Friday, March 2, 2012

Tanabata: Festival of the Star Lovers

July 7th, 2011:

The main form of decorations displayed for Tanabata. [1]

Today is another Japanese holiday.  However, unlike the other ones I've talked about so far, this one is largely a Chinese adopted holiday.  Tanabata, or 'The Star Festival,' is the Chinese festival of Qixi and most of the traditions and customs performed in the Japanese Tanabata have Chinese origins.  Tanabata (七夕) is a holiday revolving around the mythological story of Orihime and Hikoboshi.  Tanabata is also the 4th Sekku, marking the beginning of the summer season on the lunar calendar.  More information about Sekku and other Sekku that I have written about can be found here.

Orihime (織姫) and Hikoboshi (彦星), or Zhinü and Niulang in the Chinese legend are the stars Vega and Altair respectively.  Orihime was the daughter of Tentei (天帝), or the king of heaven.  Orihime skillfully weaved clothes for her father, but was so busy with weaving that she could not find time to find love, so that she became depressed.  Tentei seeing this, arranged a marriage for her with Hikoboshi who lived across the River of Heaven.  The River of Heaven is Amanogawa (天の川), which in Japanese is actually the Milky Way.  Both of them were in love and very happy, but Orihime had neglected her weaving so Tentei again separated them on opposite sides of the Amanogawa.  Tentei now only allows them to meet on the 7th night of the 7th month. [2]

This is only if Orihime does her best in her weaving.  On that night, a boatman (actually the moon) comes to her side to ferry her across to Hikoboshi for the night.  However, if Tentei is not happy about her weaving for that year he can make it rain, which makes the river flooded and the boatman can not cross the river to ferry her across.  In this case, Magpies still might make a bridge across the Milky Way for her to cross. [3]

It's a bit different than the Chinese tale of Qixi, but it's easy to see the similarities in the two stories and what was drawn from the Qixi tale to make the Tanabata story.  In this story, Orihime and Hikoboshi are Zhinü and Niulang.  In this story, Niulang is first an orphan living with his brother and his brother's wife, but the sister-in-law doesn't like him.  So eventually, they split the property and Niulang is given an old ox and a poor shelter.  When Niulang had brought the ox to a new area, he saw 9 fairy sisters descend from the clouds and bathe in the river there.  When Niulang stared at the most beautiful of them, the ox told him that she was Zhinü and if he got her color cloth she would marry him.  Niulang then took her cloth and Zhinü wasn't able to leave with the other sisters as she had lost her cloth.  Niulang then appears before Zhinü and asks her to marry him, which she does and they have 2 children and live happily for 2 years, her as a weaver and him as a farmer.  When the God of Heaven discovers that Zhinü has married a mortal, he becomes furious and orders the Goddess of Heaven and soldiers to bring Zhinü back to heaven on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar.  Niulang with the help of the ox, takes his children in a basket and gives chase to them up into heaven.  Right before catching them, the Goddess of Heaven takes out her golden hairpin and waves it in the sky, creating a sky river separating the two.  Being separated, the 2 separated lovers cry, moving the magpies who came to form a bridge over the river.  The Goddess of Heaven was powerless to stop this, so every year on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar they are allowed to meet. [4]  So today is the one day that the stars, or Orihime and Hikoboshi can meet.

This is a depiction of Tanabata, with Orihime and Hikoboshi separated by the River of Heaven, the Milky Way.  If you're wondering why they're penguins, it's because this is the Christmas Illuminations in front of JR's (Japan Railways) headquarters in Shinjuku and the penguin is JR's mascot.  Why Tanabata was the subject of a Christmas display, I couldn't begin to tell you. 

Well, not exactly one day.  The 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar was the one day they were allowed to meet.  The problem is, Japan switched to the Gregorian Calendar in 1873 and the two aren't exactly comparable.  So, Tanabata is celebrated on July 7th in some places, as they kept the same date.  While other places celebrate it one month later on August 7th, which more closely matches the actual time on the lunar calendar.  This confusion happens for a variety of holidays and festivals in Japan, where it's either the same day, one month later or held on both days, but differing in date depending on the area like Tanabata.

