The huge streamer decorations that draw crowds from all around Japan will now feature adorable cat characters created by an anime artist.
Around the beginning of July in Japan, you’ll start to see shops, stations, streets, and homes being decorated for the Tanabata festival (in English often referred to as the Star Festival), which happens on the seventh of July (or, depending on who you ask, the around the seventh of August)each year. Most typically you’ll find large branches of bamboo leaves, called sasa, hung with colorful origami decorations, and wishes written on strips of paper by people hopeful that they will be granted when star-crossed lovers Altair and Vega meet.
Generally you’ll find typical wishes for happiness, good health, getting into a good school or finding a good job… At times, you’ll also see some witty ones that will give you a good chuckle. Or, you know, ones that invoke pity for the wisher whose parents named them Elmo.
Recently we talked about a shop in Kanagawa Prefecture that sells styish kamaboko fish cakes decorated to look like the beautiful hydrangeas that bloom during Japan’s rainy season. But what if your palate runs more towards the sweet than the fishy, or your ideal of natural beauty isn’t the flowers growing from the soil, but the stars above?
In that case, one Kyoto confectioner has just the thing: sweet bean gelatin modeled after the Milky Way.
Since the opening of the Tokyo Skytree in 2012, Tokyo Tower is no longer the tallest or most fashionable structure in Tokyo. Still, the 56-year-old steel giant has managed to hang onto its reputation as one of the city’s most romantic locales, thanks in part to its location in quiet, sophisticated Shiba-koen as opposed to the boisterous Shitamachi district where the Skytree stands.
This month, Tokyo Tower is doing a little more to set the mood, with a beautiful light display that ties in with Japan’s Tanabata star festival.
Kyoto, Osaka, Nara…southern Japan seems to get all the love from both international and Japanese tourists alike. But what about the rest of the country, like the six northern prefectures? Northern Japan, known as Tohoku in Japanese (東北, “the northeast”), is a hidden gem full of unique cultural traditions, unspoiled natural scenery, and some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet, despite the chilling winters.
This weekend is a better time than ever to hop on the bullet train up north to take part in the Tohoku Rokkonsai “mega-festival”. The festival began in 2011 to lift the spirits of the people of Tohoku after the deadly earthquake and tsunami just months earlier. The highlight of the festivities is a massive parade composed of segments from all six of Tohoku’s major summer festivals. Where else can you experience the excitement of SIX major festivals all at once FOR FREE??
Held each year on July 7, the Tanabata festival has its roots in the folktale of a young married couple, symbolized by two stars in the night sky, who toil away at their trades separately, able to meet just once a year. It’s a little like the situation in many Japanese families where the husband gets transferred by his company to another prefecture and his wife stays behind to continue her own career or look after the kids. Just replace “office workers” with “cowherd and daughter of the king of heaven” and “prefectural border” with “the Milky Way,” and you’ve got a close approximation.
The story of the two lovers finally being able to see each other has taken on a broader connotation of wishes coming true, and Tanabata is commonly celebrated by writing a wish down on strip of paper, then tying it to a stalk of bamboo.
Department stores and shopping centers usually have displays where visitors post their wishes. Since they’re then on display for others to see, you can get a glimpse of current trends by checking them out. “My family’s safety,” “success in business,” and “health” are three old-standbys of Tanabata wishes, but what else were people hoping for this year?
Written with the kanji characters 七 and 夕, Tanabata literally means ‘seventh evening’, and according to Japanese legend is the one day of the year that the young couple Orihime and Hikoboshi are permitted to meet, otherwise separated by the great 天の川 (Ama no Gawa, lit. river of the heavens). And it just so happens that some lucky star gazers in Hokkaido were granted front row seats.
On 7 July, Tanabata kicks off in many parts of Japan. It’s an annual festival season which celebrates the stars Orihime and Hikoboshi, two lovers who are separated by the Milky Way except for this brief moment on the seventh day of the seventh month.
A popular custom during this time for young and old is to write down a wish on a strip of paper and hang it from a bamboo plant. However, as the years go by it seems that fewer and fewer people are going out to make wishes. This is why Calpis Co. Ltd. has decided to spark up interest in bamboo wishes by launching a study of their effectiveness.
For the nights of August 5-7, the streets of Yuzawa, Akita prefecture, are illuminated with the soft glow of ukiyo-e-esque paintings on paper lanterns for the Tanabata Edoro (Picture Lantern) Festival, a 300-year-old festival that takes place near JR Yuzawa station during Tanabata every year.
Akita is known for having some of the most beautiful women in Japan and the hand-painted paper lanterns do the prefecture justice, portraying illustrations of beautiful Japanese women, often in seductive poses.
Take a look at some of the lanterns from previous years below: