Tanabata: All About These Colorful Japanese Festivals
Rooted in a romantic legend, Tanabata in Japan is a gloriously colorful festival full of hope. The onset of summer in Japan is celebrated with a splash of color and streams of wishes, as the Tanabata decorations fill the streets and the country gears up for a season of festivals, yukata, and fireworks. Read on to find out more about the story behind Tanabata, as well as how, when, and where to celebrate the Tanabata Festival in Japan.
Jul 05 2021 (Jul 06 2021)
What Is Tanabata?
Also known as the Star Festival, Tanabata is the quintessential summer festival in Japan, a harbinger of the summer season and a time when children and adults alike make wishes and look to the stars. Inspired by a Chinese legend and incorporating elements of different Shinto traditions, Tanabata is one of Japan's "gosekku" (five seasonal festivals that were traditionally held at the Japanese Imperial court), and it is celebrated at different times across July and August.
Each local festival has its own traditions, but generally, the Tanabata festival can be recognized by the streams of colorful strips of paper hanging from large bamboo branches, each containing a hand-written wish for the season ahead.
Origins of the Tanabata Festival
The Tanabata Festival was introduced to Japan by the Empress Kōken in 755 and was then adopted by the Kyoto Imperial Court in the Heian Period (794 - 1185). Tanabata was originally known in Japan as Kikkoden, or "The Festival to Plead for Skills," inspired by the Chinese Qixi Festival. At both the Chinese Qixi Festival and Kikkoden, girls would make wishes to the heavens, pleading for improvements in handcrafting and sewing skills.
It so happened that Kikkoden occurred at around the same time on the lunar calendar as a traditional Japanese Shinto purification ceremony, also associated with weaving. In this ceremony, a Shinto "miko" would weave an intricate garment on a special loom. The loom was known as a "tanabata." The garment was then offered to a Shinto god to pray for a good harvest and the protection of the rice crops. Since both this Shinto ceremony and the Kikkoden occurred at around the same time and both were on the subject of weaving, they gradually merged to become a new festival known as Tanabata.
The Tanabata festival gained widespread popularity during the Edo Period (1603 - 1867), when it was customary for girls to wish for better sewing and craft skills, and for boys to wish for better handwriting, a custom developed from "The Festival to Plead for Skills." At this time, the Obon summer celebrations took place on the 15th of July, and some of the traditions of the two festivals merged to form the modern Tanabata, such as lighting paper lanterns and the tradition of burning the paper wishes after the festival. While many of these traditions continue to be a part of modern Tanabata festivities, today Obon and Tanabata are separate festivals.
What Does Tanabata Mean?
The name of the Tanabata Festival in kanji is 七夕, which means "seventh evening."
It was originally read as "shichiseki" ("shichi" is the reading for 七, meaning seven, and "seki" is one reading for 夕, meaning evening) but once the festival merged with the Shinto ceremony described above, the reading of the kanji changed to "tanabata," while they retained their original meaning of the seventh evening.
When Is the Tanabata Festival Celebrated?
Tanabata is celebrated at different times across July and August. This disparity is due to the differences between the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar and the Gregorian calendar, which are around one month apart. It is generally acknowledged that Tanabata should be held on the seventh day of the seventh month, which is (of course) the 7th of July in the Gregorian calendar. However, some places opted to set festival dates closer to their original lunar calendar dates, ensuring they remain seasonally appropriate. This was done based on the "one-month delay method," introduced after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1873, and as a result, many Tanabata festivals are held around the 7th of August every year.
To complicate the matter further, other festivals still adhere to the traditional lunisolar calendar and are held on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar. This usually translates to a date in August in the Gregorian calendar, but it changes every year: in 2021 the 7th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar will be August 14th. In 2022, it will be August 4th.
The variable dates of the festival mean it can be celebrated across the whole summer season, giving visitors plenty of opportunities to witness and experience the fun. If you are interested in visiting a particular festival, it is best to check the festival's website to confirm the dates. Tanabata is not a national holiday, but it is a very beloved event in Japan. Joining the celebrations is a great opportunity to experience Japanese cultural traditions and festivities!
