Japanese Festivals: Tanabata

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Image taken from Japanese Mythology Blog

Held on July 7th every year, Tanabata is better known as the Star Festival. Odds are that you have probably never heard of it. Tanabata is not a widely known festival, but if you would like to know more, keep on reading…

The Story

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There was once a beautiful daughter of Tentei, the Sky King named Orihime. Orihime was known for weaving amazing cloth. All she wanted to do was to fall in love; she never had the chance to do anything but work. Her father grew concerned and arranged for her to meet a cow-herder named Hikoboshi who lived across the river from them. It was love at first sight. However it was not to be, shortly after they married, Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi grew lax in his duties. The Sky King separated them to opposite ends of his kingdom; Orihimi grew sad. Her father realized he had made a mistake and allowed the couple to meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month if they both worked hard and were diligent in their duties.

The Festival

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Image from the LACMA COllection

Some regions of Japan will actually celebrate the festival in August in accordance with the lunar calendar over the Western Gregorian calendar. Every year people write their wishes on long strips of colorful paper called tanzaku. The tanzaku are strung onto bamboo branches in hopes the gods would see the wishes and make them come true. Bamboo is known for growing tall and its long branches. The taller is grows, the closer it is to the Sky Kingdom. You will see these displays all over Japan!

The official colors of the tanzaku are: red, yellow, blue, white and black/purple. Which paper your wish was on represented what the wish was for: red (parents/ancestors), blue (courtesy/manners), yellow (friendship), white (duty/responsibility), black/purple (school or studies).

The actual festival dates back to ancient China and arrived to Japan during the Nara period (710-794), but didn’t appear in its modern form until the Edo period (1603-1868). The early Japanese courts took much of their influence in writing, literature and religion from the Chinese. The Qixi Lunar festival celebrated the stars Vega and Altair connected by a third star to act as a “bridge” between the two lovers. The festival was especially important to newly married couples.


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Image from Hiratsuka Stock

The traditional food of the festival is somen noodles; these are long and sweet noodles that originally come from China. Some families make star shaped vegetables for their kids; I used to see a lot in bento box lunches close to festival time.

You may also come across takoyaki (round dough balls with octotpus inside), yakisoba (fried noodles and pork), okonomiyaki (pancake with various toppings) and yakitori (meat skewers). I’m a huge fan of all of these except takoyaki. The octopus is a little too chewy for me, but it tastes kind of similar to chicken. Okonomiyaki is famous in each region of Japanese for its different toppings! If you had one dish to try, I would recommend the yakitori as a starter or the yakisoba.

Dress Code

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Image taken from stock 123

There isn’t really a dress code for Tanabata, but you will see a lot of people in a traditional cotton kimono called a yukata. A yukata can be worn by both men and women. Men typically have slightly shorter sleeves. The yukata can have any color or pattern and a sash to tie it that is stiff or loose called an obi. The rule of thumb on a yukata is that it should go down to your ankles. I’ll probably do a separate post on kimonos and yukatas in the future.

Younger people will usually wear more colors than more mature people who favor muted colors and patterns. The obi when tied will typically leave a bow. This should be placed on your back. You will just want to be careful and make sure the left side is crossed over the right side when you are ready to tie the yukata. If it is reversed, it usually means death. Don’t worry if you didn’t know this, it will most likely be kindly pointed out to you to correct the kimono.

Where To Go

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If you are looking for regions that take Tanabata to another level, you may want to visit Sendai or Hiratsuke. There are many pop up shops, parades and decorations everywhere. It is a colorful sight to behold! All of the decorations are usually hand-made. No matter where you go though, you can’t really go wrong. Tokyo Disney Sea has a fun twist on Tanabata each year if you like Disney : )

Wrapping Up

Tanabata is a fun and colorful time of year in Japan. It’s not a national holiday, but nevertheless it is still fun to participate in. I always love the excuse to wear a yukata and eat some of my favorite food. If you are not in Japan, check out your local area; there may be Tanabata festivities you did not even know about taking place. Stay safe and until we are cleared to go out; happy virtual travels.