Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Japan’s Tanabata Festivals
Like why they started in the first place!
Decorations in Sendai Tanabata Festival. Photo © Miyagi Prefecture
Japan is a country that celebrates a lot of festivals, especially during the summer season. Besides the smaller festivals held in shrines, the country also observes the Tanabata Festival on July 7 of each year. Other places celebrate it during August, with the biggest one held in Sendai, which is famous for its beautiful and eye-catching decorations.
Ever wondered how this festival started? Well, there’s actually a romantic story behind it, adopted from China’s Star Festival.
The story begins with the daughter of Tentei (Universe God), Orihime, who falls in love with Hikoboshi, a hardworking cow herder. They fell so deeply in love with each other that they forgot to do their work and uphold their responsibilities. As a result, Tentei became very angry and separated them through the Ama-no-Gawa (literally: Heaven River; also known as the Milky Way). Since then, the couple can only meet once a year on July 7.
Whenever it rained on that day, Orihime and Hikoboshi were also prevented from meeting because the Ama-no-Gawa water overflowed. Until now, it became a custom for the locals to hope that it wouldn’t rain on the night of the Tanabata Festival.
The meeting of the two lovers also meant the appearance of the Summer Triangle star cluster. Orihime represented the star, Vega (Lyra Constellation), while Hikoboshi represented Altair (Aquila Constellation). These stars are then connected by Deneb (Cygnus Constellation). During this time, you’ll see the Milky Way shining between the three stars.
When you visit Japan during the festival, you’ll find several bamboo stalks, with colorful paper hanging from its branches, in malls and shopping streets. Upon closer examination, you’ll see that there are actually hopes and wishes written on strips of paper. This practice started in the Edo period when the Japanese would write hopes such as “I want to be smarter in calligraphy” or “I want to be good in using the abacus.”
Today, this custom still lingers in Japanese society. Even kindergarten and elementary kids participate in this activity by writing their wishes in colorful paper, hanging the strips on the bamboo stalk, and displaying the plant right after.
The bamboo stalks used during the festival are usually made on the night of July 6. They are then released on the 7th, in various shopping streets and malls, and are displayed for one whole week or longer.
Some malls and shopping streets celebrate the Tanabata event by setting up Tanabata booths. Here, visitors can write their wishes or hopes on pieces of paper and hang them on the bamboo stalk provided. This free activity is a must-try for those who want to be immersed in the culture of Japan.
(14 June 2019)