
of heaven’s broad Milky Way.

Oh, ferryman, please—
once my lord has crossed over
to the closer shore
of this celestial river,
hide your oars so he remains!

River of Heaven!
Does Vega, the Weaver Maid,
await the autumn
because she knows it will build
a bridge of red and brown leaves?

Tonight is the night
of the rendezvous we crave—
if only a fog
would enshroud heaven’s river
so that dawn would never break.

—translated by David Bowles
May 7, 2014

Original Japanese

aki kaze no
fukinishi hi yori
hisakata no
ama no kawara ni
tatanu hi wa nashi

hisakata no
ama no kawara no
kimi watarinaba
kaji kakushite yo

ama no kawa
momiji o hashi ni
tanabatatsume no
aki o shimo matsu

au yo wa koyoi
ama no kawa
kiri tachiwatari
akezu mo aranan

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