I first read about Tanabata back in the 1970s in James Michener’s 1954 novel “Sayonara” and it’s fascinated me ever since. Celebrated by the Japanese on the seventh day of the seventh month and also sometimes called “The Star Festival”, the novel referred to it as “the most romantic night of the year”. That is because there is a romantic story behind it.
The legend, shared by the Chinese and the Japanese (and possibly others in Asia as well), dates back more than 13 centuries. Princess Orihime fell in love with Hikoboshi, a cow herd. As the daughter of the king, Orihime was meant to occupy her time in weaving fabric (quick aside: Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book, Women’s Work: The first 20,000 years, offers a detailed explanation of the elaborate weaving work that historically occupied the time of royal ladies), but she was so in love that she couldn’t keep her mind on her work. Hikoboshi, equally smitten, couldn’t seem to keep the cows together either.
The king, angered by the resulting chaos and confusion, banished them both to the skies. Orihime became the star Vega and Hikoboshi the star Altair, separated by the Milky Way.
Orihime was completely distraught over this forced separation from Hikoboshi and the king relented to the extent that the lovers were permitted to cross the Milky Way and meet one night every year–the seventh day of the seventh month.
This romantic legend is so popular in Japan that celebrating it with the Star Festival is a centuries-old tradition.
The key component of the festival is the decorations. Paper streamers in a kaleidoscope of color, symbolizing the threads of Orihime’s weaving, often attached to a large ball symbolizing her incarnation as a star, are essential.
It is also important to have a wishing tree. This is a bamboo frond, often decorated with paper cut into various shapes symbolizing aspirations such as long life, health, safety, business success, good harvest, etc. There are also more strips of colored paper. But on each of these pieces of paper someone has written a poem or a wish. After all, if the king could grant Orihime’s wish, perhaps Orihime’s happiness on this night will cause the wishes of others to come true, too. Some people may keep a wishing tree at home at this time, but others can leave their wishes on trees or racks helpfully set up in public places.
In our modern times, the public celebration of the Tanabata festival is often held in a shopping district near a major train station. Here elaborate Tanabata decorations–many equipped to be lit from the inside at night–are put up to create a party atmosphere and attract customers.
Many spectators contribute to the atmosphere of the occasion by wearing traditional cotton yukatas. (For what it’s worth, many of the merchants hold special sales during this time, too.)
The largest Tanabata festival in the Kanto area is in Hiratsuka, about an hour from Tokyo. The decorations are already in place and will stay up through July 9, with lots of special events planned through the day on the 7th and 8th.
Or, for those in Tokyo who don’t want to make a day trip, check out the Shitamachi Tanabata Festival on Kappabashi-dori, near Asakusa or Azabu Juban’s Tanabata festival. Both have lots of special activities on the 7th, 8th and 9th. I note that from what I’ve observed Azabu Junan is placing more emphasis on getting you to shop and less emphasis on elaborate street decorations.
If you already have plans and can’t make the festivals this month, don’t despair. Many in Japan prefer to celebrate such traditional festivals on the traditional lunar calendar, and therefore hold their Tanabata festival in August.
In the Tokyo area this includes the Fussa Tanabata Festival, August 3-6, and the Asagaya Tanabata Festival, August 4-8.
One of the most famous of Japan’s Tanabata Festivals is held in Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, this year on August 6-8. As I mentioned in a blog post last November, this is regarded as one of the Tohoku region’s three largest festivals and it is a serious party. Fortunately, the decorations will be up for the week leading up to the festival, if you want to avoid some of the crowding.
No matter which festival you visit, be sure to write your wish on a slip of paper and leave it on a wishing tree. Remember Jiminy Cricket’s sage advice: when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.
Postscript: I’m so fascinated by the festival that I also wrote an article about it for Japan Today in 2014. Check that out here.