One of my favorite kid-friendly summer events in Japan is Tanabata, the Star Festival and day of wishes. While not a public holiday, it’s something to look forward to as the rainy season comes to an end.
Tanabata (七夕), held every year on July 7, is one of Japan’s go sekku, or 5 annual ceremonies with Chinese roots celebrated by the ancient Japanese imperial court.
BTW, here’s a quick refresher on the other sekku:
Nanakusa no Sekku — New Year’s (January 7)
Momo no Sekku — Girls’ Day (March 3)
Tango no Sekku — Boys’ Day/Children’s Day (May 5)
Kiku no Sekku — Chrysanthemum Festival (September 9)
The Origins of Tanabata
Tanabata (七夕) is based on the Chinese love story of QiXi. It’s a story of the annual meeting of Hikoboshi and Orihime, lovers separated by the Milky Way.
Orihime was beautiful and gifted weaver who caught the eye of Hikoboshi, a diligent herder. After they were married, they enjoyed married life, as one does when they are married.
Unfortunately for them, they spent too much time with each other and not weaving silks and attending to flocks of cows and sheep.
Orhime’s dad, who just happened to be the emperor of heaven, sent the happy couple to live on opposite sides of the Milky Way. Only after Orihime cried and cried did her father give her permission to meet her husband once as year… so long as they both worked hard the other 364 days.
The day that Orihime and Hikiboshi meet, as you might have figured out is, July 7. And, there’s another catch to this “romantic” story. Orihime and Hikoboshi can only meet if the skies are clear! So, if it rains… Well, sucks to be them, I guess.
(But, I think if you watch enough Asian dramas, you know that there is no happily ever after worth gaining without several roadblocks/landmines, attempts on one’s life, and shocking paternity reveals.)
The “star” in Star Festival comes from the stars that the pair represents. Vega (Orihime) is a star in the Lyra constellation (and one of the brightest in the night sky) while Altair (Hikoboshi) is a star in the Aquila constellation.
Together with a third star (Deneb of the Cygnus constellation), they form a triangle that’s visible in the summer skies of the northern hemisphere.
In the days leading up to Tanabata kids write wishes on tanzaku (短冊), colorful strips of paper that are hung on a bamboo wish tree.
Department stores and shopping malls typically have a Tanabata wish tree on display for young customers to write and hang their wishes. Japanese daycares, kindergartens, and elementary schools also have wish trees.
Those who can write hiragana try to write their wish with the help of a teacher. Or, kids may draw a picture of their dream. They may also make origami decorations.
For babies and tots like my little Kaiju, parents write a wish on behalf of their child. Normally it’s something like, “I wish he could meet Anpanman/be potty trained/like veggies.”
(And in case you’re wondering what happens to the wishes on a school Tanabata tree, we send the tanzaku home.)
If you’re in Japan, you can easily find Tanabata decorations like this set on Amazon Japan:
It’s very unlikely that Tanabata festivals will take this place this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Tanabata festivals take place all across Japan, from local community gatherings to grand productions.
Perhaps the most famous Tanabata festival is in Sendai, which takes place around August 7. More than 2 million people visit during the 3 day festivities to see Tohoku’s largest city beautifully decorated in colorful streamers.
Not to be outdone, Tokyo Disney Resort has done Disney Tanabata Days, a monthlong celebration leading up to Tanabata. It’s a month of festivities, parades and Tanabata-ish foods/drinks. There’s also Micky, Minnie, Donald, and Daisy dressed in spectacular outfits.
Here’s the Tanabata decorations and wish tree for Disney Tanabata Days 2019 at Tokyo Disneyland:
For more on Tanabata and other Japanese celebrations, I recommend this book, Japanese Traditions: Rice Cakes, Cherry Blossoms and Matsuri: A Year of Seasonal Japanese Festivities:
Tanabata, the Star Festival and Day Of Wishes