So, you are in Tokyo this July? Then you cannot miss one of the most beloved omatsuris (“omatsuri” meaning festival in Japanese) celebrated throughout all the nation: Tanabata or the Star Festival.
With its origins in Chinese culture, Tanabata is held in Japan every year on July 7th and is meant to celebrate true love, the one that overcomes all other adversities. There are several interpretations about the story behind Tanabata but, definitely, what remains in each one is the aura of romance. The most commonly told legend in Japan, is as follows:
The princess Orihime (also represented by the star “Vega”) was a talented weaver who spent her days absorbed by working diligently making clothes for her father, the King of the Sky. But one day, she met Hikoboshi (“Altair” star), a young and handsome cow herder, and the two fell deeply in love. With the blessing of Orihime’s father, they quickly got married…but unfortunately, their happiness was not going to last longer as blinded by the love they felt for each other, they started to neglect their duties.
The King of the Sky, enraged by their behavior, punished the lovers and separated them forever to become stars, banishing Hikoboshi to the other side of the Milky Way. However, the King decided to allow the couple to meet once a year, the night of July the 7th. But if that night shall rain, the couple would not be able to reunite… And for that reason, people wish for a clear sky on that day.
Nowadays, at Tanabata, Japanese people make offerings and talismans through really beautiful and unique decorations and also write their wishes by hand onto small, rectangular pieces of colored paper called “Tanzaku”, which they hang on the branches of the bamboo trees.
And with an omatsuri so celebrated throughout Japan, it may be difficult to choose where to go first… Well, if you are in Tokyo or near, you should follow my advice and go to the festival being held at Hiratsuka, in Kanagawa prefecture. In fact, you can directly get there from Shibuya taking the JR Line, and arrive in about an hour.
The Tanabata Festival in Hiratsuka is one of Japan's most famous and largest celebrations, with thousands of people attending each year. During the festival, the main streets of the downtown are closed and filled with at least 2000 food stalls, offering all kinds of food, from traditional Japanese junk food to even Turkish food.
Adults may also want to grab a glass of “Nama biiru” (Japanese beer) and for the kids you can buy Calpis Soda (a sweet Japanese drink that’s worth trying) from the vending machine. And while Japanese consider that eating while walking is not good manners, it is totally okay to do it during an omatsuri.
The main attraction of the Tanabata Festival in Hiratsuka is the 3-meter-long bamboo poles that line all the streets and that are beautifully decorated with hanging and gorgeous ornaments full of colorful streamers, each competing to be the best on display.
And what’s even better: at night, the decorations come to life as they are lit up giving the festival a more romantic feeling. And because the omatsuri of Tanabata is a family celebration, you will see a lot of children having fun around, as there are also activities for them, such as ring tosses and fishing prizes.
As for deeply cultural activities, you might encounter also special shows such as a firemen’s parade as well as local school performances. You might also have the opportunity to see a big group of dancers performing traditional Japanese dance.
On the other hand, Japanese festivals, during the summer, are the perfect occasions to buy and wear a “yukata”, a traditional Japanese piece of cloth similar to the kimono but more light and suitable for the hot summer weather. Do not be shy! It’s well worth it, and your pictures will turn into great memories. You will see men and women wearing this beautiful Japanese cloth and showing off their beautiful style!
Last year I experienced my first Tanabata at Hiratsuka, and I went there with my Japanese family-in-law. I had such a great and unforgettable time that I wish to repeat this year.
We arrived there by 5 pm and stayed just before the closure (to avoid big crowds). It was perfect as we were able to experience both sides of Tanabata: with the daylight and with all the beautiful and romantic night illuminations.
As the night fell in, the streets got busier with people in high spirits, laughing and eating while wandering around in a very happy atmosphere.
Before leaving, we pay for a “Tanzaku” paper, to follow the tradition and we wrote our hopes and dreams of better days to come, and hang them along with the wishes of so many others.
This year, Tanabata in Hiratsuka is celebrated for 3 days, the 7th and the 8th (ends by 9pm) and the 9th (ends by 8pm). Do not miss the upcoming perfect opportunity to experience Japanese culture in all its senses and to participate in an exceptional event that you would only find in Japan.