Tanabata: Make a Wish at Japan’s Summer Star Festival
While countless summer festivals are held in Japan, Tanabata remains near and dear to many people across the country. Read on to learn the story of this romantic star festival, how it's celebrated, and all about the famous Tanabata festivities held across Japan!
Tanabata, the Star Festival
According to legend, the Weaver and the Cowherder were separated by the banks of the Milky Way after incurring the wrath of the Heavenly King.
The summer season in Japan is a time of festivals, with numerous events being held throughout the country. In particular, Tanabata or the Star Festival is an annual celebration that is near and dear to many people in Japan.
The legend of Tanabata originates from Chinese folklore that has been preserved for generations. It's a tale of two stars—Orihime (the star Vega, the Weaving Princess) and Hikoboshi (the star Altair, the Cowherder)—that fell madly in love with one another, eventually neglecting their work.
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Tentei, Orihime’s father and the Heavenly King, became enraged by the lovers' actions and forcibly separated the two. However, her father soon took pity on the star-crossed lovers.
He allowed them to reunite once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, when a flock of magpies would use their wings to form a bridge for the lovers to cross. Orihime and Hikoboshi are said to devote themselves to their yearly work, looking forward to this one day together.
When is Tanabata Celebrated?
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Historically, Tanabata was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year in the lunar calendar.
Nowadays, some regions (like Tokyo or Kyoto) celebrate it on July 7, while other regions (such as Sendai and other cities in Tohoku) celebrate it around August 7, which used to be the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar.
How to Celebrate Tanabata
Some cities hold Tanabata festivals on July 7, with festival programs varying slightly in each region. Nevertheless, Tanabata is generally celebrated the same way nationwide.
Typically, bamboo branches are adorned with colorful hanging papers and displayed in shopping streets, malls, district offices, schools, and train stations.
Milky Way display at Asakusa Shrine in 2022.
Many shrines hold purification rituals on June 30, the day marking the beginning of summer. The bamboo leaves and light displays put on for this day tend to be kept on the shrine grounds until the Tanabata evening on July 7. For this reason, Tanabata is considered the first summer festival of the year.
During the Tanabata festival, people write wishes on tanzaku paper strips and tie them onto bamboo branches.
The wishes are tied to bamboo because of the plant's spiritual symbolism. It was originally thought to possess mysterious powers because it grows straight towards the sky. People who regarded bamboo as a sacred plant even believed that deities dwelt inside the bamboo stalks!
Tanabata Festivals Across Japan
Now, we’ll introduce some notable Tanabata festivals held in Tokyo and Kyoto. Please be aware that some events have been canceled this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections.
1. Kappabashi, Tokyo
During the festival, the shopping street is beautifully decorated, and you’ll spot festival-goers wearing yukata (summer kimono). You can also purchase snacks at food stalls during the festivities.
Kappabashi Tanabata Festival: Held every year in July
2. Kifune Shrine, Kyoto
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Kifune Shrine in Kyoto illuminates its shrine grounds in celebration of Tanabata from early July to late August each year. The shrine also prepares tanzaku for visitors to write their wishes on and hang on the shrine's bamboo plants.
On July 7, a special shrine service is held at the main hall. The ritual and prayers are accompanied by a tea ceremony and bugaku dance performance.
The event is subject to change or cancellation. Check the shrine’s official website for the latest information.
3. Tokyo Disney Resort
If you're interested in seeing a modern spin on the traditional Tanabata festival, then take part in Tanabata Days at Tokyo Disney Resort! This event is filled with romantic festivities to celebrate the Star Festival, including parades, fireworks, and more.
Tokyo Disney Resort’s Tanabata Days: Held annually from June 6 to July 7
The next time you visit Japan during the summer, be sure to enjoy the fantastic atmosphere of the annual Star Festival!
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