7th July marks Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival. It is the Japanese festival where people write their wishes on tanzaku strips and hang them up on bamboo branches. The first festivities begin on 7 July and the celebration is held on various days between July and August.
What is the meaning and origin of this Tanabata event? Where in the Milky Way are Orihime and Hikoboshi? What kinds of Tanabata decorations are there? Where to celebrate and attend Tanabata events?
Here, let’s take a look at Tanabata, the origin and history of this festival, Tanabata decorations, ways to celebrate and different events you don’t want to miss this year!
When is Tanabata Festival?
The festival used to be held on 7 July of the lunar calendar, which is around early to late August nowadays.
According to the lunar calendar, which is based on the movement of the moon, the seventh day is always half a month. The moon also sets in the west at around 22:00-23:00 (*times may vary slightly depending on the region), so it’s a day when the Milky Way is clearly visible at midnight.
It is said that if it rains, the Milky Way cannot be crossed. Because of that, many people hang teru teru bozu, which literally means “shine shine monk”. A teru teru bozu is a small traditional handmade doll made of white paper or cloth. Japanese people hang them outside their windows to hope for sunny weather.
Nowadays, according to the new calendar, 7th July is in the middle of the rainy season in much of Japan. On a very rough average, the chance of clear skies is around 30%. However, there are still legends in the Tokai region and Yamaguchi prefecture, for example, that it is better luck if it rains.
History and origin of Tanabata
The story of Tanabata is based on ancient Chinese folklore. Orihime and Hikoboshi are, in the Chinese style, Shokujo (weaver) and Kengyu (checker). Incidentally, Korea and Vietnam also have Tanabata.
In Japan, Tanabata was introduced as a court ceremony in the Nara period (710-794), and the story of Orihime being a skilled weaver led to the custom of wishing for improvement in handicrafts and sewing. This is where the original practice of making wishes to the stars originated.
Later, in the Edo period, Tanabata was regarded as one of the ‘five festivals’ and was an official holiday of the shogunate. It seems that people wrote their wishes on paper strips and wished for improvement in reading and writing at terakoya and other schools.
The word ‘Tanabata’ is written as ‘Tanabata’ because, in Japan, the act of weaving noble cloth used in Shinto rituals was called ‘tanabata’ in ancient times. It seems that the Japanese word ‘tanabata’ was applied to the foreign word originally read as ‘shichiseki’ (there are various other theories).
Legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi
There are many variations in the story of Orihime and Hikoboshi, which have been passed down widely across the country, but the following details are most commonly known.
Orihime, the daughter of the Emperor, is a hard-working woman who is a good weaver. The emperor brings her together with Hikoboshi, who is also a hard worker. They fell in love at first sight and got married.
However, the marriage resulted in them playing around and not working. The Emperor, angered, separated them on both banks of the Milky Way, but the weaver wept and was saddened, so he allowed them to meet only once a year, on the night of Tanabata.
The Weaver Star is Vega in the constellation Lyra and the Checker Star is Altair in the constellation Aquila. Both are bright stars of the first magnitude.
In Japan, the stars become visible in early July and can be observed until early September. Around the time of the Star Festival, they begin to be visible in the lower eastern sky between 20:00 and 22:00. With the addition of Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, it is also known as the ‘Great Triangle of Summer’.
As it becomes brighter in the season suitable for agriculture, it was thought to be the star responsible for agriculture and sericulture. The easiest time to observe it is in early August, around the time of the Tanabata start of the lunar calendar.
Meaning of Tanabata decorations
Tanabata decorations are hung on bamboo branches with colourful strips of paper and decorations of various shapes. In the old days, it was believed that the higher the decoration, the higher the wish would reach the stars, so they were hung high up on the roofs.
There are several types of Tanabata decorations made from origami, and they are called ‘Nanatsukazari’. Each of them has a different meaning.
Blowing streamers 吹き流し
These decorations are used to wish for improvement in weaving and sewing. It is a paper representation of the five-coloured threads that were threaded through a long needle and offered in court ceremonies in the past.
This decoration is used as a symbol of cleanliness and thrift. It is also used to hold paper scraps from the making of Tanabata decorations.
