Stars Align: Celebrating Love and Wishes at Japan’s Tanabata Festival

by Nana Young


Tanabata Decoration Milky Way Background

Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival, is one of Japan's most colorful and romantic festivals during the summer. Celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, Tanabata marks the annual meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, represented by the two stars Vega and Altair. According to legend, these star crossed lovers are separated by the Milky Way and can only reunite once a year on this special day.

What is Tanabata? Understanding Japan's Star Festival

People take part at Tanabata Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Tanabata has its roots in a Chinese legend dating back to the Nara period (710-794 AD), narrating the love story of two celestial beings separated and permitted to meet only once a year. This touching narrative of love and longing captured the hearts of the Japanese people, weaving itself into tradition and giving rise to the Tanabata festival.

Today, the festival holds a special place in Japanese culture, carrying the themes of love, hope, and perseverance. It celebrates the joy of reunion and the fulfillment of wishes, which are values that resonate deeply within Japanese society. During Tanabata festivals, towns and cities across Japan are adorned with vibrant decorations, including colorful streamers and lively paper lanterns. People write their personal wishes on small pieces of paper called "tanzaku" and hang them on bamboo branches, hoping that their dreams will come true.

Tanabata, which means "evening of the seventh," is celebrated on different dates across various regions. Some areas celebrate the festival on July 7th, while others celebrate on August 7th, depending on whether they follow the Gregorian calendar or the lunar calendar. The festival can span multiple days, beginning as early as July 7th and as late as the end of August.

The Romantic Legend Behind Tanabata

The Tanabata ornaments decorated over the walking street in Sendai during Sendai Tanabata festival

The romantic story of Orihime and Hikoboshi is a timeless legend that forms the heart of the Tanabata festival. The Tanabata story originated from a Chinese legend called Qixi. Princess Orihime, the daughter of the Sky King (Tentei), was a weaver maiden who wove beautiful clothes by the banks of the "heavenly river" or Milky Way. Lonely and longing for companionship, Orihime's father arranged for her to meet a diligent cow-herder named Hikoboshi, who lived across the Milky Way. When the two met, they fell deeply in love and soon married.

However, their happiness led them to neglect their duties. Orihime stopped weaving her exquisite cloth, and Hikoboshi let his cows stray across the heavens. Angered by their irresponsibility, the Sky King separated the two star crossed lovers, placing them on opposite sides of the Milky Way, and forbade them from meeting. The two lovers were heartbroken, and Orihime pleaded with her father to let them see each other again. Touched by their love, the Sky King allowed them to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.

The story of Orihime and Hikoboshi symbolizes the importance of balancing personal desires with responsibilities, serving as a reminder that love and duty must coexist harmoniously and that neglecting one's responsibilities can lead to consequences. The tradition of writing wishes on a paper called tanzaku stems from Orihime's plea to her father and her earnest wish to reunite with Hikoboshi. Additionally, the annual reunion of the two lovers represents the enduring power of love and the hope of reunion, even in the face of separation. This aspect of the story inspires people to cherish their relationships and remain hopeful during times of separation or hardship.

Tanabata Traditions: Tanzaku and Decorations

Wishes written on Tanzaku, small pieces of paper, and hung on a wishing tree

One of the most captivating customs of the Tanabata festival involves hanging tanzaku, small pieces of paper where people write their wishes and dreams. It is believed that by writing wishes on colorful strips of paper and placing them on bamboo branches, they will be carried up to the heavens and come true. Typically, there are five different colors of paper to choose from—blue, red, yellow, black, and white—each carrying its unique symbolic significance. While many hang their wishes on colorful construction paper from bamboo branches, in some cases, these decorations are floated on a river or ceremonially burned the following day.

Apart from tanzaku, other traditional Tanabata decorations contribute to the festive ambiance. Among these are origami designs like orizuru (paper cranes) and kamigoromo (original kimonos), often strung together and hung alongside strips of paper on bamboo branches. In Japanese culture, cranes symbolize longevity, while origami kimonos represent improvement in needlework. Colorful streamers, also known as fukinagashi, symbolize the threads Princess Orihime used to weave her fabrics, and kusudama (ornamental balls) are displayed atop the streamers. Other decorations include kinchaku (purses) symbolizing business success, toami (origami nets) for fishing luck, and kuzokago (garbage bags) for cleanliness.

