Fukinagashi streamers at Umeda Sky Building in Osaka for Tanabata Matsuri

Tanabata

​Celebration of Stars and Heavenly Lovers

⏱ 7 minutes

Tanabata or Star Festival is celebrated on July 7 in Japan, and sometimes in August in the north of the country. On this day, people make a wish for the future. A blending of different stories, this festival is dedicated to the love of two stars separated by the Milky Way, and is the occasion to create fairy tale-like sceneries. Tanabata Star Festival is a must-see if traveling in Japan in early July.

Tanabata, or the Star Festival, takes place every July 7 in Japan and is one of the five sekku (節句) celebrations that mark the passing of seasons with :

  • January 1 (New Year),
  • March 3 (Hina Matsuri 🎎 or Dolls’ day or Girls’ day),
  • May 5 (Kodomo no hi or Children’s day), and,
  • September 9 (Kiku no sekku or Chrysanthemum Festival).

Origins of a thwarted love’s celebration

As many Japanese traditions, Tanabata blends several customs 🛂 of different origins: a Romeo and Juliet style legend, rituals passed down from China and the celebration of the deceased.

The Star Festival is considered today the illustration of the legend of the cowherd and the weaver girl, which is widespread in Asia and known in Japan under the name of Tanabata-tsume (棚機つ女, "the weaver girl").

The story is often told this way: the Heaven King’s daughter, Orihime the weaver girl (the star Vega), and Hikoboshi (the star Altair) the herdsman fell in love. The reasons for separating the couple vary with the versions of the story:

  • Either the lovers were so enthralled by each other that they neglected their work, or,
  • Orihime’s father did not accept their union.

Either way, it was decided that the couple be separated by the Milky Way so everything could fall 🍁 back into place.

However, the gods were moved by the lovers’ sadness and granted them the right to reunite once a year, on the seventh night of the seventh month. Each year, the Milky Way could be crossed thanks to a temporary bridge built by magpies. However, rainy ☔️ nights would prevent the birds to built the construction and the lovers would have to wait yet another year to meet again.

Another source of the present day’s Star Festival is a Chinese tradition: the kikkoden (乞巧奠, "Festival to Plead for Skills"), celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month in China by young women who prayed to become, among other things, accomplished weavers. The celebration was introduced in Japan during Nara period (710 - 794) by the aristocrats at the imperial court. They adapted the prayers for skills improvement to their practice of poetry.

Tanabata thereafter democratized in the 17th century and became the celebration we know today.

Tanabata no Yube festival in Tennoji area in Osaka 2

A variable date : in early July or August

In the beginning of Meiji Era (1868-1912), the festival was usually celebrated in August. With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1873, the date was eventually set on July 7.

Tanabata’s initial period of celebration matched the moment of the year when two stars, Vega and Altair, were the most visible and especially beautiful. Their appearance signaled the beginning of the agricultural season but also the preparation of rituals for the returning of the deceased period, Obon, formerly set in the middle of the seventh month, following Tanabata, and now isolated in August.

Some regions in Japan, especially in the north, still celebrate Tanabata during August, with a variable date set according to the lunar calendar.

What does Tanabata mean?

Nowadays, Tanabata is written with the ideograms for number 7 七 and for "night" 夕, that reflect its date.

In an older writing, the characters 棚機 were used, meaning "weaving loom" (tanabata) and were included in the name of the legend in Japanese, Tanabata-tsume.

Another meaning of Tanabata is said to date back to Edo period (1603-1868), and to remind of both protagonists’ trades:

  • Tana for tanatsu-mono (種物, "the one who owns seeds"), for the herdsman, who symbolizes agriculture, and,
  • -bata for hatatsu-mono (機物, "the one who weaves"), for the weaver girl, who symbolizes industry.

The word formed with the combination of the two first characters 種機 can be read "Tanabata" (the seeds and the loom).

Tenmangu shrine in Osaka, Bamboo stalks and tanzaku paper slips for Tanabata festival

How is Tanabata celebrated in Japan?

During the festival, the custom is to attach to bamboo stalks :

  • Tanzaku (短冊), which are colored paper strips on which a wish was written. The bamboo stalks must have high branches to make sure the message is conveyed. Moreover, the saying goes that the rustling of the wind in the bamboo leaves is the wishes’ voices sent to the gods.
  • Fukinagashi (吹き流し), which are long tubular paper streamers, that can measure up to 5 meters, that are said to help young women to become good weavers.
  • Orizuru (折鶴) paper cranes for the longevity and the safety of the household.

