Star-Crossed Lovers: What is the Tanabata Festival in Japan?

By Annika Hotta
Updated: May 15, 2024

Lighting up the sleepy summer streets in the first week of July is the annual Tanabata Festival, also known as the “star festival” in other Asian countries. The festivities extend into the cool summer evenings, including traditional dances and all the street food your heart desires. 

Want to know the meaning of Tanabata and where to celebrate it? Keep reading to learn all about the origins of Tanabata and how it is celebrated today! 

The origin of Tanabata?

The Milky Way in the sky, representing the space between Orihime and Hikoboshi.

Tanabata is a love story between Orihime, the “weaving princess” and daughter of Tentei the Heavenly Emperor who lived on the Milky Way, and Hikoboshi, the “cowherd star” who lived on the other side of the Milky Way. 

They fell in love and got married, but quickly started neglecting their duties. This angered Orihime’s father, who split the galaxy in two after sending Hikoboshi to the other side. Seeing how hurt his daughter was, the Emperor allowed them to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month if they maintained their duties in the meantime. 

The tale of the star-crossed lovers was introduced by Empress Koken in the eighth century but didn’t become a popular celebration until the early Edo period in the 1600s. From then on, it became a mainstay summer holiday just before the August tradition of Obon. 

Nowadays, Tanabata is seen as a particularly romantic and lucky time of the year, inspiring many to make wishes and spend time with their romantic partners or family at one of the many Tanabata festivals across the country. 

When is Tanabata?

Two women in kimonos adding their wishes to a Tanabata tree.

Tanabata is officially on July 7 each year, but depending on the festival, some may hold celebrations a few days before and after this date, too. 

Japan uses both the Gregorian calendar, during which Tanabata would fall on July 7, and the Japanese calendar dictated by the ruling Emperor, making Tanabata fall on August 7. For this reason, some cities hold their Tanabata festivals in July and some hold them in August — so be sure to double-check the dates on the city websites! 

For more info on why the specific date of July 7 is so significant in Japan, China, and other Asian countries, check out the numerology behind the Tanabata holiday

What is a Tanabata tree? 

A colorful Tanabata tree, showing off all the wishes made during this traditional Japanese festival.

A Tanabata tree is a bamboo tree that people hang or tie their wishes on, hence why it’s also known as a “wishing tree.” Tanabata festival participants write down their wishes on colorful strips of washi paper before attaching them to the tree, making for an eye-catching display. 

It’s important to note that because Japan doesn’t have a culture of making a wish when they blow their birthday candles out, the once-a-year magic of the Tanabata festival is seen as an important time to make a wish, usually regarding health, academia, work, and family.

Want to know what some people commonly wish for? Check out this survey asking Japanese teens what they were wishing for during Tanabata season back in 2021. 

What to eat during Tanabata?

Colorful somen noodles on a bamboo tray, curled into bundles and separated by color.

Now that you’ve gotten some ideas on what to wish for, what do people eat at a Tanabata festival? A common sight will be long noodles, especially ones that are dyed to represent the weavings of Orihime. 

If you’re looking for more noodle experiences in Japan, try out this Kagoshima katsuo ramen tour!

Other common foods found at food stalls at Tanabata festivals are takoyaki (balls of fried octopus), yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), okonomiyaki (savory cabbage pancake), and yakitori (grilled chicken skewers). 

5 biggest Tanabata festivals in Japan 

1. Shitamachi Tanabata Festival

2. Kyoto Tanabata Sky Lantern Festival

3. Sendai Tanabata Festival

4. Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival

5. Textile Thanksgiving Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival

1. Shitamachi Tanabata Festival 

Shitamachi Tanabata Festival, with the lanterns and decorations sparkling in the sunset.

For a lively night out in the city, head to the Asakusa ward of Tokyo to celebrate the Shitamachi Tanabata Festival. Bouncing with the sound of taiko drums, the festival invites attendees to write their wishes down on paper and tie them to tree branches along the streets. Don’t forget to see the highlight, the parade on Sunday! 

2. Kyoto Tanabata Sky Lantern Festival 

Painted lanterns at the Kyoto Tanabata Sky Lantern Festival.

For those who are in Japan in August, seeing Kamigamo Shrine lit up at night with lanterns is truly a sight to behold. The Kyoto Tanabata Sky Lantern Festival is held on two separate weekends, giving you more opportunities to celebrate. 

3. Sendai Tanabata Festival 

Sendai Tanabata Festival, showing colorful paper lanterns set against a blue sky.

As the most famous Tanabata festival in Japan, the Sendai Tanabata Festival is the place to be for a historical Tanabata experience. Take in the city with bamboo trunks decorated by local artisans, special events, delicious food, and a fireworks display to top it all off. 

4. Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival 

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival, with grand, glowing decorations lighting up the evening sky.

An hour and a half away from Tokyo, the city of Hiratsuka comes alive each July during the Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival. Banners and decorations handcrafted by the young residents of the community are paraded through the streets in a colorful affair that nearly one million people come to attend!

5. Textile Thanksgiving Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival 

Colorful paper decorations at the Textile Thanksgiving Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival.

For a unique twist on the Tanabata festival, Aichi prefecture celebrates a fusion of the traditional Tanabata folklore and the god of textiles, Yorozuhata Toyoakitsushi Hime no Mikoto. Just a quick train ride away from Nagoya, be sure to wear your most colorful yukata to this textile-worshiping festival, known as the Textile Thanksgiving Ichinomiya Tanabata Festival

We hope this article gave you some insight into what the Tanabata festival is and how to celebrate it while you are in Japan.

Planning to be in Japan for the summer? Looking for more festivals to attend? Check out these articles on festivals in the Tokyo area or across the country, as well as ideas for what to do in Japan during the summer!

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Annika Hotta
After studying abroad in Shiga prefecture in 2019, Annika moved to Japan in 2021. In her writing, she highlights the best dishes and places to eat in Japan for both the picky and the adventurous.
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