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Tanabata (七夕), literally meaning “seven evening,” 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.
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 set her up with 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 enjoyed married life so much that they neglected their starry work. On earth, people complained that their kimonos were falling apart and their cows were dying. Furious, Lord Tentei separated Orihime and Hikoboshi by the vast Amanogawa, 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,” 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, and in Japan, people enjoy food and drink stalls, which sell the typical 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. Takoyaki is so fun to make at home! This summer, why not have “tako-pa,” (タコパ
) takoyaki party?
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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. Or, if crafting isn’t your forte, simply use this year to wish for more artistic because…
Tanzaku (短冊) –wish papers
…the most important decorations of Tanabata are the colorful strips of paper called “tanzaku,” where you write down your wishes. The typical colors are red, blue, yellow, white, or black. After you write your wish, 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! However, this year, people seem to be wishing for the corona virus to go away.
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.
To wish for success in business, prosperity, and–interestingly, thriftiness.
Toami (投網)–the fishing net
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. Asagaya in Tokyo is famous for its creative streamers made by various community groups. They have everything from Chewbacca to Snoopy to Anpanman.
You can watch a Youtube tutorial to learn how to make your own DIY fukinagashi.
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, 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, it might a good occasion to stargaze. Make it an event! Try wearing traditional Japanese summer wear–yukata. Invite your friends, get out the picnic blanket, pull out your old telescope, and look for 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!
For your Tanabata wardrobe–
For your Tanabata decorations–