Top 3 Things to Do During Tanabata
(If you are interested in reading more about Japanese holidays, click here for our article on Japanese seasonal customs!)
What is 七夕 Tanabata?
In various parts of both East and Southeast Asia, there are festivals and holidays held every year on and around July 7th. In China it is the 七夕节 Qixi Festival, in Japan it is 七夕 Tanabata, in South Korea it is 칠석 Chilseok, and in Vietnam it is Thất Tịch.
These holidays originate from an ancient Chinese tale about the stars Vega and Altair (that’s right: stars as in stars in the sky).
In the tale, these stars are personified as a celestial weaver princess called Zhinu (literally “weaving woman”) and a celestial cowherd called Niulang (literally “cow man”). Zhinu and Niulang met by chance and, of course, fell deeply in love. But in the end, they were forbidden to be with each other. Zhinu is forced to live on one side of the Milky Way, and Niulang on the other. On the 7th day of the 7th month every year, a flock of magpies comes and creates a bridge over the Milky Way. This allowed Zhinu and Niulang to reunite for just one night.
There are quite a few slight differences in aspects of the story from country to country, and even within a single country; depending on what sources you believe to be most authentic.
Here are DIFFERENT countries’ different versions of their love story
In some versions, Vega and Altair’s relationship is a forbidden love because they spend too much time with each other and Vega fails to weave as much as she used to. In some versions Vega is the daughter of a goddess, and in some she is the daughter of the sky king. However, the core elements of the story remain more or less the same from place to place.
One thing that does change quite a bit from country to country are the names of the stars. In Japan, Zhinu is often called 織姫 Orihime and Niulang is often called 彦星 Hikoboshi, although both of them have several other Japanese names as well.
How japan celebrates tanabata
七夕 Tanabata in Japan is a very popular holiday. Tanabata decorations are a common sight all over the country. Many businesses design special Tanabata versions of crafts and other merchandise too. (For example, Tanabata-themed children’s origami kits).
On Tanabata night, you may hear superstitious (or romantic) people make comments about the weather. This is due to a belief that if it rains or is cloudy, Orihime and Hikoboshi will not be able to have their annual reunion. (In other countries, rain on July 7th is sometimes seen as Vega and Altair’s tears of happiness and/or grief).
Things to Do in Japan during Tanabata
1. Tree Decorations
The easiest and most popular Tanabata custom to take part in is the decoration of designated trees or bamboo displays. These trees or bamboo are set up in a variety of public locations in the days leading up to Tanabata. These include train stations and stores. Passers-by write a wish on colored paper strips called 短冊 tanzaku and hang them on the tree or bamboo.
The tree/bamboo gradually becomes quite covered in tanzaku. (Often, people affix other paper decorations as well). Some people also have small decorated trees or bamboo displays inside their homes. In metropolitan areas, it can be fascinating to read tanzaku wishes written by people from all over the world. Even Maru the cat of YouTube fame participates in this custom: https://youtu.be/OTC9zLsTNio
2. Tanabata festivals
If you are in Japan, there is probably a Tanabata celebration somewhere near you. Many towns have Tanabata festivals, which are often like to other summer festivals in Japan. They often have pop-up outdoor food stalls, games for children, traditional performances or parades, and etc.
Some areas in Japan, such as Sendai, are famous for their large-scale Tanabata festivals. Locations such as Tokyo Disneyland have Tanabata festivities as well. Festivals such as Tanabata are one of the occasions on which a number of Japanese men and women opt to wear traditional clothing. In this case, its a 浴衣 yukata (an essentially less hot, easier-to-wear, and less expensive version of a 着物 kimono).
If you own a yukata and have been looking for an opportunity to wear it, Tanabata is the perfect time!
Note that in some areas of Japan, including Sendai, Tanabata celebrations are not held on July 7th, but on other days during the summer.
3. 流しそうめん Nagashi somen
A third and lesser-known Tanabata activity is the eating of a type of noodle called そうめん somen. Somen and Tanabata were once upon a time rather strongly associated with one another. But these days many people associate somen more with summer eating in general than with July 7th specifically.
In any case, if you will be gathering at any point over the summer with a group of friends (especially if you or your friends have children), you may want to eat some somen in the form of a game called 流しそうめん Nagashi Somen. This literally means “washing-away somen.”
To play Nagashi Somen, you must rig up a chute of some kind (traditionally a wide stick of bamboo that has been cut in half lengthwise) and set it at an angle. You can do this by stacking chairs or bricks, by placing one end in a window of your house and the other end in the yard below, etc.
The bottom of the chute should have a clean bucket or large pot underneath it. A stream of (potable) water runs down the chute from a hose or sink. And participants line up on either side of the chute with chopsticks in one hand and a bowl of dipping sauce in the other.
Once everyone is ready, they put cooked somen noodles at the top of the chute, and then carried along rapidly by the stream of water (and the angle of the chute). Participants must try to grab the somen with their chopsticks as it passes them – naturally, you get to eat any somen you are able to grab!
July 7th in Other Countries
Many East and Southeast Asian countries have July 7th holidays that tie to the story of Vega and Altair, but from country to country these holidays are quite different in theme and in customs.
The 七夕节 Qixi Festival in China (also called Double Seventh Festival or Chinese Valentine’s Day) has a more romantic tone than Japan’s Tanabata. Chinese couples sometimes give one another flowers or chocolates during the Qixi Festival. This is similar to what other couples around the world do on American Valentine’s Day.
칠석 Chilseok in South Korea is similar to Tanabata in that some people do make Chilseok wishes. But the holiday has a greater focus on specific foods than Tanabata or the Qixi Festival does. They specifically focus on foods made of wheat.
Thất Tịch in Vietnam is a day of commemoration and prayer for the dead. This is especially for those who died somewhere where there was no one to take care of their bodies after death. As part of Thất Tịch, people prepare large tables of food in front of their homes. Children traditionally attempt to steal foods as part of tradition. The food is intended to help the spirits of the dead pass on more easily.
And that is generally what you need to know about Tanabata! Have you ever celebrated one of the July 7th holidays? What sorts of traditions does your city have? Leave us a comment and tell us your experiences!