This summer festival is usually held in July, although occasionally it is held in August. The custom originally began in China, based on the Qixi Festival there. While the theme of unrequited love may be a bit above most toddlers’ heads, the story of Tanabata is basically just that. Two stars, known in Japanese folklore as Orihime and Hikoboshi, are lovers that are kept apart by the Milky Way.
In reality, these two stars are more commonly known in the west as Altair and Vega. Anyway, according to the legend, these two stars have a chance to meet only once a year, and this usually falls on the seventh of July. It’s easy to remember some of the major events in Japanese culture as they fall on numerically easy dates. For example, New Years is the first of January (1-1), Doll Festival (otherwise referred to as Girls’ Day) is the third of March (3-3); the corresponding Boys’ Day or Children’s Day is the fifth of May (5-5) and the Star Festival is the seventh of July (7-7).
Tanabata festivals differ across Japan, one of the most famous being held in Sendai, but one can usually see colorful streamers, traditional food stalls, festive games and activities, and of course bamboo branches with paper wishes attached. Decorations can also include origami cranes and miniature paper kimono. Sometimes there are even small fireworks designed to simulate the meeting of the two stars.
Most schools, especially elementary schools, hold an annual Tanabata event. Students are encouraged to write their wishes upon ‘tanzaku’ and hang them on bamboo, both of which are usually provided by their teacher. Smaller schools will have a single piece of bamboo for the entire student body, rather than a separate bamboo branch per class. Teachers and guests to the school can also join in with the students and place a wish on the bamboo branch. My wife Mandy recently did this at one of the elementary schools she attended.
Coincidentally, around the same time, on a clear night in the mountain village where we live, we happened to see a shooting star and made a wish together. Despite winter nights having clearer skies, we tend to see more shooting stars in summer, due to the position of the constellations in the northern hemisphere at that time of the year. So whether it be a paper-wish on a bamboo branch for the Star Festival, or making a silent wish upon seeing a shooting star, one often wishes upon a star in Japan in July.
My wish for this year is for the success of my debut novel, the manuscript of which I will hopefully be sending off to publishers very soon. Usually however, I simply wish for health and happiness. On my behalf, Mandy wrote my wish on ‘tanzaku’ and placed it on the bamboo branch at the elementary school during the Tanabata festival there. I truly hope that my wish comes true.
Wishing you all the best, too, and hoping that your dreams come true.