What is Tanabata?
Tanabata (or the star festival), is a celebration that was introduced to the Japanese by the Chinese ~755 during the Nara Period. It celebrates two deities, Orihime, a weaving princess, and Hikoboshi, a cow herder, who fall in love. Celestially they are represented by the stars Vega and Altair. Their love for one another takes them quickly down a romantic road which ends in marriage.
Shorty after wedding, the smitten couple begins to neglect their work duties in order to spend more time in one another’s company. This angers Orihime’s father tremendously and he punishes Orihime and Hikoboshi by separating them with the vast Milky Way. Saddened by this turn of events, the couple resumes their duties on opposite sides of the galaxy.
Orihime, the king, sees his daughter’s immense sadness and decides to allow the couple to reunite one day each year under the assumption that each of them complete their work duties as necessary. This special meeting is always on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (July 7th).
The legend goes onto state that during the first meeting the couple although given the privilege to see each other couldn’t physically be in one another’s arms because of the presence of the Milky Way. The weaving princess, Orihime, becomes distraught and the highly intelligent magpies take note and in turn decide to help the young lover by building a bridge using their wings. Finally, Orihime crosses and meets Hikoboshi! Hooray for true love overcoming all obstacles (even the toughest ones!)!
Flash forward to 2019…
If you’ve looked at the forecast for this weekend it doesn’t look too terribly promising and there is a high probability of rain. Unfortunately, magpies don’t fly much when it rains, and we most likely won’t even be able to see the night sky! This means that if the weather doesn’t hold out, the lovers might have to wait until 2020 (nooooooooo) to see one another again. Crossing our fingers over here for good weather and lots of sunshine…I mean it wouldn’t be the first time the weather person got it wrong, right?
We celebrated Tanabata in 2018 at the largest festival in the Kanto region, Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Matsuri just a mere 45 minute drive from the house. This festival is definitely worth the trip and will certainly get you into the party spirit with three major streets as well as a good number of side streets blocked off for festivities! In these designated areas, there are tons of colorful ornaments with long streamers hanging from long bamboo rods. These streamers are said to represent the threads of a weaver’s loom. Games for the kiddies, food vendors, music and performances abound!
Although the origins of Tanabata date back to the 700s, the festival was not popularly celebrated until the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). It was during this later period that it became customary for people to write wishes on small pieces of paper called “tanzaku” and hang them. The wishes are eventually burned, so they can travel up to heaven in the smoke in order to be granted. So make sure to find a spot to write your wish and then hang it! Miles dictated the one for our family and I absolutely love it!
“We wish for a great and beautiful day. Thank God for the beautiful day with big trees and sweet flowers.” – Miles, age 4
Additionally, while at the festival, make sure to check out the neighboring Hiratsuka Hachimango Shrine. It was originally built way back in 380 A.D. and has been regarded as a protecting force for the surrounding lands ever since. In addition to being beautifully decorated for the Tanabata, it is also (perhaps better?) known for the Bonbori Matsuri festival in September. Although we never made it back for that one, the temple is decorated with over 500 lanterns and from pictures it looks to be an incredible experience. If you go please let us know!
Tanabata is also the time for Chinowa Kuguri, the summer purificaiton ritual which takes place in Shinto shrines. The ritual involves a big hoop of grass (see picture above) in which you walk through in a figure-of-eight. It is meant to rid you of any impurities you gave gathered over the first half of the hear and to pray for health during the second half of the year. Lord knows we could certainly use help getting rid of impurities, so of course we gave it a try.
If other plans or bad weather keep you from checking out the festival this year, you can still celebrate by writing your wishes on pieces of paper at home and hanging them yourself. The “tanzaku” can be purchased at your local DAISO (Japanese dollar store), and most families simply use bamboo to hang them from. Moreover, if you are traveling around Japan, many hotels will have decorations set up for you to participate! Here’s our crew tying our wishes onto a tree inside Izu Imaihama Tokyu Hotel during our trip to the western portion of the Izu Peninsula in 2018 (see above).
- Hours: The festival will be held from July 5th – 7th, 2019 with most vendors being open from ~1000 until 2100 on Friday and Saturday, and 2000 on Sunday.
- Admission: Free
- Parking: In order to access the festival you can easily drive and park in one of the many paid parking areas or take public transport! The heart of the celebration will be just a couple minute walk from the north exit of the JR Hiratsuka Station.
- Hours: Difficult to track down for sure, but seem to vary with the season. Seems to be 0700 – 2100 in the summer.
- Admission: Free!
Happy Tanabata, folks!
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