We’re heading to our last stop on our Tohoku festival journey!
Today’s post is related to Japan’s Tanabata Festival. Tanabata, or the Star Festival, is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month i.e. July 7th (or August 7th in areas that calculate the date using the lunar calendar).
Now here’s a story for all you hopeless romantics out there. While there are many versions, this is one of the most popular and also my favorite.
So legend has it Orihime, a weaving princess represented by the star Vega, worked diligently making beautiful cloth. While her work pleased her father, the Sky King, she felt empty in her heart. One day she met Hikoboshi, a cow herder represented by the star Altair. The two fell madly in love and quickly married.
Everything was perfect until the love-struck couple began abandoning their work duties to spend ever-more time together. Orihime’s father, the King, became angry and banished Hikoboshi to the other side of the Milky Way. Heart-broken, the two reluctantly carried on with their work on their respective sides of the galaxy.
Touched by his daughter’s deep sorrow, the King decided to allow the couple to meet, but only on one day of the year (the 7th day of the 7th month). The condition was that Orihime had to complete all her tasks by this date. Of course, she threw herself back into her work with renewed passion and completed all her tasks ahead of time.
It is said that on the first reunion date, the couple were still blocked by the Milky Way’s river. While the King had given them the time off to meet, he hadn’t given them the means to do so. Orihime cried and cried with such sorrow that a flock of magpies took pity on her and made a bridge out of their wings, allowing her to cross to the other side and be reunited with her husband.
As magpies don’t fly when it is raining, if it rains on Tanabata, the couple cannot meet and have to wait until the following year. That’s why the Japanese hope for clear skies on this day.
One popular Tanabata custom is to write a wish on a strip of paper known as tanzaku and then tie it to a bamboo tree in the hope that the wish will come true. The wishes are often related to study/work ethic or ability in the same spirit as the industrious Orihime.
What will you wish for this Tanabata?
The most well-known celebration of Tanabata is held in Sendai and is one of the festivals we visited on our Tohoku road trip. Held annually from August 6th-8th, the main feature of the festival are thousands of colorful decorations, representing the threads of a weaving loom, that are hung in downtown shopping arcades. The decorations are made with streamers of 3-5 meters in length that hung en masse give the illusion of a colorful urban forest.
In addition to the streamers, there are also other smaller paper decorations hung to bring good luck in a variety of areas. They include kimono to ward off bad health and accidents, nets for good harvests, cranes for health and a long life, purses for good luck in business, trash bags for cleanliness, and paper strips to wish for good handwriting.
At Shimin Hiroba Square, Kotodai Park and along Juzenji Dori street, you can also enjoy various live music, dance and stage performances. In addition, a fireworks display is held on the night before the festival (August 5th) on the banks of the Hirosegawa River.
At the end of the final day, the decorations are abruptly torn down by the shop owners who made them and left on the arcade floor where you can find your little piece of the festival to take home with you. When we were there, art teachers and enthusiasts were waiting around with plastic bags to fill with free supplies. You’ll have to be quick for the most exquisite pieces but there is plenty of interesting stuff to go around. Only take what you will actually keep. If you are visiting Japan and are not planning to take half a suitcase of streamers back with you, you might as well leave them for someone else who can make use of them.
While the decorations are nice to look at, if the festival is your only reason to be in Sendai, you might come away disappointed. It is essentially a highly decorated shopping mall that is probably not worth a major detour from your travel itinerary. You may wish instead to observe Tanabata celebrations in other parts of the country. The biggest celebration in the Kanto region is held in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa (2012 festival to be held from July 6th-8th).
Sendai Tanabata Festival Times
Decorations (Ichibancho and Chuo Shopping Arcades)
10:00-22:00 (August 6th and 7th)
10:00-21:00 (August 8th)
18:30-21:30 (August 5th)
If you missed our previous posts on this summer festival adventure, you can check them out here: