The most magical Star Festival: Sendai Tanabata Festival
Summer in Japan is the season for festivals, with many festivals being held across the country. However, one of the most magical and wonderful, and one of my personal favourites, is the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り Sendai tanabata matsuri). The highlight of this festival is definitely the colourful handmade decorations adorning the city, embodying the heartfelt wishes of the local community!
Tanabata is also known as the Star Festival (星祭り hoshi matsuri), and originated from the Chinese Qixi (七夕) Festival. It celebrates the meeting of the star-crossed lovers Cowherd Hikoboshi (彦星) and Weaver Girl Orihime (織姫), who are represented by two of the brightest stars in the night sky—Altair and Vega. According to the legend, the two lovers are separated by a celestial river (the Milky Way), and can only meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month—the Star Festival.
Tanabata decorations at JR Sendai Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Sendai Tanabata Festival is one of the largest and most well-known Tanabata Festivals in Japan, and a few things set it apart from the rest. In many parts of Japan, Tanabata is celebrated in July (the 7th month), but in Sendai, Tanabata is celebrated from 6–8 August annually. In order to keep to the seasonality of the old festival, it is based on a calendar that is one month later than the old Chinese calendar. Sendai's Tanabata Festival is also unique for its nanatsu kazari (七つ飾り), seven decorations each symbolising something different.
Fukinagashi decorations with messages for Tohoku’s recovery in 2011. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Both Sendai and the Tanabata Festival hold very special places in my heart, and make up some of my best memories of Japan. My first time experiencing the Sendai Tanabata Festival was in August 2011, while I was on a volunteer program for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (東日本大震災 Higashinihon daishinsai). Although I have continued to visit Sendai multiple times over the years, work commitments prevented me from going during the Tanabata Festival period. However, returning to see the Tanabata Festival again was still something I had always longed to do, and finally in 2019, I was able to experience this enchanting festival again.
Tanzaku I wrote in 2011 (left) and in 2019 (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa)
One of the most famous customs for any Tanabata Festival is the writing of wishes and messages of thanks onto thin paper strips called tanzaku (短冊), which are then hung on bamboo decorations. During the Tanabata Festival period, you can find these bamboo decorations around train stations, shopping malls, schools, etc, with paper strips provided for you to write your wishes on. Tanzaku is also one of the nanatsu kazari of the Sendai Tanabata Festival.
Giant kinchaku decoration emblazoned with a phoenix. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The next of the nanatsu kazari, kinchaku (巾着) are purses representing wealth – both financial wealth and wealth of the mind.
Making kinchaku decorations (left) and miniature nanatsu kazari decorations (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
When I visited in 2011, a local lady, Chiba-sensei, taught us how to make some of the tanabata decorations, and also explained the meanings behind each of items. It was an experience I will always remember. Even now I still have the mini decorations and kinchaku I made back then!
With Chiba-sensei in front of a nanatsu kazari display. Some of the seven items are behind us or out of frame. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Toami (投網) are nets for to wish for a good catch of fish (good business) as well as to catch good fortune, while kuzukago (屑籠) is a trash net symbolising cleanliness and thriftiness. Kamigoromo (紙衣) is a paper kimono to ward off bad health, while orizuru (折鶴) are paper cranes symbolising longevity as well as hope – for folding a thousand paper cranes is believed to make your wish come true.
A fukinagashi decoration made from paper cranes folded by elementary school children. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Rounding up the seven decorations, fukinagashi (吹き流し) are streamers that symbolise the Weaver Girl Orihime, to wish for improvement in handicraft skills. They are the main decorations for the Sendai Tanabata Festival, with over 3,000 stunning fukinagashi lining a 1.7km stretch of shopping arcades between Sendai Station (仙台駅) and Kōtōdai Kōen Subway Station (勾当台公園駅).
Fukinagashi made by local children. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Fukinagashi are mostly handmade, and during the festival there are contests that award prizes to the most beautiful and creative fukinagashi decorations. These days, many of the fukinagashi are handcrafted by local community groups, and are hung to look like they are falling from the sky.
Fukinagashi from 2011 decorated with origami and messages written by children. On the left is a message from a child giving thanks for the support and aid that the world has given Tohoku. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
For me, the fukinagashi decorations are the best part of the festival, as the whole community participates in creating the decorations, writing their hopes and wishes. Other than being visually appealing, reading messages on the fukinagashi really warms my heart. In 2011, the theme for the festival was ‘recovery’, as it had only been five months since the earthquake and tsunami. One message that particularly stuck out to me was this handwritten message by a child saying 「世かいのたくさんのえん助ありがとうございます。」, which means 「Thank you for all the help from around the world.」
Clockwise from top left: fukinagashi by Itoen, a Musubimaru fukinagashi, , fukinagashi by Japan Airlines, fukinagashi in the shape of kokeshi, and fukinagashi by Don Quixote. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
It is common to see fukinagashi made by local schools and businesses, and some fukinagashi are even made in the shape of local icons like kokeshi, wooden dolls that are a famous Miyagi craft, or Musubimaru (むすび丸), Sendai City’s mascot. Others feature intricate origami work, and it really makes me appreciate all the time and effort put into creating these decorations for the enjoyment of visitors.
