Tanabata; You Haven't Missed It Yet
By Jessica Hutchison
One of the biggest festivals of the year is Tanabata (七夕). This one is celebrated all over the country during the months of July and August. Traditionally, it was held on the seventh day of the seventh month, but calendars are all messed up from what they used to be. Most places now interpret the date to be closer to August 7th and celebrate it then.Summer is a season of festivals in Japan. Every region has its own, and there are even a few the entire country celebrates. From firework festivals, to Gion Matsuri （祇園祭）itself, there’s a lot of parties you can go to, if you do a little bit of research into the area you visit. Of course, there are festivals all throughout the year, but the more popular ones seem to happen when the weather is a bit nicer.So if you had your hopes set on celebrating Tanabata, and you think you missed it, you actually didn’t! And if you don’t know what Tanabata is, stick around and you can learn about one of Japan’s traditional festivals.
The Story of Tanabata
Like all old stories, the story behind Tanabata has many variations. But there’s a lot of things everyone can agree on. Basically, the story is about two star lovers. Not like “All Star” sports people. The characters are literally stars in the sky. Orihime was the daughter of the guy in charge of the sky, and she was really good at weaving cloth (her name is “Weaving Princess” so that skill set follows). She was so busy with her weaving that she became worried she would never get married. Her father ended up introducing her to Hikoboshi (“Star Boy”) (彦星) who was a cow herder. The two fell in love and got married. As most newlyweds, they were really distracted and in love, so they kind of let their responsibilities go. Orihime (織姫) wasn’t doing much weaving and Hikoboshi let his cows roam wherever. As punishment, they were separated by the Amanogawa (“River of Heaven” or the Milky Way)(天の河). They are allowed to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. And that is what Tanabata celebrates.
How Tanabata is Celebrated
Tanabata has a pretty typical festival vibe to it, with a few distinct features. Like most matsuri, you’ll see ladies walking around in traditional yukata 浴衣, or summer kimono, and the streets will be filled with all sorts of colorful decorations. The main thing with Tanabata is that people will write wishes on colorful pieces of paper, then tie them to bamboo. Sometimes they even try to make their writing more poetic in the spirit of the festival. Every region celebrates Tanabata a little differently, but Sendai is the place to go for Tanabata. The festival in Sendai is famous throughout Japan, and usually takes place from August 6-8. If you are in the area and looking for something fun to do, definitely check it out! It’s one of the more colorful and exciting festivals you can go to.
Japanese Festivals in General
Overall, Japanese festivals are a blast, and if you get the chance you should definitely go to one. Like Hanami, it’s one of the times you get to see a lot of the local people relax, socialize, and just have fun. There’s food and games everywhere, and it’s super easy to make new friends. The different regional festivals are definitely something to look into as well. You can find super unique ones like the Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) up in Sapporo, or the Awa Odori (Fool’s Dance/阿波踊り） in Tokushima（徳島）. You can also go to more generic ones that are held at different times depending on the city, such as firework and harvest festivals. Just because they are generic, doesn’t mean they aren’t super fun. The relaxed atmosphere of festivals can be really nice for foreigners. It’s totally okay to try on a yukata and go walking around to see the different stands and decorations. People were actually really excited when I wore a yukata to a matsuri, so don’t be afraid to try it!
Have fun playing the games (my favorite is Kingyo Sukui) and meet some new people. Also, before you go, try to do a bit of research so you can really appreciate what the festival is about. You can find a lot of explanations online, and I found that locals where more than happy to explain the traditions behind the smaller, local festivals. So if you’re in Japan during a matsuri, check it out! And have fun with it! Matsuri are one of my favorite things about summer in Japan. If you’d like to learn more about some fun Japanese traditions, check out my Hanami 花見 article. Also, if you want to keep improving your Japanese, be sure to tune in to our daily podcast.