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Summer Wishes, Romance, and Festivals: Tanabata in Japan

Most cultures have their own versions of the tale of star-crossed lovers.  There is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Hawaii's Ohia and Lehua, and Rome and Egypt's Mark Antony and Cleopatra, among many others.  Japan is no different, though their lovers really live up to the description of "star-crossed."

The story of these two lovers is celebrated every summer in Japan in what is known as the Tanabata Festival, commonly translated as the "Star Festival."  In this article, I will provide you, the reader, with everything you need to know about Tanabata, as well as how to enjoy it when you're here journeying through the Japanese summer.  So here were go...

The Legend

Orihime and Hikoboshi in Ukiyoe Print. Photo Courtesy of Ota Memorial Museum of Art (@ukiyoeota).
Legend has it that there are people who live among the stars.  Led by the God of the Heavens, they lived lives not unlike those of people on Earth, but instead of dancing among the pines, the stars were their home.  

Well, long ago, the God of the Heavens had a beautiful daughter named Orihime who happened to be a wonderful seamstress.  Orihime was a diligent daughter and a dedicated worker, but she began to despair that all of her work weaving would prevent her from finding love.  Her father took pity on her, and arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, a cow herder who lived on the other side of the heavenly river (what we know as the Milky Way).

As with so many other romantics stories, the two fell in love at first sight.  Their devotion to each other was unmatched, but so much so that Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to wander throughout the heavens

This put Orihime's father in a difficult position.  As God of the Heavens, he could not allow for garments to go unsewn or cows to wander aimlessly.  He soon grew frustrated with the two and forbade them from being together, separating them by the Milky Way.  Despondent, Orihime pleaded and pleaded for her father to allow her to rejoin her true love, telling him that it was her only wish.  Orihime's father, in his own act of love, decreed that Orihime and Hikoboshi could meet once a year--on the 7th day of the 7th month--as long as Orihime returned to her weaving.

And so it goes: on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, the two lovers are reunited in response to Orihime's heartfelt wish. 

The History

Woodblock print of Tanabata in Japan, 1852. Photo courtesy of japan-suite.com
The story of Orihime and Hikoboshi actually came to Japan via China during the Tang Dynasty some 1200 years ago.  At the time, the Japanese sent over envoys known as kentōshi to study and bring back the best that China had to offer.  In doing so, they returned to Japan with Chinese writing (the Kanji you see in Japan today), religion (Buddhism), instruments, science, and--as was the case with Tanabata--folklore.  The original Chinese tale was known as Qixi, but just like the tale of two Italian teens named Romeo and Juliet captivated the English when retold through Shakespeare, the tale of Qixi became adopted in Japan as the nation's own.

In Japan, the folklore became celebrated legend.  With the celebration of legend came tradition--the tradition of the Seventh evening (七= Tana, or Seven; and 夕=bata, or evening).  And so the evening on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar year became known as a time for lovers and for dreamers throughout Japan.  Eventually, the informal appreciation for Tanabata became a formal part of society with festivals and customs that have been around for hundreds of years.  Just check out the woodblock print above from 1852, which shows the local people celebrating Tanabata.

But how do the Japanese celebrate Tanabata?  Here are a few of the many traditions surrounding the event:


Wishing Trees

Wishing trees lining the path to a local shrine in Tokyo.

Just as Orihime wished to be returned to her lover, Tanabata represents a time for people to have their own wishes come true.  All throughout Japan you will see trees and bamboo stalks with tiny pieces of paper tied to them.  Each of those papers contains a wish that one hopes the Gods will grant.  On Tanabata, people hope that their wishes may come true as well.

There is no limit on what one can wish for on Tanabata.  Most places with Tanabata wishing trees will even have little slips of paper with string for the passerby to contribute his/her own wish.  Simply write your wish, tie it to the tree, and hope that the same fortune that smiled upon Orihime and Hikoboshi smiles upon you as well!

Festivals

Photo courtesy of Fussa-tanabata.com
Summer is the season for festivals in Japan.  While Obon is the most common across the country, Tanabata is still celebrated in many towns and prefectures.  Most places celebrate Tanabata on July 7th or sometime around then, but others choose to celebrate it closer in line to the Chinese rather than the Gregorian calendar.  In those cases, Tanabata falls in early August.  Either way, the celebrations range from small to incredible, and there are two that are certainly worth mentioning to the interested traveler:


Sendai Tanabata Matsuri

Photo courtesy of Sendai-tanabata.com
Japan's best and most famous Tanabata festival takes place in Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region and the capital city of Miyagi prefecture.  Sendai is best known for its feudal leader and pop culture icon, Date Masamune, which is appropriate in this case since the Tanabata Matsuri is said to have been passed down through the generations starting during the era of Date Masamune,

So how does Sendai earn the title as best Tanabata festival in all of Japan?  

