The Tanabata is a Japanese festival celebrating the meeting of two legendary lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by the once-a-year encounter of the stars Vega and Altair. It is held every 7th July, and the Japanese enjoy a number of traditional activities associated with the festival.
The largest Tanabata celebrations are held in the cities of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture and Hiratsuka in Kanagawa Prefecture, but if you’d like to hold your own little festival with friends and family, here are five things you can do to make it feel traditionally fun and extra special.
Wear a Yukata
The yukata is a lightweight summer version of the more formal kimono; this garment is so airy and thin it is sometimes considered as underwear or sleepwear when compared to the full kimono suite. Yukata are made from dyed Japanese cotton, cut and then stitched together from a single bolt of fabric. The yukata (and the kimono for that matter) are structurally different from bathrobes, so it would be inaccurate — not to mention rude, to attempt to substitute them as such.
Yukata can be purchased from online stores, although you can also spot them in local vintage stores (ukay-ukay) every now and then. They are usually worn with a hanhaba-obi (half-obi) and casual geta (wooden slippers). Recently, it has become popular for teenagers to hitch up their yukata from the traditional ankle-length to the more modern knee-length. For complete instructions on wearing a yukata, you can visit this tutorial from the Ongaku Society website.
Make Wishes on Bamboo
The most important aspect of the Tanabata Festival is the writing down of wishes and hanging them up on special bamboo groves or bamboo cuttings. This custom started out as the people wished for good weather so that Orihime and Hikoboshi are able to meet, and it soon extended to making wishes for themselves. The most popular wishes are usually about passing entrance examinations, winning sports tournaments, and finding love.
According to tradition, the wishes are written down on colorful strips of paper called tanzaku (see above picture), which are then tied around the branches of the bamboo which has been especially decorated for this purpose. As the festival closes and the next day approaches, the bamboo is burned — tanzaku paper strips and all, to send the wishes up to heaven.
Make a Kusudama
Kusudama are paper balls made up of individual folded units that are then assembled to create a larger piece. It is a form of traditional origami that differs slightly from the origami we are used to, as it allows the use of glue to hold its parts together. Colorful kusudama with giant paper tails are created especially for the event, and they are used to line streets and decorate homes for the big festival.
Play with Fireworks
Fireworks are also an integral part of Tanabata festivities. Some cities organize giant fireworks exhibitions that people for miles around drive in to see. Other communities are happier with smaller celebrations, where streets are closed off to vehicles and homeowners are allowed to light sparklers and set off Roman candles near their homes. Firecrackers of the exploding variety are frowned upon, however, as they are considered a safety hazard and are a controlled product in the Japanese market.
Watch the Stars
Last but not least, families, groups of friends, and couples watch the skies for the legendary meeting of the stars. The stars are — after all, the reason for the festival. Information on the yearly paths of the two stars (it is adjusted slightly with each passing year) are sometimes broadcast on morning shows, websites, and in community billboards. Telescope owners and other avid festival-goers also scope out prime areas from which they can watch the events unfold. After the stars have met, it takes roughly another year for them to be together again.
The Tanabata Festival is one of the most distinctive, most enjoyable, and most traditional festivals that survived to modern-day Japan. For a little taste of Japan and a small bit of fun, why not try organizing a small festival yourself? Or, you can always attend special events held in July which is — coincidentally, Philippines-Japan Friendship month. For a complete listing of special events, please visit the Japan Foundation Manila website or the UP Philippines-Japan Friendship Club (UP Tomo-kai) website.
Have a great July, everyone!