Tanabata Festival

From 11AM to 5:30PM On Sunday July 13th, Southbank Centre will be host to a well known Japanese festival: Tanabata. Before I tell you a bit about what to expect at the festival, here is the story of Tanabata:

Near the river Amanogawa lived the King of the Skies. He had one daughter, Orihime. She was a weaver who worked very hard everyday to weave the most beautiful kimono for all the other deities. When Orihime came of age, her father decided it was time to wed her. He searched high and low to find her a suitable partner. Finally, on the other side of the Amanogawa river, the King found Hikoboshi, a cow herder. Hikoboshi was a very hard working and honourable man, so the King arranged for him to meet his daughter.

It was love at first sight, and Hikoboshi and Orihime soon wed. They lived a very happy life. In fact they were so happy, all they did was have fun all day long, and they eventually forgot all about their work.  “Orihime has stopped weaving, and our clothes have become old and tattered!”, “All of the cows have fallen ill since Hikoboshi stopped working!” the angry deities complained to the king. Upon hearing this, the king was furious. He instantly separated both lovers and condemned them to stay on opposite sides of the Amanogawa.

However, the king could not bare to see his daughter sad, and said this to her, “My daughter, for one day, once a year only, on the seventh day of the seventh month only, you may see Hikoboshi.” Orihime very much looked forward to this day, so worked extremely hard all year long. And on the other side of the river, Hikoboshi did the same.

When it finally came to their first meeting, both lovers rushed to cross the river. But on that night, it had rained so much it was impossible for them to cross. At that moment, a  magpie flew past and built a bridge to allow the lovers to finally meet.

So that is the bittersweet story behind Tanabata, or the Star Festival as it is sometimes called (Orihime and Hikoboshi represent the stars Vega and Altair separated by the milky way). On this day in Japan, the streets are commonly decorated with very large colourful streamers, or fukinagashi (吹き流し). During the festival, people write their wishes on a thin strip of paper called tanzaku (短冊), which is then hung on a bamboo branch.  The bamboo and decorations are then usually set afloat on a river or burned the next day in order for your wish to come true.

The most famous Tanabata Festival in Japan is in Sendai, which is actually celebrated on the 7th and 8th of August every year. Why August? Because according to the Japanese lunar calendar, the seventh month  falls in August. If you are ever in Japan around this period, I would really encourage you to go. I almost went last year, but didn’t have enough time unfortunately. However, the little I did see on the television looked absolutely amazing!

But since we’re not in Japan right now, let’s celebrate on the Southbank! The day promises to be filled with activities from taiko drumming to calligraphy. You can listen to the Tanabata legend and then even make tanzaku on which to write your wishes on. The Japan Society have also worked very hard to make the same fukinagashi you would see in Japan. For more information on activities, you can visit the Japan Society website here. So set a reminder for the 13th of July, and don’t forget to write a wish 😉


(Feature image source)

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