Photo/IllutrationA strip of paper bearing a wish to find a good match hangs from a bamboo branch at Ashikaga Orihimejinja shrine in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, on July 7. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

According to the legend of Tanabata, a flock of “kasasagi” magpies spread their wings to form a bridge across the Milky Way and reunite the star-crossed lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi only once a year on the night of July 7.

The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan is calling for the Tanabata star festival to be celebrated on Aug. 17--which corresponds to July 7 on the old lunisolar calendar--instead of July 7 on the Gregorian calendar, when the nation is in the midst of the rainy season.

The kasasagi is the prefectural bird of Saga Prefecture. I recently saw one, up close and in the flesh, at a sanctuary there.

Its eyes were round and cute. The bicolor feathers were black and white, and its long tail glimmered blue and green in the sun.

The species is said to inhabit northern Kyushu, including Saga.

Hiroaki Mori, 45, an official of the Saga prefectural government’s cultural assets department, said, “Its bird call sounds like ‘kachi, kachi’ (a homonym of ‘win, win’ in Japanese). And that’s auspicious.”

Locally, the bird is also called “kachigarasu” (literally, winner crow).

The city of Saga has a street named Kasasagi Dori, and a train station panel shows an illustration of this bird with its wings spread. And the bird is also on the flag of Sagan Tosu, the local professional soccer club in the J1 division of the J.League.

The prefecture has been protecting the kasasagi since 20 years ago. Should a fledgling fall from its nest in early spring, citizens would report it immediately to the prefecture.

“We take care of injured chicks until they are ready to be released to the wild,” said Mori. “Seeing them fly on their own makes me feel as happy and proud as its parent.”

The custom of celebrating Tanabata began in the imperial court and spread to society at large.

During the Edo Period (1603-1867), children are said to have filled a tub with water to reflect Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair) up in the sky. A gentle breeze would send ripples to bring the two reflections together, enabling a rendezvous between the two separated by the Milky Way.

Japanese have always been eager to help the heavenly long-distance lovers.

This year, torrential rain caused tremendous damage in western Japan on July 7 (on the Gregorian calendar).

Tonight, I hope to gaze peacefully at the Milky Way, enjoying the cool evening breeze.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 17

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.