The Best Places to Celebrate Tanabata in Japan

Decoration of "Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival" to be held in July every year in Hiratsuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan.

The Tanabata festival is enthusiastically celebrated throughout Japan, typically featuring colorful decorations, food stalls, performances, and even Tanabata decoration competitions. However, certain cities are renowned for their spectacular festivities. Among these, Sendai and Hiratsuka shine with their distinct and grand celebrations, drawing thousands of visitors annually.

The Sendai Tanabata festival, with a history spanning over 400 years, is one of Japan's largest and most renowned Tanabata celebrations. Held annually from August 6-8 in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, the festival showcases more than 3,000 bamboo decorations, vibrant cultural performances, and a grand fireworks display.

The Hiratsuka Tanabata festival, held every July in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, is one of the largest Tanabata celebrations in the Kanto region. The festival features a stunning array of decorations, some towering up to 30 feet tall, while performers in traditional attire enliven the streets with their vibrant shows.

Other notable Tanabata festivals include the Anjo Tanabata festival in Aichi Prefecture, distinguished as the only festival with a dedicated Tanabata Shrine where people wish for business prosperity. Also in Aichi Prefecture, the Ichinomiya Tanabata festival in Aichi Prefecture is held to give thanks to the god of textiles and to pray for prosperity.

When is Tanabata Celebrated? Dates and Differences

Festival "Tanabata Festival" held in summer in Anjo City

The dates of Tanabata festivals vary by region, influenced by whether the regions follow the lunar calendar or the Gregorian calendar. This variation affects the timing of the festivities and shapes the visitor experiences in unique ways. The differing dates offer flexibility for visitors, allowing those who cannot attend a July festival to visit an August celebration instead, and vice versa.

In many parts of Japan, Tanabata is celebrated on July 7th according to the Gregorian calendar, aligning with the modern international calendar system and is commonly associated with contemporary celebrations. The July celebrations often coincide with the early summer season characterized by warm weather and a lively, modern atmosphere filled with bustling street performances and a variety of summer dishes.

Meanwhile in other regions, Tanabata is celebrated on August 7th, following the lunar calendar. This date aligns more closely with the festival's original timing, which was based on the traditional Chinese calendar system introduced to Japan. Lunar calendar celebrations often retain more traditional elements such as the fukinagashi streamers made from Japanese washi paper, as seen in the Sendai Tanabata festival. The August timing also benefits from slightly cooler weather and longer daylight hours.

Culinary Delights of Tanabata

Colorful chilled somen on a bamboo colander. Japanese summer cuisine.

Alongside the visual and cultural festivities of Tanabata, traditional dishes significantly enhance the festival's charm. Two of the most iconic food associated with Tanabata are somen noodles and colorful dango.

Somen noodles are thin, white wheat noodles typically served cold, making them a popular choice during the hot summer months for their light and refreshing nature. They are usually accompanied by a dipping sauce called "tsuyu", made from soy sauce, mirin, and dashi, and garnished with toppings like chopped green onions, grated ginger, and sesame seeds. These noodles are thought to resemble the Milky Way, the celestial river that separates the star-crossed lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi in Japanese folklore.

Colorful dango, on the other hand, are small, chewy rice flour dumplings skewered on sticks. They come in various flavors and colors, often achieved using natural ingredients like matcha (green tea), red bean paste, and fruits. For Tanabata, dango symbolize the vibrant stars in the night sky, reflecting the festival's theme of celestial beauty.

In addition to somen noodles and dango, Tanabata festivals feature food stalls offering a variety of local delicacies including takoyaki (octopus balls), yakitori (grilled chicken), and yakisoba (stir-fried noodles).

Fashion and Attire for Tanabata

woman decorating Tanabata strips

One of the festival's most enchanting aspects is the traditional clothing worn by participants, enhancing the festive atmosphere and fostering a connection to cultural heritage. Among these garments, the yukata stands out as the quintessential attire for Tanabata. A yukata is a casual summer kimono made of lightweight cotton or synthetic fabric. Unlike formal kimonos, which have multiple layers and are made of silk, yukatas are simpler, easier to wear, and more comfortable in the hot and humid summer months. They come in a wide variety of colors and patterns, often reflecting the season and the festive spirit of Tanabata. Accessories such as geta (wooden sandals) and uchiwa (hand fans) complete the traditional look.