First of all, it seems like the entire city gets involved.  There are literally thousands of streamers, wishing trees, floats, and other decorations lining the streets.  

Photo courtesy of 仙台七夕まつり協賛会


Then there's the massive fireworks festival that marks the occasion of Sendai Tanabata. 

Photo Courtesy of http://www.tanabata-hanabi.jp/02event.html

If you are a history and/or nature buff like me, you'll appreciate the Zuihoden Tanabata Night, which offers some of the most incredible ambiance for any Tanabata event in Japan.  

Photo courtesy of 仙台七夕まつり協賛会
Of course, there are all of the other things at the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri that make festivals wonderful--food, music, dancing, stage events and so forth -- but on a much grander scale than you can find elsewhere.

If you want to attend, here are the relevant details:

Date:  6-8 August
Location: Various Locations in Sendai, but the main events are held near Sendai Station (see below).

...but what if you are only going to be in Tokyo this summer???

Fret not, since you can just take the train to Fussa!



Fussa Tanabata Matsuri

Photo courtesy of Fussa-tanabata.com

Although much smaller in scale than Sendai, Fussa Tanabata Matsuri offers the same spirit and energy for folks who are staying within the confines of Tokyo for the duration of their travels.  It is only about an hour on the JR Chuo Rapid Line from Shinjuku station, and the event takes place right there at Fussa station.
 
Why Fussa?  Well, Fussa is a small city in Tokyo Prefecture with a war-torn past.  Fussa used to be home to an Imperial Army base (Tama Airfield) which was of significant strategic importance.  The U.S. military shelled the area around the base extensively to eliminate the operational viability of the base without completely destroying the infrastructure of a base which would be needed for use in the Allied occupation.  The bombings changed the lives of all those in the area, and after the war, the people were seeking to find an event behind which they could rally.  That event was the Tanabata Matsuri.
A crowd in the 12th Fussa Tanabata Matsuri (1961). Photo courtesy of Fussa-tanabata.com

Well, rally around the festival, they did.  This year will mark the 67th Tanabata Matsuri, and Tanabata has become so much a part of Fussa's identity that its mascot, Take, even has wishes tied to him and a star for a nose!

Photo courtesy of Fussa-tanabata.com


After so many years of holding this event, the Fussa Tanabata Matsuri has grown into the largest of its kind in the Kanto Plains area, making it a perfect destination for travelers staying in Tokyo.
 
Here are some of the key events at the Fussa Tanabata:

Princess Orihime Contest:

The Princess Orihime contest allows women and girls of different age groups to compete in what can be described as a traditional, kimono-based beauty contest.  Don't worry--there isn't any Honey Boo Boo-style exploitation going on--the contest is a measure of style and grace.
Photo Courtesy of Fussa-Tanabata.com

Festival Foods:

Unlike many other Japanese festivals that offer standard Japanese fare, Fussa embraces the fact that so many foreigners live in its town.  Sure, you can find the Yakisoba and Takoyaki stands, but here are some of the other great offerings:

- Fish and Chips
- Loco Moco
- Taco Rice
- Chili Dogs
- Herb Chicken
- Indian Curry
- Turkish Kebabs
- Malasadas
- And much, much more
 

Parade:

Photo courtesy of Fussa-tanabata.com
Fussa is a relatively small city in Tokyo Prefecture, so it's pretty incredible to see a parade of over 2,000 dancers.  Still, that's what you'll get at the Fussa Tanabata Festival.
 
Like Sendai's Matsuri, there are many other features of the Tanabata Matsuri, so I say zehi, if you're in Tokyo, do yourself a favor and make the quick trip out to Fussa.  

Here are the details:

Date: 3-6 August
Location: Immediately adjacent to Fussa Station.  Fussa Station is located on the JR Ome Line, which is an extension of the Chuo line.  The best way to get there is to take a special rapid from Shinjuku, through Tachikawa Station, to Fussa.

So there you have it...

...everything you need to know about Tanabata as you get ready to enjoy summer in Japan.  May you find love like Orihime and Hikoboshi, and may all of your wishes come true (don't forget to tie them to some wishing trees to help make that happen)!

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