Tanabata Festival

People to the left. People to the right. People wherever you look. You hold on to your friends. A sweater. A hand. Whatever keeps you together until the group reaches the restaurant as you swim through a steady current of fellow festival enthousiasts. Above is a second stream. Bamboo branches dangle strips of paper by the thousands, weaving in the wind like an inverted stream of seaweed. You snap back into focus. You somehow made it into the restaurant. Not that it is quiet and abandoned, but at least you can sit. Your friend is asking you what you wrote on your paper strip. A date with your latest love interest perhaps? No stone is left unturned by your ever so curious friends. You smile a beacon of mystery.

On July 7th one of Japan’s traditional five festivals is celebrated, namely the Tanabata Festival (七夕 たなばた). In some places it is observed on the 7th of August. Two cities known for their elaborate celebrations of the Tanabata Festival are Sendai and Hiratsuka. Both celebrate on the 7th of August, which is closer to the traditional festival date. According to the legend, which originated in a Chinese folk legend about two stars, the Weaver Star (Vega) and the Cowherd Star (Altair) are said to be lovers. They can only meet once a year on the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. Upon it’s introduction to Japan it merged with native legends about a celestial weaving maiden (Tanabatatsume). One believed she fashioned clothes for the gods. Tanabata, which is short for Tanabatatsume, became one of the annual events observed by the imperial court. It fell close to the Bon Festival, a festival for the souls of the dead. Some practices concerning the welcoming and seeing off of the spirits of one’s departed ancestors became associated with the Tabata Festival. A common sight of the festival are the bamboo branches decorated with long narrow strips of colored paper, other small ornaments and talismans. The paper strips contain wishes and romantic aspirations. After the festival’s end, the decorated bamboo branches are placed in rice paddies to stimulate a plentiful harvest.

Further reading:

“Tanabata Festival” In: Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Kodansha.