May 6th: All Aboard the Milky Way Railroad

365DaysDate: May 6, 2009

Title: All Aboard the Milky Way Railroad


Podcaster: Colin Stuart

Description: In today’s podcast we jump aboard The Milky Way Railroad and explore the children’s book of the same name by Kenji Miyazawa. We also look at the Japanese star festival of Tanabata on which the book is based.

Bio: Colin Stuart is a freelance science communicator from the UK . Having spent 3 years in rainy Manchester taming the strange beast that is astrophysics, he now lives in London where he spends a lot of his time presenting astronomy shows in The Peter Harrison Planetarium, at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich . He also regularly appears across the internet and in podcasts and radio shows including The Jodcast, Science Made Fun and Capital Science.

Colin can also be found blogging at Just A Theory

Today’s sponsor: This episode of ‘365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the American Astronomical Society, the major organization for professional astronomers in North America, whose members remind everyone that One Sky Connects Us All. Find out more or join the AAS at


Hi I’m Colin Stuart

One of the things that has always fascinated me most about astronomy is the way that ancient civilisations wove the celestial sphere into the very heart of their cultures. I never cease to be inspired by the beauty of these stories and the imagination required to conceive of them.

For example, there is a South African star story where the Pleiades are the daughters of the sky god and Aldebaran (the brightest star in Taurus) is their husband. To impress his brides he fires an arrow (Orion’s sword) at three grazing zebras (Orion’s belt). However, his arrow misses and he is too afraid to go and collect it due to a vicious lion that is skulking in the cosmic grass, Betelgeuse.

Staying in South Africa there are the Tswana people who believe the stars to be the souls of those unwilling to be born. Or the indigenous Yolngu clan of Australia who use Venus in a “morning star ceremony” at funerals.

These are brilliant tales and definitely some of my favourites. However, the story which sits atop my astronomy tales tree is the one on which Kenji Miyazawa based his children’s book Milky Way Railroad. I only recently discovered this book and if you haven’t read it then its well worth a read.

Kenji was a Japanese writer, poet, chemist and teacher who lived from 1896 to 1933 and he based the story of the Milky Way Railroad on the Japanese star festival called Tanabata, a tradition thought to have been brought over from China in about the 8th century.

Tanabata is the seventh day of the seventh month in the old Japanese lunar calendar. That means that this year, with modern calendars, that the festival will take place on the 26th August.

The Tanabata festival celebrates the love between two people in the form of stars. Our heroine is a weaver-girl, a weaver whose wares are stitched for the pleasure of the gods, she is represented by the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra, The Harp. Our hero, and her lover, is the lonely cow-herd, who appears to us in the form of Altair, the brightest stars in Aquila, The Eagle.

Legend has it that the starry pair’s love became all encompassing and the weaver-girl became increasingly distracted from her work. Her father, who just so happened to also be the Master of Heaven, became more and more annoyed at his daughter’s dalliances. As a mark of his anger and displeasure he ordered that the two lovers be separated from each other by the Milky Way, a river that runs through the heavens. However, in his generousity, for he wasn’t all bad, he allowed the star-crossed lovers to meet for just one night a year to keep their love alive; the night of Tanabata. But, as always there was a condition to a father’s instructions. Vega could only catch a cosmological boat across the galactic river if her work that year had been satisfactory. If her father was displeased then he would use all his powers to make it rain and make the dusty waters impassable. But in some versions of the story even this isn’t enough to keep them apart as then a flock of magpies arch across the babbling brook of heaven and create a bridge that joins the two lovers for their one annual night of bliss.

Kenji Miyazawa in his book, took a slightly different twist on the traditional tale and rather than having lovers told a similar story about two best friends Giovanni and Campanella. These might seems very western names for a Japanese folktale but that was half the point, Kenji was very interested in the marriage between East and West.

I don’t want to go into too much detail of the story behind the Milky Way Railroad as that will spoil it if you want to go away and read it for yourself, which I definitely recommend. However, it is safe to say that the story unfolds on the night of the Tanabata Festival. Giovanni disappears up to the top of a hill to escape the noise and hustle and bustle of the celebrations in the town. Suddenly, he finds himself not on the hill where he was but aboard a beautiful train hurtling along the Milky Way Railroad. As if this wasn’t enough he seems magically to have been joined by Campanella. There is a twist here but I won’t spoil it.

The pair continue their adventure as their train winds and climbs its way through the Milky Way. On their travels they stop at the Northern Cross station and Pliocene Seashore where they meet an old man who catches celestial herons for a living, which apparently taste exactly of cake. They then go on to travel through the Scorpions Fire and The Southern Cross, traversing most of the length of the Milky Way.

The whole story is told with an air of magic and mystery which have must have been even more apparent in the original Japanese in which is was written. Kenji has woven a lot of astronomical facts into this tale and you get a real sense that you are actually journeying through the constellations, that as an astronomer I am quite familiar with from Earth.

It just goes to show you what astronomy can inspire in people’s imaginations. There are many tales about the stars, stories of dragons and flying horses, zebras and lions, lovers and fighters, but Kenji’s Milky Way Railroad and the story behind the Tanabata Festival definitely sits right up there.

365 Days of Astronomy
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One Response to May 6th: All Aboard the Milky Way Railroad

  1. Olivia September 1, 2009 at 5:23 am #

    Nice stories! More astronomy information!

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