July 7th is the day of Tanabata (七夕), a traditional Japanese summer festival also referred to as the "Star festival". During the star festival, people write their wishes on brightly colored strips of paper called “tanzaku” and hang them from bamboo branches to have them granted. Tanabata is celebrated throughout Japan, and the three most famous festivals are Miyagi prefecture's "Sendai Tanabata Festival", Kanagawa prefecture's "Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival" and Aichi Prefecture's "Anjo Tanabata Festival". Some Tanabata events involve the entire city, and are a great way to feel the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese summer.
So what really is the Tanabata star festival all about? This article will introduce you to Japan's Tanabata culture.
The Beginnings of the Tanabata Star Festival
The culture of the Tanabata star festival originated in China, and made its way into Japan during the Nara Period (710 - 794). At this time, the Tanabata festival was originally only observed within the imperial family.
Later in Japan's history, the Tanabata star festival as it is known today came to be as a mixture of both Japanese and Chinese traditions.
The Legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi
The festival of Tanabata is based on the legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by the stars Vega and Altair. The most popular form of the legend comes from the Chinese folklore “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”. The story goes as follows:
“Once upon a time, a beautiful weaver named 'Orihime' (written in the Japanese voicing of her name) lived by a riverbank in China. As she reached marriageable age, her father wedded her to a hardworking cowherd. Orihime became infatuated with her new husband; so much so that she neglected her job as a weaver. Realizing that his disciplining was going nowhere, Orihime's father split the two apart, exiling the cowherd to the opposing riverbank. This greatly saddened Orihime, who cried continuously for days and days. To this sight, her father finally broke and allowed the two to meet just once a year, on the 7th of July. Looking forward to their meeting once a year, the two began to work hard every day.”
The legend of the weaver and the cowherd is said to parallel the stars Vega and Altair, located on opposite sides of the milky way.
In China, July 7th is celebrated as the day that the two stars appear the closest. This is said to be the origin of the Tanabata star festival in Japan.
Wishing on a Tanzaku
Tanzaku strips hanging from bamboo
One of the main customs of Tanabata is writing one's wish on a tanzaku (短冊), a colorful paper strip, and hanging it from a bamboo branch.
This practice began during the Edo period. In those days, it is said that many wished for better penmanship or craftsmanship.
Tanzaku come in five colors: red, blue, yellow, white, and black. These colors are based on the five elements of ancient China, from which nature was said to be derived from.
These elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, to which blue, red, yellow, white, and black correspond. Black is often replaced by purple, as the color has a strong connotation of bad luck.
Each of the colors has different meanings, too. Match your wish with the right colored tanzaku for a higher chance in your wishes coming true!
Red represents gratuity towards your parents and ancestors. Using the red tanzaku is recommended when writing wishes related to one's parents and ancestors. In feng-shui, red is the color of "determination".
Blue represents courtesy and manners. For those working on self-betterment, the blue tanzaku is the way to go. In feng-shui, blue is the color of "calmness" and "trust".
Yellow represents friendship, and is fit for wishes regarding human relationships. Its feng-shui meaning is prosperity, so wishes regarding business and success are also fitting.
White represents duty and responsibility, so it is fit for personal resolutions. White in feng-shui represents "relaxation" and "betterment of human relationships".
Black (or purple)
Black is the color of academics, and is perfect for wishes regarding prowess in skills and academics. In feng-shui, black is a powerful color that adds strength to your wishes.
Japan’s Top 3 Tanabata Star Festivals
During the Tanabata seasons, you can find many festivals throughout Japan. Some areas hold Tanabata festivals in August, which is the lunar calendar's equivalent to July 7th.
Sendai Tanabata Festival, Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival and Anjo Tanabata Festival are especially famous. These three festivals are commonly referred to as "Japan’s Top 3 Tanabata Festivals".
Sendai Tanabata Festival
Decorations at the Sendai Tanbata Festival
The Sendai Tanbata Festival is held from August 6 to 8 in the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. The festival began in the Edo period, and is one of the most famous Tanbata festivals in Japan.
The festival is famous for its 3,000+ hanging Tanabata ornaments. Each one is hand made, and garnishes the streets with vibrant summer colors. There are special booths where you can experience making these ornaments.
Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival
Colorful decorations at the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival
The Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival is held in early July in the city of Hiratsuka in Kanagawa prefecture. The festival began in 1950 as a way of welcoming summer on the Shonan beach.
The decorations of this festival are extremely vibrant and extravagant, and fill the streets with joy and color. During the festivities, you can enjoy festival foods from street vendors.
Anjo Tanabata Festival
Decorations at the Anjo Tanabata Festival
On the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday of August, the Anjo Tanabata Festival is held in the city of Anjo in Aichi prefecture. There are many events during these festivities, such as the “Wishing Candle” event, where you wrap your wishes around a candle.
Visit the Tanabata Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the holiday! The shrine in Anjo city is the only official “Tanabata Shrine” in Japan, and is said to help with business prosperity and matchmaking.
Experience Tanabata in Japan!
Tanabata is celebrated in many different parts of the world with different names and customs. If you’re in Japan during the Tanabata season, be sure to take part in the summer festivities! Wear a yukata, write your wishes on tanzaku strips and enjoy summer the Japanese way.