Ami ornaments 網飾り
These ornaments are derived from fishing nets. It is used to pray for a big catch of fish.
Paper cranes 折鶴
These ornaments are used to wish for family safety and long life. Sometimes made into 1,000 paper cranes.
Decorated to wish for good luck and savings. Sometimes used as wallets.
Origami dolls and kimono-shaped objects are made from origami. They are used to wish for improvement in sewing and to take the place of a person who is ill or suffering from a calamity.
Five-coloured strips of paper are decorated with wishes written on them. The five colours are red, black (purple), blue, white and yellow.
Meaning of the five-coloured strips of paper
Why are there five colours on tanzaku?
The five colours come from the ancient Chinese theory of the five elements, a philosophy of nature. Colours were applied to each of the five elements that were thought to make up all things.
Fire (flame) = red
Water = black
Wood (plants) = blue
Gold (minerals) = white
Earth (earth) = yellow
Later, blue came to include green. Purple, a noble colour, was used instead of black.
Food to eat on Tanabata
Many people may not be able to think of any particular Tanabata food, but there are quite a few.
One of the traditional foods is sakubei. It is a deep-fried snack made from twisted wheat or rice cake flour and was introduced to Japan during the Tang dynasty (618-907). It is still called ‘Muginawa’ in Nara Prefecture and is a familiar name.
Somen is a gradually evolving version of sōmochi. For example, Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture still holds the Sendai Tanabata Festival, which has a 400-year tradition, and Soumen is still a standard food.
Soumen is also available in different colours, so you can create a Tanabata-like atmosphere by making it a ‘five-coloured somen’ in reference to the five-coloured strips of paper.
Karintou (fried dumplings)
Karinto is the closest confectionery to sōmochi.
Karinto is said to have its origins in Chinese confectionery, or in the Spanish confectionery.
There is a wide variety of karinto in the Tohoku region. In Akita Prefecture there are karinto in the shape of strips of paper and fallen leaves, while in Iwate Prefecture there are spiral-shaped karinto, all with their own unique taste.
Tanabata Events in Tokyo
増上寺 七夕まつり Zojoji Temple Tanabata Festival
Tanabata decorations will be set up in the precincts of the temple, and from 1-7 July (9:00-17:00), visitors can write their wishes on strips of paper and tie them to the paper themselves at the ‘wish-writing place’ next to the main hall.
The wishes made on the tanzaku will be presented at the Tanabata Prayer Service in the square in front of the main hall from 17:30 on 7 July. A ‘Tanabata Special Prayer’ will be held on 7 July (three sessions at 18:00, 19:00 and 20:00) at the Angokuden Hall, where a limited number of Tanabata victory charms with a motif of the Milky Way shining in the night sky of Zojoji Temple will be awarded (prayer fee 3,000 yen). A limited number of Tanabata red seals are also given on 7 July.
This year, the Tama University Japanese Traditional Culture Study Group will also hold a Washi Candle Night event from 6 to 7 July (17:00-21:00) to add colour to the precincts of the temple.
下町七夕まつりShitamachi Tanabata Festival
Asakusa-Ueno, Tokyo [Cancelled in 2022]
The main event on 6th and 7th July will feature a variety of events, including stalls by local merchants and speciality booths by Taito City’s sister and friendship cities, etc.
Following the opening ceremony at 13:00 on 6 July, the Quinstars motorcycle squad from the Metropolitan Police Department, the Colour Guard from the Metropolitan Police Department Music Band, and Harley On the second day, 7th, street performances such as Awa Odori, Sado Okesa and taiko drum performances will be held at various venues.
On the second day, the 7th, a ‘Tanabata of Love Fureai Square’ will be held at various venues, where visitors can enjoy a ‘fair-style’ atmosphere with portraits, candy crafts and picture-story shows.
During the festival period, from 4-8 July, visitors can enjoy the Tanabata decorations decorating the streets and write their wishes on strips of paper placed around the streets and hang them on bamboo branches. The venue is a viewpoint of one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions, where you can enjoy a collaboration with the colourful Tanabata decorations.