The Story Behind Tanabata
The story of Tanabata comes from a Chinese folk tale over 2000 years old called "The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl," which also inspired the Chinese Qixi Festival.
According to the most common version of the story, the tale tells the sad story of the star-crossed lovers Princess Orihime, daughter of Tentei (the Sky King or King of Heaven), and the local cowherd Hikoboshi. Princess Orihime spent her days on the banks of the Amanogawa (The Milky Way or "heavenly river") weaving exquisite clothes for her father, which he loved.
However, she was lonely, and so, on noticing the sad countenance of his daughter, Tentei arranged for her to meet the local cowherd Hikoboshi, who worked on the opposite side of the river. The couple quickly fell in love and married. However, their deep desire for each other led them to neglect their duties, angering Princess Orihime’s father as he no longer had new clothes to wear, while Hikoboshi’s cows strayed across Heaven. As punishment, he separated the couple across the Amanogawa and forbade them to meet.
Orihime was heartbroken and desperate to be reunited with Hikoboshi. When faced with her despair, Tentei relented and allowed the couple to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month every year. On their first attempt to meet after being separated, magpies flew down and created a bridge over the river with their wings, allowing her to cross to the other side. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies cannot come due to the rising waters of the river. Rain on this day is referred to as "The Tears of Orihime and Hikoboshi."
Why Is Tanabata Also Known as the Star Festival?
Based on an astronomical event, Tanabata is also sometimes referred to as the Star Festival. On the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, the stars Vega and Altair meet in the night sky. This event has become associated with the legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are said to represent the stars Vega and Altair respectively. The river separating the lovers is the Milky Way, and the magpie bridge is the star Deneb.
How Tanabata is Celebrated
Today, Tanabata is celebrated by writing wishes onto colored strips of paper, and anyone can take part. There is no dictate on what the wishes should be, and once they are written, they are tied onto the branches of a bamboo tree. The bamboo trees can be found decorating streets, supermarkets, and stations across Japan, and anyone can write and attach a wish to a bamboo wish tree.
Large-scale festivals are held across the country, mainly along shopping malls and down shopping streets. These festivals usually last for a couple of days, but some continue for a week, with special events such as parades and dances usually taking place over the weekend. Festivities include elaborate decorations (often with associated decoration competitions), parades, and other Japanese festival staples such as food stalls and games.
Even in locations without a specific festival, decorations are put up and bamboo branches for holding the wishes are common across the country. This all makes it a very inclusive festival, as anyone can take part, whether by attending a festival, making a wish, or simply admiring the decorations.
For many children growing up in Japan, Tanabata is also a time to look to the stars. As rain is said to force the magpies from building their bridge of wings, children pray for good weather. On the night of the 7th, they look to the sky, hoping for a chance to spot the stars representing the celestial couple.
Tanabata Festival Customs
The most enduring Tanabata custom is the tradition of writing down wishes on colorful strips of paper known as "tanzaku," which are then hung from bamboo branches. The result is rather fancifully known as a Wish Tree, and it is a common, uplifting sign of summer in Japan.
Tanzaku traditionally come in five colors, each representing one of the elements from ancient China. These are water, fire, wood, earth, and metal which correspond to the colors black, red, blue, yellow, and white, though as black is commonly considered unlucky it is often replaced with purple.
You can also choose the color of tanzaku you use depending on the wish you plan to make, as each color has different meanings. Choosing the appropriate color can give your wish a better chance of coming true!
- Black is the color to choose if you want to improve your brainpower and skills.
- Red will help with wishes relating to ancestors and family, and giving thanks.
- Blue represents tranquility and trust and will aid wishes aimed at self-improvement.
- Yellow is the color of friendship and is the best choice for wishes about relationships. It is also a good choice for wishes about business success.
