Two women hang their wishes on Tanabata wish trees

Tanabata Festival: A Day of Lovers and Wishes

Japan has a thing for festivals and holidays where the month and day line up. We enjoy Dolls Day on March 3 as well as Children’s Day on May 5. July 7 also has a fun festival here that centers around star-crossed lovers and wishes and dates back almost 1300 years. That holiday is Tanabata, which we’re going to explore today!

Read on to learn more about this beautiful festival, its history and the story that this festival celebrates!

What is Tanabata?

Tanabata, also called the Star Festival, is a festival that takes place around Japan on July 7. This event celebrates two deities, Orihime and Hikoboshi, and their romantic meeting. Orihime is a female deity who represents the star Vega, while Hikoboshi is a male deity representing the star Altair.

The short story is that the two can’t meet because of the Milky Way in between them. However, they’re allowed to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. So, in general, the event takes place on July 7. However, different regions may also do the festival on other days in July and August.

This festival came from the Chinese Qixi Festival when it was introduced by Empress Koken way back in 755 AD. However, it became more popular in the Edo period (1603-1868) and started to mix with Obon customs since they’re so close together in the lunar calendar. This means that Tanabata has its own customs and traditions that differentiates it from Qixi.

What is the Tanabata Story?

A colorful Tanabata streamer hangs with paper flowers on top
The Star Festival is one of Japan's most colorful festivals, with the larger festivals featuring amazing, large streamers. Image via Unsplash

Like we said, Tanabata comes from the Chinese festival Qixi, so it makes sense that Tanabata is based on the Chinese folk story of “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”.

However, Japan has its own variations of the story, including a few in the Man’yoshu, a collection of traditional Japanese poems dating back to 759 AD. The fact that they had several versions of the story only four years after the holiday was introduced just shows how it took off among Japan’s ancient elite. Let’s go over the most popular version for Japan.

The Story of Orihime and Hikoboshi

Orihime is the daughter of Tentei, representing the universe. She was an amazing weaver who worked hard to make gorgeous clothes along the Amanogawa (Milky Way). While her weaving made her father happy, Orihime became sad because her hard work meant she’d probably never find love.

Seeing his daughter sad, Tentei played matchmaker and introduced Hikoboshi, who lived on the opposite side of the Milky Way. It was love at first sight for Orihime and Hikoboshi and they soon got married. They were so in love, however, that they both stopped doing their work.

There was no more beautiful cloth being made and Hikoboshi, a cowherd, allowed his cows to roam all over the heavens. Tentei couldn’t have things continue like this and separated them with the Milky Way flowing between them. This sent Orihime into a deep sadness, so she asked her father to allow them to meet again.

An ukiyo-e painting of Orihime and Hikoboshi on the moon boat over the Milky Way
This image dates back a whole 300 years, depicting one of the unique points of the Japanese story, involving the Moon Boat. Image via Art Institute of Chicago

Tentei was moved by her tears and gave them permission to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month every year as long as Orihime worked hard and finished her weavings. The first year they tried to meet, however, they realized that there wasn’t a bridge to cross the heavenly river of the Milky Way.

Orihime cried and a group of magpies were moved and promised to create a bridge for her with their wings every year. So now, Orihime and Hikoboshi can meet… except when it rains. When it rains, the Milky Way rises too high for the magpies to make the bridge, so the lovers have to wait another year.

The above is the standard Chinese story. However, a slightly different version of the story exists and is widely accepted in Japan. This version sees Hikoboshi take the moon as a boat to cross the Milky Way to see Orihime instead of her crossing the bridge to see him. Then, Hikoboshi goes back to his side of the Milky Way on the moon boat. This is actually mentioned three times in the Man'yoshu. 

How do People Celebrate Tanabata?

Tanabata Customs

A wish for a healthy, close family hanging from a wish tree
While Tanabata has a beautiful love story, it's actually more of a holiday of wishes! Image via Unsplash

One of the major traditions of Tanabata is the writing of wishes. These wishes are often written on small pieces of paper, called tanzaku. The wishes would then be hung on bamboo and other decorations, making a wish tree. Back in the day, boys would traditionally wish for better handwriting, while girls wished for better sewing and better craftwork.

Nowadays, girls and boys can ask for a lot of things. These wishes are also sometimes written in the form of a poem, but it’s not necessary to do so. At local festivals, the wish trees are often sent to flow down a river or burned, similar to Obon customs.

Tanabata Festivals

While plenty of places have Tanabata festivals both in Japan and outside of it, there are a few that particularly stand out in Japan.

Sendai Tanabata Festival

Six colorful Tanabata streamers with geometric shapes on top hang in the Sendai Star Festival
The Sendai version of this festival is well-known for both its design and variety of decorations. Image via Instagram (@sky.moon.k_r)

The Sendai Tanabata Festival is one of the biggest Star Festival events in Japan. This event features huge, colorful streamers made of bamboo and paper. They also feature other unique decorations, including giant cube structures made of paper cranes. Sponsor companies also casually compete with each other to make the coolest decorations with unique designs and materials.

It takes place in August based on the traditional Japanese calendar and attracts two million people to the event, especially with other events occurring around Tanabata as well.

Katano Amanogawa Tanabata Festival

Decorated jars depicting old Japanese scenes sit at the Amanogawa Tanabata Festival
This version of the Star Festival brings the stars in the form of gorgeous lights, including these decorated jars. Image via Instagram (@amanogawa_tanabata)

This festival takes place in Osaka and is an amazing illumination event, with tons of small and large lantern-like lights all over the park it takes place in. Many of the lanterns and lights are decorated by the locals. Plus, people can hang their wishes on one of the trees in the area as part of the wish-making tradition.

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival

A large paper streamer display featuring a woman in a yukata in the middle
Streamers may be a big part of Star Festival decorations, but places like Sendai and Kanagawa take it to the next level. Image via Instagram (@hirossi.775) 

This Kanagawa version of the festival is another one of the major Tanabata festivals. This event is famous for its colorful streamer decorations during the day and its gorgeous lights at night. The streamers are in a somewhat different style to the ones in Sendai, giving it a different feel overall. This festival also attracts tons of tourists every year, with organizers encouraging the wearing of yukatas by festival goers.

And that’s the Star Festival! What would your Tanabata wish be? Have you heard any other variations of the Orihime and Hikoboshi story? Let us know with a comment!