July 20, 2024

Summertime is festival time in Tokyo. And while many associate the season with Bon Odori, that’s not the only celebration happening around this time of year. Kicking off the festive summer season is Tanabata, a traditional Japanese festival with origins in Chinese folklore.

According to legend, deity couple Orihime and Hikoboshi are separated by the Milky Way, and they are only able to meet once a year: on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Tanabata, or the Star Festival, celebrates the day of their reunion.

As Japan has largely dropped the lunar dating system in favour of the Gregorian calendar, Tanabata is commonly celebrated on July 7, which falls on a Sunday this year. However, some regions in the country still honour the lunar date, so you’ll find some Tanabata festivities being held in August.

The Star Festival is associated with grand, colourful streamers decorating streets, shopping malls and temples. Another popular custom is to write your wishes on strips of paper and hang them on bamboo trees. 

Tanabata is one of the most joyous and colourful traditional celebrations in Tokyo – and it offers great photo opportunities. So if you’re in the city this July 5-7 weekend, put any of these three Star Festivals on your to-do list.

増上寺 七夕まつり
Photo: Zojoji TempleZojoji Tanabata Festival

July 6-7

Zojoji’s version of the celebration features a beautiful candle light-up on Saturday and Sunday from 6pm to 9pm. Hundreds of washi paper lanterns are arranged in the shape of the Milky Way along the staircase that leads up to the temple’s main hall.

Make sure to write down your wish for Tanabata on a colourful strip of paper, which you can get for ¥200 each. The temple priests will conduct a special ceremony at 5.30pm on July 7, where they’ll bless your wishes. 

For this special occasion, Zojoji Temple is selling a beautiful Tanabata-themed omamori lucky charm (¥3,000). If you’d like to get your hands on one, we recommend buying yours in advance via the temple’s online shop, since quantity is limited. When you’re making the purchase, don’t forget to write your name in the column for additional notes, as the priests will read out your name at a special prayer on the night of July 7. The omamori will be shipped after the event (from July 8).

Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri
Photo: Genki/Pixta

July 4-8

This Tanabata festival takes place at Kappabashi kitchen street in Asakusa, about 10 minutes’ walk from Sensoji Temple. For the occasion, the area is festooned with vibrantly coloured streamers and decorations. Though the festivities run from July 4 to 8, the best time to visit the Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri is over the July 6-7 weekend, when local businesses put out stalls and hold parades and street performances.

The street parade on July 6 will begin at 1.15pm near the Ueno Gakuen Junior and Senior High School, and slowly make its way through Kappabashi Main Street towards Asakusa. Expect to see police and primary school marching bands plus a special appearance by the Metropolitan Police’s all-female motorcycle brigade.

On Sunday July 7, the actual day of Tanabata, Kappabashi will be hosting street performances of all sorts throughout the day, ranging from Hula to Awa-Odori dances.

Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival
Photo: Enao-kagari/Pixta

July 5-7

Located on the fringe of Tokyo, the shopping arcades of Hiratsuka city will be decked out with colourful streamers hung from giant ornamental balls called kusudama. The Shonan Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival is regarded as one of the top three Star Festival celebrations in the Kanto region, drawing almost 2 million visitors over the three days.

Aside from the impressive street decorations, you can expect parades, live performances, vendors selling local products, and plenty of technicolour-fuelled buzz over the July 5-7 weekend.

Looking for more things to do in Tokyo this July 5-7 weekend? Check out our list of events here.

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