- White is the color for determination and responsibility, so if you are making something closer to a resolution, white is the way to go.
Bamboo is the traditional choice for the wish tree, as it is plentiful and its thin central branch arches attractively when hung with wishes and decorations. It also has many branches for hanging wishes, which blow beautifully in the wind, bearing the wishes upwards to the stars.
The plant was also believed to ward off insects and was displayed to protect rice crops and symbolize hopes of a bountiful harvest.
In some regions, the bamboo tree and its decorations are set afloat on a river, or burned after the festival, allowing the smoke to deliver the wishes to the stars. This is an example of one of the customs that developed as Tanabata and Obon merged, and it resembles the Obon custom of floating paper ships and candles on the river.
It is also customary to wear "yukata" at Tanabata festivals, which is a traditional summer form of kimono that is lightweight and often beautifully patterned. Dancing, parades, performances, and fireworks are all common events at Tanabata Festivals, promising a magical, Japanese summertime experience.
Tanabata Festival Decorations
Tanabata decorations are spectacular, huge, and can be all-encompassing. They vary by region, but all will include bamboo wish trees and some kind of streamers, often topped with an ornamental ball.
At many festivals, the decorations are the main event, and people will flock to the area for a chance to see them. Sometimes these decorations are loud and humorous, such as at the Asagaya Festival in Tokyo, where locals create papier-mache models of cartoon and anime characters. At others, they are tranquil and beautiful, often in imitation of the stars or the Milky Way, such as at Kyoto’s Kyo-no-Tanabata celebrations.
Generally, festivals will either emphasize bright colors, with plenty of streamers and highly decorated bamboo wish trees, or they will focus on illumination, creating breathtaking twinkly landscapes in honor of the star-crossed lovers and their heavenly realm.
The Most Common Decorations at a Tanabata Festival
There are traditionally 7 different kinds of Tanabata decorations, and each type has its own meaning symbolizing different hopes and wishes. The seven are:
1. Tanzaku paper strips for general wishes and gratitude (described above).
2. "Fukinagashi" (streamers) for the improvement of weaving skills. These decorations also symbolize the weaving made by Orihime. Often shaped like an old weaving yarn, fukinagashi can be used to wish for improvement in the art.
3. "Orizuru" (origami paper cranes), symbolizing a long life, and "kamigoromo" (origami kimono), warding off disease and representing the improvement of needlework, are also found at Tanabata Festivals.
4. "Kinchaku" (purses) symbolizing business success.
5. "Toami" (origami nets) which represent good fishing.
6. "Kuzokago" (garbage bags) for cleanliness.
7. "Kusudama" (ornamental balls) which are often displayed on top of the streamers and originally intended to represent the dahlia flower. However, today the ornamental decoration on top of the streamers takes on a number of different forms.
Where to Celebrate Tanabata in Japan
*Some of the festivals might be cancelled or held in an altered version; please check the official websites.
*Festival dates may vary depending on the year.
Sendai Tanabata Festival
This famous Tanabata festival has been around for over 400 years. It includes elaborate decorations, food stalls, performances, and a huge fireworks display. In Sendai, 3-5-meter-long streamers of Japanese "washi" paper are created by residents as part of the decorations, which are meant to represent the cloth woven by Princess Orihime.
Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival
This festival in Kanagawa is particularly known for its impressive decorations, with over 500 streamers brightening the streets and enormous ornaments over 10 meters high looming over visitors. The decorations are illuminated in the evening, making them even more spectacular. A parade of thousands of dancers is another highlight.
Ogawamachi Tanabata Festival
Usually held for two days at the end of July, this festival in Saitama Prefecture features dancing, a fireworks display on the first night of celebrations, and about 150 festival food stalls. Thousands of paper streamers decorate the area surrounding Ogawamachi Station. As the city is famous for "washi" (traditional Japanese paper), they are all made from local washi.
