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  • Writer's pictureTomas Ballada


Updated: Jul 5, 2019

Star lovers and Japanese festivals

Sugamo area getting ready for its annual Tanabata festivities

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Japan knows how important role customs and traditional festivals play in everyday life. There are several major ones throughout the year, ones that the whole nation takes time to celebrate.

At the beginning of the year, it`s Oshogatsu (お正月、A New Year`s Celebration) which marks one of the longest public holidays period. Then there is a brief period where no major events take place (although with the new Emperor this has changed somewhat, since the Emperor`s birthday falls on the 23rd February and traditionally it`s a public holiday), however with the advent of spring Ohanami (お花見 - literally "flower spotting," in practice a picnic under the blooming cherry trees which usually involves drinking alcohol as well) kicks off the festival season, with many important events taking place in the summer.

There is the so-called "golden week" when most people get a mandatory (almost) week off (coincidentally 2019 was special in that the Emperor abdicated and the golden week stretched into a 10-day holiday). Next is Tanabata, then Obon (festival of the dead, when most people go back to their hometowns and villages and take care of their ancestor`s graves) and also multiple Hanabi (fireworks) festivals. The last one can be surprising especially for people coming from Europe, where the New Year`s Eve is traditionally the "fireworks day." In Japan New Year is being celebrated in a much calmer manner and instead August is usually the month where people gather in large crowds near river banks and observe firework displays.

This article will be focusing on the Tanabata festival (七夕 in Japanese). Like many other customs, it originated in China, where it`s being called Qixi, but evolved into a distinctly Japanese event with some traditional customs getting attention worldwide.

The festival is tied to the story of princess Orihime, daughter of Tentei (Heavenly King) falling in love with Hikoboshi, a cowherd in the Heavens. The two of them got married, however, they started to spend too much time together and stopped performing their duties (Orihime was supposed to weave). Tentei got angry and separated the couple. His daughter started crying and the King was so moved by her tears that he would allow the two to meet once a year, during the Tanabata. They lived on the opposite banks of the Milky Way (天の川, literally "Heavenly River" in Japanese) and once a year a flock of magpies would form a bridge so that the two could meet.

The belief also is that if it happens to be raining that day, magpies won`t come and the couple has to wait another year to be able to meet again.

Beautiful decorations adorn the streets of Sugamo

Probably the most famous out of various customs is the writing of a wish on a piece of paper called "tanzaku" (短冊) and hanging it on bamboo. Those wishes are often burned/sent down the river afterwards (burning is supposed to send the wishes to Heavens, thus making them come true. The same thing is applied to those written on ema 絵馬, wooden plaques used in shrines).

Other things often being hanged and adorning the streets are paper cranes, streamers or paper purses. As is often the case there are also local variations of the festival, the most famous one being Sendai Tanabata which attracts a large number of visitors every year. It is also worth noticing that although July is traditionally thought of as the month of Tanabata, some places celebrate it in August (which makes it almost overlap with Obon).

Special Tanzaku on which you can write your wishes

This year we have decided to participate in the spirit of the festival as well, allowing our visitors and students to write their own wishes on special tanzaku that we have prepared and which they can place on the display here at Tokyo Calligraphy Education Association.

Wishes can be written in English (we will provide the necessary utensils) and anyone can participate. It`s free of charge and not tied to our other services, and as such we would like to encourage everyone to drop by and write their wish on one of our tanzaku strips, especially if you`re visiting the Meiji Jingu shrine, which is only about five minutes on foot away from our building.

The event will be held throughout the entirety of July and August and we are looking forward to seeing you here!

No prior reservation is required, feel free to drop by anytime. In case our English speaking staff is not present we will have left written instructions near the display board.

The board where the Tanzaku will be placed

Since the event has already begun, feel free to have a look at some of the tanzaku written by our teachers, students and staff:

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