Tanabata: The Night When Love Prevails

Wish Upon a Star

By Shizuka Sakamoto
July 7, 2016

"True love stories never have endings," American writer Richard Bach once said, and nothing can be more true when it comes to Tanabata. A romantic legend, the story of Japan's best known lovers has endured for centuries and this year again, we celebrate romance — or the one night when love prevails.

One of the most famous summer festivals in Japan, Tanabata, usually celebrated on July 7, literally means the “seventh night.” Known as the Star Festival, it is one of the many Japanese festivals originating from China and has been celebrated in Japan since the 700s.

Though there are a few variations about the origins of Tanabata,

all revolve around two lovers who have to cross galaxies to be with each other only for one single night each year.

The legend goes that Orihime (a weaving princess) and Hikoboshi (a cowherder), met and fell truly, madly, deeply in love with each other and eventually tied the knot. But, love — being the only thing on their minds — made them stop working and devote all their time only to each other. Orihime’s father, the king of the heavens, furious at their negligence of other important affairs, separated them, sending them to the opposite sides of the Milky Way. Orihime became the star Vega and Hikoboshi, the star Altair.

However, heartbroken Orihime cried her heart out day and night (and didn’t work much either). Moved by Orihime’s tears, the king agreed to allow them to meet only once a year—on July 7. And that is how Tanabata was born.

Japanese celebrate the festival each July 7 or thereabouts by writing their wishes on colorful pieces of paper and hanging them on bamboo tree branches. The trees are decorated with origami ornaments and everyone hopes their wishes will come true.

While Tanabata revolves around July 7, the festival is also celebrated in June and August in some areas.

Here are five of Japan’s most famous Tanabata festivals.

sendai tanabata

Sendai Tanabata Festival, Miyagi Prefecture

Celebrated for two days between August 6th and 8th, this festival features a variety of events, and is perhaps the most famous Tanabata festival in Japan. Huge amounts of beautiful decorations are hung along the shopping arcade, starting from Sendai Station. Lots of events are held throughout the day and night.

shonan hiratsuka

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival, Kanagawa Prefecture

This festival, which runs between July 8th and 10th, began as a way to revive the area after World War Two. More than 500 kinds of decorations, some of them over 50 meters high, adorn the shopping arcade around JR Hiratsuka Station. Parades and street performances will be held as well.

anjo tanabata

Anjo Tanabata Festival, Aichi Prefecture  

Held between August 5th and 7th, this festival boasts one of the longest Tanabata-decorated streets in Japan. Also known for having the largest number of “make-a-wish” papers on bamboo branches in the world in 2013.


Yamaguchi Tanabata Lantern Festival, Yamaguchi Prefecture

Originated in the Muromachi era (1336 to 1573), this summer night festival lights up over 100,000 paper lanterns, creating one of the most romantic nights one can possibly imagine. Runs between August 6th and 7th.

kyo no tanabata

Kyo no Tanabata, Kyoto Prefecture

Held at several sites, the two main ones are at Hirokawa and Kamogawa. Each has beautifully decorated bamboo branches, lit-up streets, and various exhibitions. Hirokawa has a beautifully illuminated Milky Way-inspired tunnel, while at the Kamogawa site visitors can sit along the river and enjoy the splendid sight of wind chimes, created using traditional Kyoto craftsmanship. You will get a small gift at Hirokawa if you visit wearing a kimono or yukata. The festival is held from August 6th to August 12th.

Shizuka is a sophomore at Meiji University majoring in English literature. She took a gap year in 2014 and headed to Toronto where she studied English, enjoyed the city life and worked part-time at a French bakery. Her interests are reading, photography, cycling and traveling. Once a long holiday starts, she's quick to fly away away from Japan and enjoy traveling the world.

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