Anjo Tanabata Festival
Held in Anjo City in Aichi Prefecture, this is the only festival with a dedicated Tanabata Shrine, and it is said to be the place to go to wish for business prosperity and matchmaking. Anjo Tanabata Festival is said to have the most tanzaku, the longest street with bamboo decorations, and the largest number of festival events. Popular events at this festival are the Wishing Candle, where festival-goers wrap their tanzaku wishes around a candle, and the Wishing Balloon, when more than 3,000 "wish balloons" are released into the air.
Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival
Praised as one of the three major Star Festivals in Japan along with the Sendai Tanabata Festival and the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival, this Tanabata festival held in Aichi Prefecture attracts over a million visitors every year. As textiles is Ichinomiya's leading industry, Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival is also held as a way of thanking the god of textiles and praying for prosperity.
Yamaguchi Tanabata Chochin Festival
In Yamaguchi, a more sedate but no less spectacular celebration is held. Over 100,000 red paper lanterns are lit, adorning the streets and displayed on impressive floats, creating an other-worldly sight worthy of the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi. Don’t miss the tunnel of lanterns, formed when the glowing red orbs are hung from drooping bamboo branches on either side of the street, creating the effect of a tunnel of light.
Mobara Tanabata Festival
In Chiba Prefecture, Tanabata is celebrated at the Mobara Tanabata Festival where a special dance known as Mobara Awa Odori is performed by a troupe of dancers in beautiful costumes parading down the streets. The city also holds a Winter Tanabata Illumination event in February, during which Mobara's Toyoda River (nicknamed Milky Way) is decorated with 100-meter-long illuminations that resemble a starry sky.
Kyo no Tanabata
This is a 10-day celebration of Tanabata held in different locations around Kyoto. The celebrations here are characterized by beautiful illuminated displays, creating magical representations of different aspects of the Tanabata story. Highlights include the illuminations at the Horikawa Site such as the "Milky Way of Light" which replicates the stars of the Milky Way and the "Yuzen Nagashi of Light" which adorns the Horikawa River with lights and traditional silk fabrics, and the wind chime installation and illuminated bamboo walkway at the Kamogawa Site.
Asagaya Tanabata Festival
In Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, Tanabata is celebrated at the Pearl Center Shopping Street, where the locals come together to create impressive and unique papier-mache decorations that often represent characters from famous anime and manga.
Shitamachi Tanabata Festival
This four-day festival is held along Kappabashi Street, the famed shopping street that runs from Ueno to Asakusa, an area well-known as one of the "shitamachi" districts of Old Tokyo. The main festival events take place on the weekend when the street is closed to traffic, and there are large parades, dances, and performances.
Zojoji Temple Tanabata Festival
This festival is best-known for its "Washi Candle Night," when hundreds of paper lanterns line the pathway to the temple, forming an impression of the Milky Way. It's a beautiful but popular sight, so be prepared for crowds!
Tanabata Festival Food
"Yakisoba" (stir-fry wheat noodles) is cooked on an iron griddle with chopped vegetables (often cabbage, carrot, and onion) and pork, mixed with a special yakisoba sauce and topped with pink pickled ginger.
"Takoyaki" are fried dough balls filled with octopus and pink ginger, traditionally topped with a special takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and nori seaweed.
"Yakitori" are grilled chicken skewers. There are many variations, and every bit of the chicken is used, with popular options including chicken heart, liver, skin, and cartilage.
"Okonomiyaki" are savory fried pancakes cooked on an iron griddle and filled with vegetables, meat or fish, and topped with mayonnaise and special okonomiyaki sauce.
"Somen" are thin white wheat noodles served cold, with a cold "tsuyu" (a sauce made of soy sauce, mirin rice wine, and dashi stock) for dipping. It is a very light and refreshing summer dish.
Celebrate Tanabata in Japan
Summer in Japan is hot and humid, but there is plenty of joy, beauty, and fun to be had. Tanabata is a great way to experience the best side of the Japanese summer and to discover local customs and culture in an accessible, vibrant atmosphere. Why not come and make a wish for yourself?
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.