Translated by Hilary Keyes
Tanabata: Celebrating The Summer Star Festival In Japan
Written by Nao Sugio
You might have heard about Tanabata on July 7 - the Star Festival before, but what is it? How do you celebrate it? Where do you celebrate it? Read on to learn more about this lovely, slightly romantic, summer festival.
Despite its long, hot, humid summer days, Japan is a country known for its amazing and diverse summer festivals, but there is one that is particularly near and dear to many: Tanabata on July 7 - the Star Festival.
What is Tanabata?
The Tanabata legend has been told throughout Japan for generations.
It is the tale of two stars, Orihime (the Weaver Princess, the star Vega) and Hikoboshi (a Cow Herder, the star Altair), who fell madly in love with one another - so much so that they began to ignore their work.
This angered the Heavenly King (Orihime's father in some versions of the tale), and he separated the lovers, but took pity on them, allowing them to meet one another once a year, on the day of the Star Festival (the seventh day of the seventh month, Tanabata) when the skies are clear and a bridge built from magpies (or swallows or sparrows in other versions) is built across the Heavenly River (the Milky Way) that separates the two. It's said that, for the sake of that one night together, the two stars work hard all the rest of the year.
When is Tanabata?
Tanabata is said to take place on the seventh day of the seventh month, which according to the Gregorian calendar, is July 7. However, Japan used to use the lunisolar calendar, which means that Tanabata should be celebrated on August 7.
How Is Tanabata Celebrated?
Although the dates it is celebrated vary from region to region and even from city to city, there are some common threads when it comes to how it is celebrated. First and foremost, colorful displays of bamboo with paper streamers are put up in shotengai, shopping centers, city halls, schools, even some train stations.
These aren't ordinary paper streamers though. Called tanzaku, these are wish papers; people write a wish on these rectangular strips of paper, and tie them to the bamboo stalks, in the hopes of the gods seeing and granting their prayers.
The significance of bamboo comes from the way in which it grows: it grows straight up towards the sky. According to ancient belief, this was a means by which the spirits of Japan's indigenous deities could travel from their realm to ours.
Kappabashi in Asakusa is well-known as the place to buy good quality kitchenware in Tokyo, but it also has a charming Tanabata Festival every year, with costumed participants, elaborately decorated streets and plenty of great festival food stalls to choose from.
With parades, traditional performances, firework festivals, there is any number of ways that a given area can celebrate this romantic holiday. If you'd like to learn more about celebrating Tanabata in the Kanto area, please take a look at The Star Festival: 5 Tanabata Celebrations To Check Out In Kanto!
If you happen to be in Japan during the summer and are hoping to experience some different sides of Japanese culture, then taking part in your nearest Tanabata festival is sure to be right up your alley!