Brilliant Stars of Asagaya Tanabata Festival
Tinkling chimes, watermelon, kakigori shaved ice, goldfish, yukata, fans, fireworks, and bon odori dance—these are some of the typical symbols of Japanese summer. Adding to this list are the paper streamers hung as early as July 7th for the Tanabata Festival.
For Japanese, Tanabata (literally the seventh evening) marks the pivotal change from spring to summer. Originating from the Chinese Qixi Festival celebrated also on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of each year, the Japanese counterpart tells of the mythological tale of lovers Princess Orihime the Weaver and Hikoboshi the Cowherd, that appear as the stars Vega and Altair and were separated by the Milky Way. They are allowed to meet again only once a year on the seventh lunar month. The tradition was first celebrated in 755 by the Empress Koken, and by the Edo period, had spread as a nationwide custom. In conjunction with the Obon festivities practiced in July in the Kanto region and August in other areas, Tanabata has been delighting many homes and villages as a somewhat romantic celebration.
Traditionally, people write wishes on colorful paper that they hang on bamboo trees. Some scribble poetry or haiku. In some towns, these pieces of paper and decorations on the leafy stalks of bamboo are set to float on the river with paper ships carrying candles, illustrating a very scenic and sentimental mood at night.
A unique Tanabata festival to commemorate the poignant meeting of the star lovers, and perhaps, one of the biggest festivals of its kind takes place every year in Asagaya, Suginami ward. The Asagaya Tanabata Festival has been entertaining crowds of townsfolk since 1954 with giant paper maché streamers hung from the ceilings of the town’s almost one-kilometer shopping arcade or outside shops and restaurants, as well as colorful bamboo hangings around Asagaya station. The floating streamers vary in all kinds of playful motifs: anime characters (like the favorite Anpanman), animals and fish, boats, planes, comic heroes (like Ultraman), Walt Disney (like Aladdin and Dumbo) and movie characters, food (hanging sushi and ramen), and fantasy creatures.
This year’s festival honored the Tanabata Grand Prize awards to a giant Rugby athlete in anticipation of the Rugby World Cup to open in September in Tokyo, and to a long locomotive train. The Silver Prize went to a giant cockroach. A huge animated tree log garnered the Bronze Prize, and an amusing Lupin III (Rupin Sansei in Japanese) and his partner in crime Jigen in action in a yellow car won the Suginami Ward Chief’s Award. The creative art of the animation figures emanate humor as well, making this festival anxiously visited by throngs of children and families.
It is well worth noting that the paper maché displays are also handcrafted by the village people, particularly, the Suginami elementary school children, thus, making the event not only truly original and appealing, but also encouraging to boost the artistic participation of children. One giant colorful fish was made up of 500 children’s wishes.
Just like all Japanese summer festivals, there are food and drinks stalls everywhere selling yakitori, grilled squid, konyaku balls, Chinese gyoza dumplings, fresh corn, sweets, beer, ice shakes, and even an enormous pan of paella. Booths selling commercial goods, such as bags, shoes, clothes, stationery, pet goods, bric-a-bracs, and typical summer scenes, such as water pools for hooking goldfish and playing marbles abound, enjoyed endearingly by young children. Outside the covered arcade there is a small horror house for the brave adventurers.
There is so much to do and see at the Asagaya Tanabata Festival, which runs from August 3-7, 10:00 am to 10:00 pm this year. Make sure to dress light and bring a fan to endure the summer heat, and watch out for stiff neck from looking upwards the whole time as the amazingly wonderful paper steamers shower over you like a galaxy of stars.
Asagaya Tanabata Festival
1-35-18 Minami Asagaya, Suginami-ku, Tokyo
Access: Asagaya Station (JR Chuo Line)