Tanabata – Festival of Star Crossed Lovers

Jul 2nd, 2009 | By Shane Sakata | Category: Featured Articles, Festivals

tanabata decorations shinjuku japan Separated by the milky way, two star crossed lovers are only able to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month based on the lunisolar calendar.  The legend of Hikoboshi (the star known as Alter) and Orihime (the star known as Vega) has roots in China but has been associated with Japan’s Tanabata festival since the sixth century.

Orihime, the daughter of Emperor Tentei, was a skilled weaver and made lovely clothes for her father.  On day as she sat alongside the the river of heaven ( amanogawa – the milky way) she was overcome with sadness as she had been so busy with her weaving that she hadn’t had time to fall in love.   Tentei, believed to be the ruler of the heavens, witness her woeful state and arranged a marriage for her with Hikoboshi who lived across the river.  The couple was very much in love and were very happy but Orihime was neglecting her weaving.  This angered Tentei so much that he decided to separate the couple putting them back on opposite sides of the river.

Tentei decreed that the couple would only be allowed to see each other on one night each year – on the seventh day of the seventh month.  On that evening a boatman (the moon) comes to ferry Orihime over the river to her beloved Hikoboshi.  But if Orihime has not given her best to her weaving Tentei may make it rain causing the river to flood so the boatman cannot make the trip.  In this case the kasasagi (a group of magpies) may still fly to the milky way to make a bridge for Orihime to cross.

The Tanabata festival (also know as the star festival) celebrates the reuniting of these lovers separated by the milky way and the word tanabata can be translated as “weaving with the loom (bata) placed on the shelf (tana)”.

During the Tanabata festival sprigs of bamboo, sometimes small and sometimes the size of a tree, are hung with tanzuku, papers upon people write their wishes.  Traditionally people wish for improved technical skills and abilities in homage to the legend of Hikoboshi and Orihime.

tanabata decorations tanzuku bamboo

Celebrate Tanabata in Japan

Bright and cheerful Tanabata decorations like those pictured above can be found throughout out Japan during July.  Look for festivals and other events, large and small, celebrating tanabata in the area you are visiting.  Here are just two:

Tokyo Tower

From July 1st-12th if you wear a yukata to Tokyo Tower you will gain free admission to the main observatory where you will see an illumination of the Milky Way along with the great city views.  You may also write attach your own tanzuku to the tanabata bamboo.  If it isn’t raining, free rickshaw rides and a souvenir picture will also be offered on July 4th (2PM – 6PM) and July 5th (11AM – 4PM).  Tokyo Tower itself will be illuminated in five Olympic colors on July 4th.

Tanabata Matsuri

The Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival will take place in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture from July 2nd through the 5th.  Over 3,000 bamboo tanabata decorations will line the streets of the city and will be lit each night until 9:30PM.

Events during the festival period include a Kiyari-Matoi (firemen’s chant) parade on July2nd at Noon, a parade of Sennin Odori (a thousand of folk dancers) from 1PM – 3PM on July 3rd and a parade of “”Miss Orihime Tanabata”" (Beauty Queens) with brass bands marching from 10:30 am on July 4th.

Hiratsuka Station is located about 70 minutes outside of Tokyo on the JR Tokaido Line.

Legend Source: Orihime, Kengyuu, and Tanabata
Image Credit:  Flickr, センター街の七夕 by fumi & Wish

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8 comments
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  1. Good article. Thumbs up!

    The Tanabata matsuri is held in Sendai in August. The decorations from the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata matsuri are transported to Sendai for the Tanabata matsuri there. Local businesses will add there own sponsorship, decorations and such to the decorations brought up from Hiratsuka.

    Also, actually the decorations in Hiratsuka are lit up until midnight.

  2. [...] I’ve read lots of blogs about various Tanabata celebrations across Japan, but I liked this one the best.  Gorgeous photos.  Apparently Tanabata is also celebrated in [...]

  3. [...] historians believe that this event is a local variation of Tanabata celebrations, and others think it originated with a general who created large creatures to scare [...]

  4. The Tanabata legend sounds extremely similar to the ancient Chinese weaving girl legend: a story of forbidden love between the divine and mortal.

  5. Hello, I’m japanese who is living in Mexico.

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  6. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and comment at The Nihon Sun. Both of the images that you would like to use are use under a creative commons license that can be found at the bottom of the post under image credit.

    Good luck on your magazine project!

  7. [...] Nagi’s voice makes all the difference here. Miku, being the piece of software she is, cannot express the beauty of the lyrics quite like Nagi. In “Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari,” Nagi conveys unto us the clumsiness that she feels upon realizing her feelings for another person amidst the beautiful, starry backdrop of the night sky! And as she gazes out into the vastness of the galaxy, the energy from the instrumentals goes up a notch as to reflect her pounding heart resulting from looking at that wondrous sight while coming to terms with her feelings as she compares herself to the legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi (see Tanabata). [...]

  8. [...] On the Banks of the River of Heaven Posted on August 31, 2010 by Pam Phillips In Japan, Tanabata is a summer festival, based on a widely varying legend about two lovers who are now stars in the [...]

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