What Is Tanabata?
(Published July 2020, updated July 2021)
Tanabata (七夕), literally meaning “seven evenings,” is the Festival of Stars in Japan. This is a celebration of the once-a-year reunion of Prince Hikoboshi (Altair–the Cowherd Star) and Princess Orihime (Vega–the Weaver star). It has been celebrated since the Edo Period, and the date of the festival falls either on July 7 or August 7, depending on the region. Although it originates from a Chinese festival called Kikouden (乞巧奠), Tanabata is now very much a Japanese celebration in its own right, and it centers around an old folk tale. This festival is celebrated in elementary schools, so most Japanese know the story, but if you have forgotten or have never heard it, it goes something like this.
The Story Of Tanabata
Orihime, the Sky Weaver, worked hard for Lord Tentei, ruler of the heavens. She spent long hours weaving him fabulous clothes. Lord Tentei was a kind master. He felt that such a bright young slip of a lass needed a bright young husband to bring joy to her days, so he introduced her to Hikoboshi, the Starry Cowherd. Unfortunately Lord Tentei’s plans went a little too well. Orihime and Hikoboshi fell in love at first sight, were married, and forgot all about doing their work. On earth, people complained that their kimonos were falling apart and that their cows were dying. Furious, Lord Tentei separated Orihime and Hikoboshi by the vast Amanogawa (天の川) the Milky Way (fifteen light years apart!) and put them back to work.
To this day they are separated, only allowed to meet once a year on a bridge made of “kasa-sagi” (カササギ, magpies) unless it rains, in which case they have to wait until the next year. That’s why people wish for good weather on Tanabata!
What Do You Do On Tanabata?
Tanabata is a summer festival, so up until 2019, people enjoyed the typical matsuri foods like yakisoba (fried soba noodles), takoyaki (piping hot squid dumplings), and cold beer. If you grew up eating these foods, you might be missing them now, as the weather turns hot and humid. As long as you have a takoyaki griddle and the ingredients, you can make it at home! Why not have “tako-pa,” (タコパ) takoyaki party? (Links to products at the bottom of this article).
Also, since Tanabata happens near the time of Obon, another summer festival, people gather to dance bon-odori, a traditional Japanese circle dance that is simple enough anyone can learn by joining the slow-moving circle and watching the person in front of them. You can learn the bon-odori with this simple Youtube tutorial.
The Seven Decorations Of Tanabata
Although Tanabata shares a lot of points in common with other summer festivals, there are seven unique Tanabata decorations, each with a specific meaning. If you are crafty, you can make your own decorations, and if not, you can use this year to wish for more artistic talent. Simply write it on tanzaku (短冊), a narrow strip of colored paper, and hang it on a bamboo branch. Since bamboo grows straight and tall, it is thought to carry your wishes straight up to heaven, where they will be answered. People typically wish for health, prosperity, love, and to excel in a skill. According to tradition, your wish has to be something that you intend to work hard to achieve, or it won’t come true!
Kamigoromo (紙衣) –the kimono
To wish for artistic skills, and for children to grow up healthy and safe. Since it is made of paper, you can float your kimono down the nearest river after the celebrations are over for extra good measure.
Orizuru (折鶴)–paper cranes
To wish for family members to live long, healthy lives. If you want to follow tradition, fold as many of these as corresponds to the age of the oldest person in the family. Origami Tutorial
Kinchaku (巾着)–the purse
To wish for success in business, prosperity, and–interestingly, thriftiness.
Toami (投網)–the fishing net
To “catch” good luck!
To wish for skill in handicrafts and weaving. These papier-maché streamers are hung in city centers to represent the threads of Orihime’s loom. Although the event is cancelled this year, Asagaya in Tokyo is famous for its creative streamers made by various community groups. They have had everything from Chewbacca to Snoopy to Anpanman.
You can watch a Youtube tutorial to learn how to make your own DIY fukinagashi.
Kuzukago–the trash can
To wish for cleanliness and thriftiness! This is my favorite, because the trash can decoration is not just a decoration. This is where you throw away all the scraps of paper and string leftover from making the other decorations.
To make your experience complete, you can play yourself a Tanabata soundtrack as you write your wishes. If you grew up in Japan, this song might be “natsukashii,” remind you of good before days! Listen here. If takoyaki is too much of a challenge, you can always celebrate Tanabata by eating somen, the long, thin noodles served cold and eaten with a dipping sauce. Somen symbolizes Orihime’s weaving threads, as well as the Milky Way. You can even add sliced okra to add color and more star shapes to your plate! Finally, since Tanabata is the Star Festival, make it an event! Try wearing a yukata (浴衣, summer kimono), invite your friends for post-dinner stargazing, and try to find Orihime (Vega). She is one of the three brightest stars in the summer!
This year, what are you wishing for? How are you celebrating Tanabata, the Festival of Stars? Let us know in the comments below!
Products For your Tanabata wardrobe–
For your Tanabata decorations–
For your Milky Way noodles–
For your takoyaki party–