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Tanabata: The Summer Star Festival in Tohoku

Tanabata: The Summer Star Festival in Tohoku

Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival, commemorates the epic romance of the star deities Orihime (the Weaver Princess, represented by star Vega) and Hikoboshi (the Cow Herder, represented by star Altair). Starstruck (literally) by each other, they disregarded their work—which brought down the wrath of the Heavenly King. He forcibly separated them by the Milky Way, and the two were henceforth only able to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, when skies are clear. 

 

To celebrate the lovers’ auspicious reunion, Tanabata is celebrated throughout Japan. While the exact date varies by region, celebrations fall between July and August each year. Alongside usual summer festival fare of carnivals and yukata wearing, one unique aspect of Tanabata includes hanging decorations on bamboo trees, such as tanzaku (written wishes, often in poetry form, on slips of paper) or tanabata-kazari (washi-made lantern streamers).

 

The biggest Tanabata Festival in Japan is held in Sendai City, Tohoku, every August. Luckily for me, in 2018, I had the privilege of being in Tohoku during Tanabata, and was able to witness the celebrations in Sendai and beyond! So, without further ado, allow me to share three of my personal Tanabata experiences in Tohoku.

 

1. Sendai Tanabata Festival 

Tanabata-kazari at the Sendai Tanabata Festival. (Image credit: Sendai Tanabata Festival Support Association)

 

Throughout history, Tanabata in Sendai held great significance: they were used to overcome tragedy (the Great Tenmei Famine in 1787; the end of World War II in 1946; recession in 1952). The gaiety of Tanabata proved effective in rallying community spirit and boosting morale in spite of trying times. Today, Sendai’s Tanabata Festival has become more of a tourist event—with over two million visitors each year, it is the biggest in Japan.

 

Every year on 6–8 August, Sendai is splashed with colours as tanzaku and tanabata-kazarihandcrafted by the locals—adorn the city. The competition spirit is rife as locals compete for the prestigious award of best decoration. To really immerse yourself in the summer festivities, downtown Sendai is where the party peaks—stage performances, carnival stalls, and food vendors congregate to bring you the summer of a lifetime.

 

Tanabata-kazari at the Zuihoden Mausoleum. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

While I didn’t get to have firsthand experience at Sendai’s Tanabata, being in the city during August allowed me a glimpse of some of the beautiful decorations. The Zuihoden Mausoleum was charmingly embellished with colourful streamers which complemented the vivid hues of the buildings.

 

Tanabata-kazari at Ichibancho Shopping Arcade. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

The Ichibancho Shopping Arcade was also adorned with tanzaku and amplified its nostalgic atmosphere. The small glimpses of Sendai’s Tanabata were enough to excite me—I’m sure that if you were to visit on the actual festival dates, you would be in for a very special treat! 

 

Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり)
Dates: 6–8 August (every year)
Nearest station: Sendai Station (仙台駅)

 

2. Ichinoseki Summer Festival

Dance parade at the Ichinoseki Summer Festival. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

I encountered the Ichinoseki Summer Festival entirely by chance—I was making the return journey back to Sendai from Hiraizumi and had to make a train transfer at Ichinoseki. The bright banners and booming music emitting from the city’s loudhailers piqued my curiosity, which was how I found myself the only amazed foreigner wandering amongst the locals celebrating Tanabata.

 

Dance parade at the Ichinoseki Summer Festival. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

Held in early August each year, Tanabata in Ichinoseki is celebrated with three main events: fireworks (to mark the start of the fishing season), a large dance parade by local residents, and the Ichinoseki Mikoshi (portable shrine) parade. My serendipitous detour brought me to the large dance parade, where locals danced their hearts out to traditional folk music. Mascots, adorable costumes, and children cheering excitedly on makeshift parade contraptions added to the extraordinary celebratory atmosphere. 

 

Carnival stalls at the Ichinoseki Summer Festival. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

Carnival stalls also dotted the roadside, and it was incredibly enjoyable to watch the locals usher in Tanabata the best way they knew how. 

 

Ichinoseki Summer Festival (一関夏まつり)
Dates: For three days from the first Friday of August (every year)
Nearest station: Ichinoseki Station (一関駅)

 

3. Morioka Tanabata Festival

Locally-handcrafted kazari at the Morioka Tanabata Festival. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

On the journey from Sendai to Hakodate, I decided to make a pitstop at Morioka City to view the picturesque Mount Iwate. Unfortunately, the weather proved particularly gloomy and I found myself scrambling to find shelter from the thunderstorm. This was how I chanced across the Morioka Tanabata Festival held at the Hamachimachi Shopping Street.

 

Locally-handcrafted kazari at the Morioka Tanabata Festival. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

Ice sculptures at the Morioka Tanabata Festival. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

Old-school shops at Hamachimachi Shopping Street. (Image credit: Celia Lim)

 

The kazari displayed at the Morioka Tanabata Festival were the most creative I had seen. Each tanzaku reflected an aspect of local life—be it jobs, locations or routines such as taking the local bus. It was intriguing to see how the locals transformed simple everyday activities into masterpieces. Ice sculptures and food stands stood alongside old-school local shops—it felt as though I was walking through a time capsule. For a nostalgic and unique Tanabata experience, look no further than Morioka City. 

 

Morioka Tanabata Festival (盛岡七夕まつり)
Dates: First week of August (every year)
Nearest station: Morioka Station (盛岡駅)

 

Perhaps when the next summer comes around, this article would have placed the Tohoku Region and its beautiful Tanabata celebrations on your festival bucket list! For more summer festival inspiration for your next Japan trip, take a look at this article.

 

Header image credit: Celia Lim

 

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