Celebrating Tanabata in Japan
Summer is a time for festivities and fun in Japan and as Tanabata (Japan’s Star Festival) draws closer, people up and down the country get well and truly into the party spirit. Celebrated on different dates in different regions, Tanabata kicks off on 7th July and continues throughout August with festivals, tasty street food and colourful traditions a-plenty.
Star Crossed Lovers
Many of Japan’s celebrations are tied to an ancient myth or legend, and Tanabata is no exception. The Star Festival is said to borrow from the Chinese festival of Qixi, inspired by the celestial Chinese folklore story of The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd featuring Tentei (Sky King), his daughter Orihime and cow herder Hikoboshi (who represent the stars Vega and Altair).
The story goes that Princess Orihime was so busy weaving beautiful cloth for her father (Tentei) that she had no time to search for a soul mate. As a solution, Tentei arranged for Orihime to meet Hikoboshi the cow herder, they fell madly in love and got married soon after. The course of love never runs smoothly however… Orihime and Hikoboshi became so consumed with love that they neglected their work duties and Tentei stepped in to separate them. He took the somewhat drastic step of sending them to opposite ends of the Milky Way but Orihime became so heartbroken that Tentei decided to let them meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month if they both worked hard during the rest of the year.
The first time that Orihime and Hikoboshi tried to meet there was no bridge to connect them, but luckily a flock of magpies swooped in to build one for the lovers. It’s said that if it rains during Tanabata that the magpies won’t be able to build their bridge and the couple will be separated for another year.
It was Empress Koken who introduced Tanabata to Japan for the first time, all the way back in 755. During the Heien period, Japanese aristocrats would celebrate by writing poetry and star gazing for inspiration. During the Edo period, Tanabata became more widespread and the tradition of writing wishes on pieces of paper (tanzaku) and hanging them from bamboo was born.
Seven good luck talismans (including tanzaku) are displayed during Tanabata and if you’re in Japan during July and August it will be hard to miss them. Decorations include multi-coloured streamers (fukinagashi) representing thread and the wish to become better at sewing or weaving, kinchaku purses, which are hoped to bring prosperity and origami cranes (orizuru) which symbolise good health and a long life.
During Tanabata, Japan comes alive with the sights, smells and sounds of summer festivals (matsuris). Colourful floats and parades weave up and down the streets, live music fills the air, stalls selling delicious street food tempt passers by and after-dark firework displays light up the night sky.
Popular Tanabata Festivals
Tanabata is celebrated on different dates in different regions of Japan. Some use the Japanese lunisolar calendar and others use the Gregorian calendar, celebrating a month later.
One of the most popular and largest festivals takes place in downtown Sendai, Miyagi from 6 – 8 August each year. It kicks off on the evening of the 5 August with a spectacular fireworks display on the banks of the Hirosegawa River, followed by 3 days of festival fun. Another highlight is walking through the shopping centres, which are decked out with thousands of streamers, giving the impression of walking through a forest of colour. On the last day they’re taken down for people to take home with them – definitely a souvenir worth having.
Taking place at the beginning of August, the Asagaya Tanabata festival in Tokyo is another busy summer event worth visiting. As well as the usual Japanese matsuri festivities, the Asagaya event features colourful, larger than life mâché creations which decorate the 700 metre long shopping mall and nearby streets. What makes them particularly special is that they’re made by local children, who craft their favourite animals, anime and Disney characters for others to enjoy.
Tuck Into Tasty Festival Food
No special occasion in Japan is complete without some tasty food to mark the occasion and Japanese summer festival food is deliciously moreish. Whether you want to snack on crispy takoyaki octopus balls or enjoy some chilled somen, there’s plenty to snack on whilst you’re celebrating. Imagine rounding it all off with a nice bowl of shaved ice or an ice cold beer?
If you’re not in Japan this summer fear not, as there’s plenty of recipes you can prepare at home to get yourselves in the mood for matsuri. Take the heat off by making a bowl of chilled summer somen noodles. Or if you have kids at home then these kawaii character noodles are a fun alternative, and healthy too. If you fancy something even more refreshing, then shaved ice with syrup (a sort of Japanese snow cone) is definitely the dish for you. Known as kakigori in Japan it’s a popular festival treat that’s much needed in the heat and humidity of Japanese summer time.
Other festival favourites include deep fried takoyaki octopus dumplings which has that perfect texture combo of crispy and chewy, and yakitori grilled chicken skewers – great with a sweet, soy based sauce and cooked on the BBQ.
Festival stall by Bong Grit via Flickr
Tanabata wishes with Tokyo tower in background by Peter Lee via Flickr
Shitenno-ji Temple Tanabata Festival, Osaka by Tetsushi Kimura via Flickr
Tanzaku and bamboo by Mon555 via Flickr
People walking through Sendai shopping mall with Tanabata streamers by Ville Misaki via Flickr
Tanabata streamers in Sendai shopping mall by Laura Tomas Avellana
Asagaya Tanabata festival, Tokyo by Sea Crane via Flickr
Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri By Littlelixie via Flickr