It’s one of Japan’s five traditional festivals (known as gosekku) that happens on the seventh day of the seventh month. It was originally introduced to Japan in 755 C.E. from China, but became popular during the Edo Period (1603-1867).
Because the original dates were based on the lunar calendar, different regions will celebrate it at different times, with most of Japan holding the summer festival on July 7th.
The Chinese festival that Tanabata originates from is called the Qixi Festival, which Empress Koken introduced to Japan. The story comes from two stars that become visible in the 7th month, Vega and Altair, which came to represent the star-crossed lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi.
Orihime, a weaver and the daughter of Tentei, the Sky King, would work everyday making beautiful clothes along the Heavenly River (the Milky Way). But as the days went on, she began to become sad without someone to love. Tentei noticed, and he began to look for a suitable prince for his daughter.
Hikoboshi, the cow herder from across the river, caught the attention of the Sky King for his hard work, and he arranged to have him meet Orihime. They instantly fell in love, got married, and lived happily ever after…happy story, right?
Unfortunately, while they were busy being in love with each other, they began to neglect their duties. This made the Sky King angry, and he separated Orihime and Hikoboshi! Orihime begged her father to allow them to see each other. Tentei agreed, but he set the condition that they may only meet once a year: on the 7th day of the 7th month.
It was from this Chinese legend that is now deeply part of Japanese culture, that now people across Japan take part in the annual Tanabata celebrations!
During the festivities, and starting weeks leading up to the actual date, you will start to see decorations going up in front of homes, shops, city centers like train stations, and at various festival sites. Bamboo branches are displayed all around, and they will have colored strips of paper, called tanzaku, hanging from the branches.
The tanzaku are for writing down any wishes you may have. Wishes are mostly made by kids, but anyone is welcome to come up with anything they want to wish for! The most common thing young people wished for in 2021 was for the end of the pandemic, good health for their family, and to get a boyfriend/girlfriend!
Japanese festivals are one of the best places for food because of the assortment of Japanese street food vendors, known as yatai. Tanabata is no different, with much of the festival site lined with these yatai serving fresh and delicious foods!
Here’s our five favorite Japanese festival foods:
Of course there’s plenty more food you can try at Tanabata!
While Tanabata festivals are held between July and August depending on the region of Japan you’re in, outside of the gosekku, the country holds many other traditional and seasonal festivals! Check out any of Japan’s most famous festivals like Gion Matsuri or Nebuta Festival!
The good thing about Tanabata being in both July and August is that if you want to visit two different ones in different parts of the country, you totally can! The Sendai Tanabata Festival is Japan’s largest festival, held in August, while the largest in the Tokyo area is the Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival that’s in July!
The story of this matsuri may be slightly sad, but getting to wish for anything you want during the celebrations isn’t too bad! What would you wish for during Tanabata? Tell us below in the comments!
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