阿佐谷七夕まつり Asagaya Tanabata Festival
Asagaya Minami, Suginami-ku, Tokyo
The shopping street, lined with stalls, is crowded with people every year and is known as the best Tanabata festival in Tokyo. The handmade Haribote decorations, which incorporate each year’s trends and ideas, as well as the Tanabata decorations, are a must-see.
Tanabata Event in Japan
仙台七夕まつり Sendai Tanabata Festival
Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture
One of the three major Tanabata festivals in Japan, this major festival attracts more than two million visitors every year. During the festival period, the city centre of Sendai and the surrounding shopping streets are filled with elegant and colourful paper and bamboo Tanabata decorations.
能代七夕 天空の不夜城 Noshiro Tanabata: The Nightless Castle in the Sky
Noshiro City, Akita Prefecture
A castle lantern reportedly operated from the late Edo period to the Meiji period was reconstructed in the summer of 2013 after a century, based on past documents and photographs. The 17.6 m high ‘Karoku’ lantern and the 24.1 m high ‘Aiki’, the tallest castle-shaped lantern in Japan, are paraded through the streets of Noshiro. The sight of these giant lanterns, which seem to reach for the sky.
湘南ひらつか七夕まつり Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival
Hiratsuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture
The attraction of the Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival is the gorgeous Tanabata decorations, which can be enjoyed in a variety of sizes (over 10 metres) and in the shape of popular celebrities, animals and characters. Various events, including a parade, keep visitors entertained. The festival is one of the three largest Tanabata festivals in Japan and one of the three largest Tanabata festivals in the Kanto region.
狭山市入間川七夕まつり Sayama City Irumagawa Tanabata Festival
Sayama City, Saitama Prefecture
One of the three major Tanabata festivals in the Kanto region is a major summer event in Sayama. As well as the colourful Tanabata decorations by local shops and citizens, the ‘Noryo Fireworks Festival’ is also a must-see. The large fireworks and Tanabata decorations that bloom in the night sky create a beautiful summer evening. (The Noryo Fireworks Festival will be cancelled in 2022.)
小川町七夕まつり Ogawa-cho Tanabata Festival
Ogawa Town, Hiki-gun, Saitama Prefecture
The Ogawa-cho Tanabata Festival is a highlight of the town’s colourful Tanabata decorations made from washi paper, a speciality of Ogawa-cho. Dancing and a variety of events are held on a grand scale, and on the evening of the first day, a spectacular fireworks display adds colour to the Tanabata night.
茂原七夕まつり Mobara Tanabata Festival
Mobara City, Chiba Prefecture
A major summer event that attracts more than 800,000 spectators every year. As a traditional event of Mobara City, it attracts many tourists from within and outside the prefecture, as well as local residents. Events such as the ‘Mobara Awa Odori’ and ‘YOSAKOI Naruko Odori’ are also held, and the dancing of the teams, who have practised intensely for this occasion, is a must-see!
安城七夕まつり Anjo Tanabata Festival
Anjo City, Aichi Prefecture
The Anjo Tanabata Festival attracts more than one million visitors over three days. The streets lined with bamboo decorations made by local residents are spectacular, and visitors are entertained by different themed decorations and events each year.
おりもの感謝祭 一宮七夕まつり Orimono Thanksgiving Festival Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival
Ichinomiya City, Aichi Prefecture
One of the three major Tanabata festivals in Japan, this festival attracts around 1.3 million people every year. In Ichinomiya City, where the textile industry is said to have developed thanks to the blessing of the ‘God of Textiles’, the entire city holds a four-day festival called the ‘Orimono Thanksgiving Festival Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival’ with the last Sunday in July as the finale.
京の七夕 Tanabata Festival in Kyoto
Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture
A new summer festival in Kyoto started in 2010. Various events are held at various locations, including the Kamogawa River, Horikawa River and Nijo Castle venues. Wishes from all over the country are sent to the heavens, and fantastic decorations add colour to the summer nights in Kyoto.
What do you think about the Tanabata festival? No matter if you believe in this legend or not, celebrating Tanabata is a great chance for you to enjoy the traditional Japanese festivities and get in touch with the beautiful nature. This Tanabata, go check out a shrine or one of the many festivals and enjoy the Tanabata decorations and food.