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A Romantic Japanese Tradition! Trivia on Tanabata Matsuri

If you visit Japan in the summer, chances are you will see decorated bamboo branches in the streets. The ornaments hanging on "sasatake" (bamboo) branches signify Tanabata (七夕, star festival), an event when people wish upon the stars. Read on for the meaning and the origin of this event!

1. What is Tanabata?

Tanabata is one of the so-called "gosekku" (five festivals) that are held when the season changes for the purpose of expelling evil spirits. An annual event in Japan since ancient times, Tanabata is the time of year when people would write their wishes on tanzaku (colorful strips of paper), and hang them, along with decorations, on the leaves of bamboo trees on the night of July 7th (some areas celebrate it on August 7th). One legend has it that the origin of this tradition was an ancient purification ceremony called "tanabata". It was an event when people prayed for good harvest and made other wishes by offering clothes woven by women to the deities. They say that how the characters of the word "tanabata" are read today comes from this custom.

2. The Legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi

Tanabata is famous for its legend about a weaver and a cow herder in China. Once upon a time, Tentei, the supreme deity of the sky, had a daughter who was a weaver of clothes for the gods. This weaver, who worked hard every day, married a young cow herder, Hikoboshi, by the grace of Tentei. After they got married, however, Orihime and Hikoboshi stopped being diligent at work and neglected their duties just to play all day. This made Tentei furious, so he separated the lovers and put them on either end of the Milky Way, allowing them to meet just once a year – on the night of July 7th. This legend has long been known in Japan, and while the Japanese people call the weaver Orihime and the cow herder Hikoboshi, Orihime is actually Vega, a first magnitude star of Lyra, and Hikoboshi is Altair, a first magnitude star in the Aquila.

3. Why Hang Strips of Paper with Written Wishes on Bamboo Branches?

The custom of hanging tanzaku on bamboo branches came from China's Kikoden, an event on July 7th wherein people prayed to Vega for improvement in their weaving and sewing skills. When this custom came to Japan, it gave birth to the country's own tradition of writing wishes on the leaves of the sacred "kaji" (mulberry) tree. As time passed, the event transformed into a festival for wishing on the stars by writing wishes on tanzaku instead of kaji leaves, and hanging these strips of paper on bamboo branches. Incidentally, the bamboo has also been a sacred plant since the olden days, just like the mulberry tree, and it is also said that gods live in bamboo trees.

4. What Do the Bamboo Decorations Mean?

During Tanabata, bamboo branches are not only decorated with tanzaku, but also with different kinds of "tanabata-kazari" (Tanabata ornaments). Each ornament actually has its own meaning. For instance, the "fukinagashi" (windsock or streamer), which is made by putting tape on paper balloons or decorative paper balls, symbolizes the weaving yarn given to Orihime. It incorporates the wish to be better at weaving. Additionally, the "ori-zuru" (folded paper crane) means longevity, the "kinchaku" (drawstring purse) means better finances, and so on.

5. Famous Tanabata Matsuri

Tanabata Matsuri is held everywhere in Japan, with each region offering their own special kind of event. Below are the famous "Top 3 Tanabata Festivals in Japan"!

Sendai Tanabata Festival

The Sendai Tanabata Matsuri is a traditional event that boasts a long history. During this festival, the streets of Sendai in Miyagi are filled with colorful Tanabata decorations, drawing in crowds of more than 2 million tourists each year. In particular, the gorgeous and luxurious ornaments from Sendai Station to Chuo-dori Avenue, and up to the arcade street at Ichiban-cho Avenue are definitely a must-see. For 2018, the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri will be held for three days from August 6th (Mon.) to 8th (Wed.).

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri is the Tanabata festival in Kanagawa's Hiratsuka area. During this time, around 500 Tanabata ornaments fill the center of the city. With massive decorations measuring more than 10m, this matsuri is said to be the most luxurious in Japan. There are also unique ornaments incorporating the latest trends that appear each year. For 2018, the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri will be held for three days from July 6th (Fri.) to 8th (Sun.).

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri

Ichinomiya Tanabata Matsuri

Ichinomiya City in Aichi Prefecture, a place that is famous for its textile industry, is home to a grand celebration of Tanabata every year. The main highlight of the Ichinomiya Tanabata Matsuri is the massive procession for the "onzo" (textile) offering. This 300m-long parade, where woolen textile manufactured in Ichinomiya is dedicated to the deities, envelops the entire town in a resplendent atmosphere. For 2018, the Ichinomiya Tanabata Matsuri will be held for four days from July 26th (Thurs.) to 29th (Sun.).

So, if you happen to be in Japan for Tanabata, try to make a wish on a star by writing your heart’s desire on a tanzaku.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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