The main tradition of this holiday are the decorations of the holiday and the wishes that get made.  People take a bamboo branch and decorate it with strips of colored paper as well as wish strips.  These wish strips are actually called Tanzaku (短冊), which are long strips of paper where originally Tanka poems were written on them, but for Tanabata, people write wishes on them and hang them with the other decorations on the bamboo in hopes of it coming true.  These prayer strips are related to the Tanabata story.  The original Chinese festival Qixi is also called 'The Festival to Plead for Skills.'  This also can be seen in the popular version of the Tanabata story where Orihime must weave her best, otherwise Tentei might make it rain and prevent the boatman from coming to unite them.  In the ancient Japanese traditions, people wished for an increase in their skills along with Orihime to increase her skill in weaving so she can see Hikoboshi. [5]  People also make wishes for good weather, because it's believed they won't be able to meet if it's bad weather and Tanabata won't be held for that year. [6]  In present day Tanabata, people can wish for anything and often wish for their hopes and dreams for the future. [7]

So far, I have not really celebrated this holiday short of seeing some of the decorations hung about during this time.  What I really want to do for this holiday in the future is see Sendai's Tanabata.  Sendai is the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture in the Tohoku Region (the northern part of Honshu), which has Japan's most famous Tanabata festival.  It's held from August 6th-8th (they chose one month later to more closely match the lunar calendar) and is the biggest Tanabata festival and one of the Top 3 Tohoku Festivals.

Top 3 is a commonly used marking for the best things of Japan, since the first one Sankei (三景), or 'Top 3 Views' was created by the scholar Hayashi Razan in 1643.  While the original was made more than 350 years ago, over time new categories have been made and previous ones revised, so there is a mixture of old and new sources for these lists.  They represent the best of Japan in that category for the Japanese.  Some of the more famous ones are: Top 3 Views, Gardens and Festivals, but these include all sorts of things like: Top 3 Night Views, Castles, Onsens and even things like Top 3 Disappointing Places.  Sendai Tanabata is one of the Top 3 Tohoku Festivals, which is a separate category from Top 3 Festivals as the Tohoku Region has a lot of grand festivals.  In more recent years, this idea has been expanded to 100 Famous Japanese Mountains (日本百名山) by Kyūya Fukada, who as a mountaineer and not satisfied with previous mountain lists has written his own.  The book has become famous by the endorsement of the Crown Prince Naruhito, and as a result has become the official list even though it wasn't the author's intention. [8]  This 100 Famous list has also been copied for 100 Famous Castles of Japan recently.  This idea has developed into all sorts of different lists that often become the checklist for people that travel in Japan want to complete.

Tanabata decorations in Sendai. [9]

The Sendai Tanabata is particularly famous because of its many large decorations throughout the city.  Each decoration costs around a few hundred thousand yen to a few million.  These decorations are made by the vendors of Sendai and many start work on the paper decoration months before the festival. [10]  The festival of Tanabata in the shopping districts of Sendai become a sky filled with colorful paper decorations and bamboo.

These decorations are hung on real bamboo, where the people of the shopping districts go into the mountains and cut down the bamboo that grows there more than ten meters long and deliver it to the shopping districts.  This is done on August 4th, and the stores assemble their decorations to hang on the bamboo, 5 decorations to each bamboo pole.  This is then hung up at 8:00 AM on August 6th.  These are also more than just decorations.  The stores of the shopping districts compete against each other and that evening, gold, silver and copper medal winner of that shopping street receive a plate at the base of their decoration. [11]

These decorations comprise of 7 different decorations, all having important symbolism for Tanabata and different prayers asked for during Tanabata.  These 7 decorations are: paper kimonos, 1,000 origami cranes, Tanzaku, paper nets, paper trash bags, paper purses and paper streamers.  The meaning of each is as followed: The paper kimono are hung at the top of the bamboo pole and in the past were the prayers for good sewing skills. [12]  The 1,000 origami cranes are a traditional Japanese action for making a wish come true.  For Sendai's Tanabata, they are also a wish for long life and also done for the older members of each family.  This also has a connection to the focus of gaining skills for the holiday, as young girls teach each other how to fold the origami cranes.  The Tanzaku I have already mentioned, but they also symbolize the gaining of skills through the handwriting lessons and studying skills gained from copying the poems from masters in the past onto these Tanzaku.  The net is traditional for Sendai as a wish for a good catch of the fisherman in Sendai.  The trash bags are created from the left-over paper of the other decorations and put inside of a paper trash bag symbolizing the importance of saving and using resources wisely.  The purse serves as a warning against wasting money, but also as a wish for wealth.  The streamers represent the string that Orihime used to weave and make up the most of the decorations. [13]  These 7 decorations are what makes up the many decorations that fill the shopping districts of Sendai during this time and make Tanabata here a must see.