Following the tradition, bamboo stalks and tanzaku are to be cast in the river after July 7 for the wish to be granted. However, this customs tends to fade with the replacement of bamboo stalks by plastic reproductions.

As for food, somen noodles (素麺) are usually eaten: those fine white noodles resembles, according to the point of view, either to the weaver’s threads or to the Milky Way.

Where to celebrate Tanabata in Japan?

The Star Festival is celebrated throughout the country, and you will find events in every city.

The three main Tanabata in Japan

Three cities are famous for their celebration of Tanabata, including decorating their streets with giant multicolored fukinagashi:

  • Sendai Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture in early August, with 2 million visitors each year,
  • Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa prefecture, a few kilometers away from Tokyo, the first weekend of July, with 1,5 million visitors,
  • Orimono Kansha-sai Ichinomiya Tanabata Matsuri in Ichinomiya, Aichi prefecture, near Nagoya, on the last weekend of July, with 1,1 million spectators.

One can also note the float processions during Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, in early August, with about 2,5 million onlookers.

The star festival is a very popular and attractive celebration, regardless of the regions. It is a dating occasion appreciated by many couples, who enjoy wearing a kimono 👘 for the day.

Amanogawa densetsu on Okawa River in Osaka 2

A selection of celebrations in Osaka

In Osaka, Tanabata celebrations are held in several places, in the atmosphere specific to the city, with ambiances both traditional and contemporary. The events take place between July 6 and 8, and are naturally at their peak on July 7.

In the north of Osaka, two festivals are held only on July 7, in the same area:

  • Tanabata-sai or Tenman Tenjin Tanabata-sai takes place in Tenmangu shrine, in the north of Osaka, near Okawa River. The celebrations start as soon as 3 p.m. with activities for the whole family in addition to the traditional wish writing. Kawaii mascots and dancers dressed as weaver girls enliven the place. Osaka’s inhabitants come for the purification ritual chi no wa kuguri (茅の輪くぐり), in which one walks on a path through seven large straw hoops (called chi no wa) between the main hall honden and the exit of the shrine’s precincts. Each hoop represents a type of prayer: protection against evil, success in love, academic success, safety, family, successful business and health. It is even more charming at nightfall as the path is lit up by candles.
  • Osaka Amanogawa densetsu is an event where the Milky Way is recreated (in Japanese: Amanogawa 天の川) on Okawa River with thousands of blue LEDs set afloat on the river at nightfall. Spectators admire the view from the banks, but it is also possible to set adrift one’s own light in group. To this intent, it is recommended to arrive before 6 p.m. to buy one’s participation ticket on site. At nightfall, the river transforms into the Milky Way, illuminated with "stars" creating a magical show despite the crowd, which make for wonderful memories.

The celebrations are held from July 6 to 8 in:

  • Tanabata no Yube Star festival takes place in the evening in Tennoji area. The highlight of the festival is located in Shitenno-ji temple and is renowned for its "Milky Way." Visitors discover the temple richly adorned, with decorations including the traditional fukinagashi, symbolizing the stars. They trace a path leading to the famous Milky Way constituted of thousands of LEDs hanging on a 24 meters length ! One must be patient to walk underneath, and wait for the attendants’ signal who limit visitors’ entrance by groups of twenty or thirty. The path is surrounded by many yatai food stalls, serving various specialty dishes : somen, of course, but also the usual yakisoba noodles, okonomiyaki and confectionery such as taiyaki (鯛焼き), which are fish-shaped waffles filled with sweet bean paste. The atmosphere is friendly and the lighting enhance the place at the end of the day. Note however that the evening ends early: the food stalls as well as the animations stop at 9 p.m. The light-up closes later in the night, except for the last day of the festival.

Lastly, if you have some free time, or if you pass by Osaka-Umeda station, you can drop by Umeda Sky Building Tower before the big celebrations. The bottom of the building is decorated in a Tanabata theme with fukinagashi looking like huge tassels floating in the wind. At the basement floor (BF1), you will find a reconstitution of an old-fashioned city during the Star Festival. It is a good place to have a drink, eat and make fun souvenir pictures.

Updated on July 07, 2021 - Tanabata