Tanabata (七夕) is a Japanese festival of Chinese origin, which arrived in the country around the seventh century. There are multiple versions of the legend of the origin of the Tanabata. Many of these are related to astronomy and feature two lovers who can only meet once a year, precisely on Tanabata night. For this reason, the festival is also called Star Festival (星祭り, Hoshimatsuri). Tanabata night takes place, according to Chinese tradition, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of each year. In Japan, where the Gregorian calendar is in use, the Tanabata date varies depending on the city, between July and August. One of the most common dates for the celebrations is July 7th. The Tanabata festival is one of Japan's most colorful traditions, and many cities host fascinating festivals. The festival is still celebrated even today in China (it is called Qixi in Chinese), where, however, unlike Japan, it has the connotations of a Chinese version of Western Valentine's Day. In the rest of the article we will see the most accredited legend, the typical customs of this festival in Japan, and the most famous Tanabata festivals.
The legend behind Tanabata
This colorful and joyful event has ancient roots and has its origins in two legends that intertwine, leaving an indelible mark on Japanese tradition and folklore. Let's discover the fascinating stories of Orihime and Hikoboshi, and how their sad love story gave birth to one of the most folkloric festivals in the land of the Rising Sun.
The Legend of Orihime
The first legend tells the story of Orihime, a young celestial princess. Orihime was very skilled in weaving, and her mastery of her was such that she could weave clouds that enveloped the sky. However, Orihime was sad and lonely, as she spent her days working and had no way to meet other people.
The legend of Hikoboshi
The second legend is that of a young shepherd named Hikoboshi. He was so good at taking care of his cattle that even the heavenly cows admired him. However, like Orihime, Hikoboshi felt alone in the vast sky and longed for someone to share his life with.
The Heavenly Encounter
One day, the gods decided that Orihime and Hikoboshi should meet. The two fell in love instantly and began to spend all their time together, forgetting about their duties. Orihime no longer spun clouds and Hikoboshi let his flock wander without guidance. The gods, seeing the resulting mess, made a drastic decision.
The heavenly punishment
The gods, angry at Orihime and Hikoboshi's neglect, decided to separate the two lovers. They were condemned to live on opposite sides of the Milky Way, the celestial river that separates the eastern and western skies. Orihime mourned her loss bitterly, and her sadness moved the gods.
The clemency of the gods
Seeing Orihime's pain, the gods decided to grant her one day a year where she could meet Hikoboshi. Thus it was established that on the seventh day of the seventh month, Orihime and Hikoboshi would reunite along the Heavenly River, weather permitting. This day has come to be known as Tanabata, which literally means "seventh night". Tradition has it that during this special day, Orihime and Hikoboshi can finally meet and re-establish their love.
Customs for the Tanabata festival
Tanabata Festival is one of Japan's most significant and beloved celebrations. The legends of Orihime and Hikoboshi are a powerful symbol of love and hope, and the holiday itself embodies the possibility of having one's wishes come true. Every year, many people participate in the Tanabata festivities, especially families with children. All over the country, streets are adorned with beautiful decorations called tanzaku
, strips of colored paper on which people write their wishes and hopes. These strips of paper are then hung on bamboo branches, thus creating beautiful wish trees. The trees are decorated with many other characteristic objects, including orizuru
, origami cranes that symbolize good health and long life. During the Tanabata festival, many people like to wear traditional clothes and participate in various events and activities. The streets of many cities are in fact enlivened by parades and other themed events.
bamboo sapling full of tanzaku
The most famous Tanabata Matsuri in Japan
In some cities in Japan, Tanabata celebrations feature unique customs that attract visitors from all over the country.
- The country's most important Tanabata matsuri is held every year on August 7 in Sendai. During this event, huge figures of Orihime and Hikoboshi are created with the use of thousands of colored lights. The streets are filled with food stands, games, and activities to keep visitors from all over the country entertained.
- In the Tokyo area it is instead celebrated on July 7th. If you are in the city during this time, the most important event, known as the Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri, takes place in the Asakusa area, along Kappabashi Dori.
- Two other very popular festivals in the Tokyo region are the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture (near Kamakura), and the Irumagawa Tanabata Matsuri in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. Both cities are about an hour away from Tokyo by train.
- In central Japan, we point out the Shimizu Tanabata Matsuri in Shimizu, a port area in the city of Shizuoka.
the city of Sendai decked out with typical Tanabata decorations
Kappabashi Dori in Tokyo during the Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri
Guided tours, activities and other things to do
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