Major department stores in Japan, such as Mitsukoshi and Isetan, often have sections dedication to traditional clothing, offering a wide range of yukata designs and sizes. Specialty shops, including kimono boutiques, as well as online retailers, are also excellent options for finding yukata.

If you prefer not to make a full investment but still wish to experience the essence of the Star Festival, you can find kimono rental shops in many major cities and tourist spots, especially during the summer festival period. These shops provide complete packages that include yukata, obi (sash), accessories, and even hairstyling services.

Music and Dance of Tanabata

Japanese girls in colorful kimono dance at Anjo Tanabata Festival celebrations in Aichi, Japan

Essential to most Japanese celebrations, traditional music and dance performances play a crucial role in bringing Tanabata festivals to life. Taiko drumming stands as a cornerstone of Tanabata celebrations, its powerful and rhythmic beats resonating across the festival grounds. With origins dating back to ancient Japan, the thunderous sound to taiko drumming is believed to cleanse the surroundings and ward off evil spirits, harmonizing with the festival's themes of hope and renewal. Other traditional instruments commonly heard during these festivities also include the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument, and the koto, a long zither-like instrument. These instruments often often accompany traditional dances and storytelling, enriching the cultural experience of Tanabata celebrations.

Traditional instruments animate Bon Odori, a form of traditional Japanese dance often performed during Tanabata. Stemming from the Bon Festival, which honors the spirits of ancestors, Bon Odori has evolved into a joyous and inclusive dance at numerous summer festivals. Participants gather in a circle around a raised structure known as yagura, moving to the beat of traditional tunes. The dance's steps are simple and repetitive, enabling individuals of all ages and skill levels to join in.

The Impact of Tanabata on Japanese Pop Culture

Woman in Japanese traditional outfit

Tanabata has not only influenced Japan's traditional celebrations but has also made a significant impact on Japanese popular culture. The festival's themes of love, yearning, and reunion strike a deep chord within Japanese media, making it a recurring motif in many stories. Its iconic imagery—vibrant decorations, bamboo trees adorned with wishes, and starry nights—sets a visually captivating and emotionally resonant stage for cinematic storytelling. This backdrop provides an ideal opportunity for character development, romantic subplots, and cultural exploration. Through the enchanting realms of manga, anime, and film, Tanabata continues to inspire and enthrall audiences, intertwining its enduring magic with the essence of modern Japanese culture.

Tanabata festivals are featured in popular media such as the anime "Your Lie in April" by Naoshi Arakawa, where the characters take part in the festival, and the highly praised animated film "Your Name" (Kimi no Na wa) by Makoto Shinkai, which draws inspiration from the festival's themes of star-crossed lovers and celestial connections.

Tanabata in Modern Japan: Traditions and Innovations

Handmade japanese washi paper lanterns illuminating the stone steps of the Zojoji temple near the Tokyo Tower during Tanabata Day on July 7th.

The Star Festival is a cherished Japanese tradition that has evolved over time. While traditional decorations like paper cranes and colorful streams remain popular, modern interpretations have arisen, blending in contemporary design elements and technological advancements. Striking LED light showcases and themed setups bring a contemporary twist to the classic bamboo decorations These dazzling displays often portray celestial themes, connecting with the tale of Orihime and Hikoboshi, the star-crossed lovers at the heart of the festival's story.


A woman hangs coloured paper strips (Tanzaku) on bamboo branches, for good auspicious, during traditional Tanabata Japanese Festival.

Tanabata festival's core customs—writing wishes on tanzaku, hanging them on bamboo branches, and enjoying traditional music and dance performances—perfectly capture the essence of hope, love, and unity. Whether you're in Japan or elsewhere, Tanabata is a unique opportunity not to be missed. If you can't travel to Japan, you can still embrace the magic of Tanabata by incorporating its traditions into your own cultural practices. You and your loved ones can write your wishes on colorful strips of paper and hang them on a bamboo plant or a symbolic tree.

Subscribe to the Bokksu Snack Box subscription and enjoy a delightful assortment of snacks as you write your wishes and celebrate Tanabata with your loved ones. Bokksu provides a carefully curated collection of authentic Japanese snacks, allowing you to savor the flavors of Japan without leaving your home.

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