The original Tanabata date was based on the Japanese lunisolar calendar, which is about a month behind the Gregorian calendar. As a result, some festivals are held on 7 July, some are held on a few days around 7 August (according to the “One-Month Delay” way), while the others are still held on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar, which is usually in August in the Gregorian Calendar.
Sendai Tanabata Festival
The Sendai festival began shortly after the city was founded in the early Edo Period. The Tanabata festival gradually developed and became larger over the years. Although the festival’s popularity started to dwindle after the Meiji Restoration, and almost disappeared during the economic depression that occurred after World War I, volunteers in Sendai revived the festival in 1928 and established the tradition of holding the festival from 6 to 8 August.
During World War II it was impossible to hold the festival, and almost no decorations were seen in the city from 1943 to 1945, but after the war, the first major Tanabata festival in Sendai was held in 1946, and featured 52 decorations. In 1947, the Showa Emperor Hirohito visited Sendai and was greeted by 5,000 Tanabata decorations. The festival subsequently developed into one of the three major summer festivals in the Tohoku region and became a major tourist attraction. The festival now includes a fireworks show that is held on 5 August.
At the Sendai Tanabata festival, people traditionally use seven different kinds of decorations, which each represent different meanings. The seven decorations and their symbolic meanings are:
In present-day Japan, people generally celebrate this day by writing wishes, sometimes in the form of poetry, on tanzaku (短冊), small pieces of paper, and hanging them on bamboo, sometimes with other decorations (Wish Tree). The bamboo and decorations are often set afloat on a river or burned after the festival, around midnight or on the next day. This resembles the custom of floating paper ships and candles on rivers during Obon. Many areas in Japan have their own Tanabata customs, which are mostly related to local Obon traditions. There is also a traditional Tanabata song:
Sasa no ha sara-sara
Nokiba ni yureru
Goshiki no tanzaku
watashi ga kaita
sora kara miteru
The bamboo leaves rustle,
shaking away in the leaves.
The stars twinkle
on the gold and silver grains of sand.
The five-colour paper strips
I have already written.
The stars twinkle,
they watch us from heaven.
The ornamental ball (薬玉; Kusudama) often decorated above streamers in present-day Tanabata decorations was originally conceived in 1946 by the owner of a shop in downtown Sendai. The ball was originally modelled after the dahlia flower. In recent years, box-shaped ornaments have become popular alternatives to the ornamental ball.
One popular Tanabata custom is to write one’s wishes on a piece of paper, and hang that piece of paper on a specially erected bamboo tree, in the hope that the wishes become true.
Colorful Tanabata festivals are held across Japan in early July and August. Among the biggest and most famous ones are the Tanabata Festivals of Sendai in August and Hiratsuka near Tokyo in July.
Large-scale Tanabata festivals are held in many places in Japan, mainly along shopping malls and streets, which are decorated with large, colorful streamers. The most famous Tanabata festival is held in Sendai from 6 to 8 August. In the Kantō area, two of the largest Tanabata festivals are held in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa (around 7 July) and in Asagaya, Tokyo immediately prior to the start of the Obon holiday in mid August. A Tanabata festival is also held in São Paulo, Brazil around the first weekend of July and Los Angeles, California in the beginning of August.
Although Tanabata festivals vary by region, most festivals involve Tanabata decoration competitions. Other events may include parades and Miss Tanabata contests. Like other Japanese matsuri, many outdoor stalls sell food, provide carnival games, etc., and add to the festive atmosphere.
Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea often celebrates the Tanabata Festival featuring a greeting parade with Mickey as Altair and Minnie as Vega.