Besides the incredible decorations, Sendai's Tanabata has a long history.  By the Edo Era, when rule of this area was by the Date Clan, Tanabata was called Tanabata-san by the people and Masamune Date had written poems about Tanabata and how it was already a long held tradition in Sendai.  This was still during the old lunar calendar, so Tanabata at that time was held on July 7th and decorations were thrown into the river on July 8th.  This would change during the rule of the 7th Date lord, Shigemura Date by being moved up one day.  At that time, people decorated bamboo and celebrated the 2 stars meeting much like today.  They also prayed for writing and sewing skills, as well as a good harvest by making straw horses as a symbol of the gods of their own horses of their rice paddies.  Tanabata at this time was also used as a preparation for the Bon festival, an important religious festival in August by washing various things and bathing in the same local river they threw the Tanabata decorations in, in an event called Nanukabi or Nanukabon.  The traditional Tanabata festival in Sendai declined from a combination of the Meiji Era and the period of modernization at this time, the switch to the Gregorian Calendar in 1873 and the recession after the first world war. [14]

So the modern Sendai Tanabata is a bit removed from its historic and traditional roots.  It was brought back by a group of Sendai merchants in 1927 to combat the general mood caused by the recession and to show off the business spirit of Sendai, which brought a lot of excitement and happiness for the return of the festival.  This was further promoted in the following year by the Sendai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, along with the Sendai Sponsorship Committee to hold a Tanabata decoration contest at the Tohoku Industrial Exposition.  This was held from August 6th-8th, which has remained the dates of the festival to this day.  Eleven towns in the city of Sendai participated in decorating the town, which drew huge crowds marking the full return of Tanabata in Sendai. [15]

In the latter years of World War II, Sendai's Tanabata festival again became very subdued due to the hardships from the war.  After the war in 1946, the street of Ichibancho, which went through the destroyed town of Sendai set up 52 bamboo decorations; again bringing back the Tanabata festival.  In 1947, Emperor Hirohito came to Sendai and 5,000 bamboo pole decorations were hung along the route he would take.  Ever since, the main shopping districts have continued to work hard for the Tanabata festival in Sendai.  The decorations also reflect this in the Kusudama.  The Kusudama is the ball on the top of the decorations that you can see in the picture above.  It was originally a decoration consoling the spirits of the dead, but in 1946 a new design was made by Kengoro Mori in order to encourage the Japanese people during Japan's reconstruction period.  It is based on the Dahlia flower and incorporates a variety of origami and colorful papers.  In recent years, Sendai's Tanabata has even expanded further due to its popularity, to more than just decorations, but parades and fireworks as well. [16]  It's too bad I can't use the wish strip early to get there.  I'll have to figure out another way to do it and be able to experience one of Japan's greatest festivals in Sendai's Tanabata.


1. Hiro, "Information for Tanabata or Star Festival in Kyoto," Kyoto Machiya Blog,

2. Shane Sakata, "Tanabata - Festival of Star Crossed Lovers," The Nihon Sun, July 2nd, 2009,, (accessed February 28th, 2012).

3. Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara, "Orihime, Kengyuu, and Tanabat Adapting Chinese Lore to Native Beliefs and Purposes," Astronomy in Japan,

4. "QiXi Story - The Chinese Valentine's Day," Paviavio,

5. Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara, "Orihime, Kengyuu, and Tanabat Adapting Chinese Lore to Native Beliefs and Purposes."

6. Shizuko Mishima, "Japanese Tanabata Festival," Japan Travel,

7. Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara, "Orihime, Kengyuu, and Tanabat Adapting Chinese Lore to Native Beliefs and Purposes."

8. Wes Lang, "Hyakumeizan (日本百名山)," Hiking in Japan,

9. Kikuo, "Tanabata (Star Festival)," Kikuo's Website,

10. Sendai Tanabata Festival Support Association, "Features of Sendai Tanabata Festival," Sendai Tanabata Festival August 6 - 8,

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Sendai Tanabata Festival Support Association, "History of Sendai Tanabata Festival," Sendai Tanabata Festival August 6 - 8,

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

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