Hagi no Tsuki in a limited edition Tanabata Festival box. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Only during the Tanabata Festival period, you can even find Hagi no Tsuki (萩の月), Sendai’s most famous confectionery souvenir, in limited edition Tanabata packaging. Hagi (萩 bush clover) is the official flower of Miyagi prefecture. Hagi no Tsuki is a custard cream encased in a soft, fluffy sponge cake, meant to resemble a harvest moon. Due to the custard, the expiry date is usually within 1–2 weeks, so be sure to buy them your nearer to the end of your trip!
Sendai Tanabata Festival Fireworks are held annually on 5 August, the night before the festival begins. (Image credit: City of Sendai)
Various community events are also held at the downtown area during the festival period, including stage performances (live music, traditional dances) and vendors (food, drink and games). On 5 August, the night before the festival begins, a magnificent fireworks display is held along the banks of the Hirose River, where 16,000 fireworks are set off to kick off the festivities.
Walking amongst the Sendai Tanabata decorations. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa)
The Sendai Tanabata Festival is gorgeous and a real visual delight. The whole community comes together to make decorations, to make the once-a-year event an enjoyable one. It's not hard to see why the Sendai Tanabata Festival is one of the biggest festivals in Tohoku, drawing millions in visitors annually.
Inside the Tanabata Museum (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
If you are unable to visit during the Tanabata Festival period but would still like to have a look at the fukinagashi decorations, head over to the Tanabata Museum, which has displays of fukinagashi used during previous years’ Tanabata Festivals. You can also try your hand making nanatsu kazari for ¥1,500 per person. Reservations are required and can be made at +81-22-238-7170.
To get to the Tanabata Museum, take the Tōzai Subway line (地下鉄東西線) from Sendai Station to Arai Station (荒井駅), transfer to bus #16 or #18, and get off at Oroshimachi Higashi Go-chome Kita (卸町東五丁目北), where you will see Kanezaki Sasakamakan (鐘崎笹かま館) in front of you. The Tanabata Museum is right beside Kanezaki Sasakamakan. The museum is open from 09:30~18:00, and the admission fee is ¥800 for adults.
3.11 Tohoku support stickers. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
When I first visited Tohoku in 2011, I found out that it is a vibrant place filled with amazing people, and it really saddened me that so many people shunned the whole region after the 3.11 disaster. And to make matters worse, the media did not always portray an accurate reflection of the situation, choosing at times to merely focus on and play up the worst-case stories. Without knowing any better, the masses lumped the whole Tohoku region together, giving each and every place, affected or unaffected, the same branding of "unsafe", "dead" and "nothing there".
As I have been doing since my first visit, I continue to encourage friends, family and associates to drop by the Tohoku region, to see for themselves all the amazing scenery, food and cultural experiences it has to offer. Now, nine years after the disaster, the Tohoku region is starting to make its way back to the travel lists, and was even #3 on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2020!
Clockwise from top left: Aomori Nebuta Festival, Yamagata Hanagasa Festival, Akita Kanto Festival, and Morioka Sansa Odori. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you can, I highly recommend visiting Tohoku in summer when the cities come alive with their festivals! Other than the Sendai Tanabata Festival, Tohoku has a plethora of stunning summer festivals in the same week that are equally grand and enjoyable. These include the Akita Kanto Festival (秋田竿燈祭り), the Aomori Nebuta Festival (青森ねぶた祭り), the Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り), and the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (山形花笠祭り).
Calendar of major Tohoku summer festivals. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you are thinking of doing a summer festival trip around Tohoku, it’s totally possible to visit a different festival every day. In 2019, I had a blast checking out Tohoku’s Five Great Summer Festivals plus Niigata’s Nagaoka Fireworks Festival (長岡花火大会) on the same trip, and you can visit even more if you squeeze in the other regional festivals. In fact, festival-hopping something the local Japanese tourists do too, though perhaps more commonly two to three festivals over a 3-day weekend.
For reference, this was my 2019 itinerary:
03 August | Nagaoka Fireworks Festival
04 August | Morioka Sansa Odori
05 August | Akita Kanto Festival
06 August | Sendai Tanabata Festival (AM) and Yamagata Hanagasa Festival (PM)
07 August | Aomori Nebuta Festival (AM float parade, PM boat parade + fireworks)
JR Sendai Station (仙台駅) is a 90-minute bullet train ride from JR Tōkyō Station (東京駅) via the Tōhoku Shinkansen Line. The fukinagashi decoration displays are a 2-minute walk from Sendai Station, and continue on for 1.7km until Kōtōdai Kōen Subway Station (勾当台公園駅). The Sendai Chamber of Commerce and Industry has an English map of the festival locations.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting Sendai and the Tohoku region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Sendai (~¥23,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass. After exploring Sendai, you can also use the pass visit the nearby prefectures of Yamagata, Fukushima, Morioka and more!
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh