One of the most popular summer festivals, Tanabata is coming up fast. With a beautiful story behind it and widespread celebrations around Japan, it is time to get acquainted with the “Star Festival.”
Celebrated the 7th day of the 7th month, Tanabata has actually two dates: if you follow the Lunar calendar, it falls on August 7th, whilst it is in July according to the Gregorian calendar. In modern Japan, Tanabata events take place during the month of July and continue on in August in some regions. Needless to say, a month-long festival is something we can definitely get behind.
Lovers separated by the Milky Way
Tanabata celebrates the yearly meeting of two stars, Vega and Altair, in the constellations Lyra and Aquila, respectively. In the old Chinese legend, Orihime (the weaver star Vega) and Hikoboshi (the cowherd star Altair) are separated and each sent on one side of the Heavenly River (Milky Way) by the Sky King when they fall in love, marry and neglect their duties. Orihime then begs her father to be able to meet Hikoboshi, a wish that is granted by allowing the lovers to meet once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month. Tanabata means “Evening of the Seventh.”
This festival made its way to Japan in the Nara period and was first a weaving festival, mixing the original story with tanabata-tsume, the story of the maiden who weaves the Gods’ clothes. Poetry contests and staring at the stars were also a big part of the festival at the Imperial court, but for us commoners, we have to wait for the Edo period. The widespread celebration of Tanabata and the tradition of writing on tanzaku and hanging them from bamboo branches appeared in the 17th century.
Celebrate with wishes, origami and bamboo
The most popular way to celebrate Tanabata is by writing wishes on a small piece of colourful paper (tanzaku) and hanging them from bamboo branches. After the festival, these wishes (and the bamboo) are either set afloat on the river or burned.
The Star Festival is a festival of hopes and dreams but how do you express this in decorations? The Japanese have the answer in colourful paper decorations, nanatsu kazari, seven types of which exist for Tanabata. Tanzaku are were individual wishes are written but you can also hang fukinagashi streamers that represent Orihime’s yarn, senbatsuru (paper cranes) to wish for longevity, kinchaku for wealth, kamigoromo in the form of kimonos for “a strong sewing arm,” seafood-looking toami for fortune and luck or bin-shaped kuzukago to wish for tidiness and thrift.
Food of the stars
The traditional food to eat during Tanabata is somen: long and thin noodles that represent the Milky Way and the thread of Orihime. However, every Japanese festival has an array of street food on offer, from Takoyaki (fried balls of dough filled with octopus) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) to yakitori (chicken skewers) so you can be sure you won’t go hungry if you decide to take part in the celebrations.
Being in Japan during Tanabata is truly something to experience: Hiratsuka (near Tokyo) in July and Sendai (in August) are two of the most famous ones, but for a truly magical sight, head to Osaka where thousands of blue lights are set afloat on the river, creating a Milky Way in the middle of the city.
The Star Festival has been embraced all over the world and Japanese communities everywhere host celebrations: whether you are in Los Angeles or Paris, Tanabata celebrations might not be far from you.