Every August (6~8) for some 400 years, the streets of Sendai turn into an elegant forest of brightly coloured washi-paper and bamboo. This is the largest and most famous Tanabata celebration in the whole of Japan!
The Tanabata festival celebrates the reunion of two stars (or star-crossed lovers) – Orihime, the seamstress and Hikoboshi, the herder – who were exiled to opposite ends of the milky way because their fiery love was getting in the way of their duties. The Tanabata festival is celebrated on the one night of the year when the two stars are granted a fleeting chance to meet; journeying across the milky way into each other’s arms, before being separated once again. It is all very romantic!
Tanabata is widely celebrated across Japan on July 7 in line with the ancient Chinese lunar calendar. However, since the rule of samurai Lord Date Masamune the Sendai festival has traditionally been held in early August and signals the beginning of preparation for the Obon season. In fact, the origin of many of Tohoku’s summer festivals held in August, including Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri, is said to be the Tanabata festival – the huge parade of illuminated floats developed from a tradition of releasing lanterns into rivers/the sea on the evening of Tanabata.
But don’t ask us – if there is anyone who can tell you the stories and history of the festival, it is the many faces working behind the scenes, bringing the magic of Tanabata to life.
Faces behind the scenes
Meet Koichiro Narumi, 6th generation general manager of Narumiya Kamishoji Company; aka the company responsible for creating the grand majority of some 3000 Fukinagashi decorations that fly over the streets of downtown Sendai every year. We caught up with him as he installed the Tanabata decorations for Sendai TV station.
Right now (late July) is the busiest time of year for Narumi-san, as he and his team run from business to business every day, installing huge 3~5 metre long decorations that they have spent the past six months or so creating in the company warehouse. Each set of decorations is made from bamboo frames covered with brightly coloured washi-paper, designed to reflect the character and spirit of the sponsoring business. As Sendai TV will hold the first ever ‘Revive Marathon’ in October, the chosen design for this year’s Tanabata decorations was the TV station mascot ‘Juni’ running to the finish line!
It only took two men less than one hour to install all five giant fukinagashi. It might seem a simple enough process, but let’s take a step back to appreciate the time, tradition and talent that goes into the creation process itself…
Narumiya Kamishoji will celebrate 134 years of business this year! Pictured below is CEO Munekazu Sugaya and the uber-genki decoration master, Ranko Yamamura.
After over a century of experience, the company has the preparation, assembly, delivery and disassembly of the decorations down to a fine art. Aside from the busy duties of running a washi-paper business (making everything from business cards to toilet paper) and catering to both local and international events, most of the year’s work (from March through to September) is centred around preparations for the Tanabata Festival. On the day of the festival itself, team Narumiya work from as early as 2 am in the morning to around 5 am, setting up the huge decorations along the main streets and arcades of downtown Sendai. According to CEO Sugaya, ‘the best time to enjoy the Tanabata decorations is between 5am ~ 6am on the first day’ before the crowds set in. I’m not sure I have the self-determination to test this theory, but perhaps you will?
Stepping inside the office is like stepping into a hive of activity, with Queen Bee Ranko-san artfully delegating the operations, surrounded by shelves and shelves of exquisite rice paper.
Narumi-san and Ranko-san have been running the daily operations of the business as a team for over 30 years, following the passing of his father when Narumi-san was only in his early teens. Ranko-san herself is actually an acquaintance of the Narumi family, who stepped up to the task of company operations when approached by the former owner, looking for someone with ‘horse-power’ and gumption to help drive the business – and she certainly has that!
Despite being born in Kumamoto, Ranko-san is now one of the most knowledgeable experts in the art of Tanabata decoration creation. Particularly in regard to the creation of the bamboo frames of each decoration, there are few artisans left who hold the knowledge and skill to make them. As such, Narumiya Kamishoji prides itself on protecting these traditions, and instilling knowledge into the minds of younger generations by offering decoration workshops and hands-on experiences.
Narumi-san and Ranko-san have also taken the Tanabata festival tradition across the world, traveling as far as Los Angeles to run workshops with organisers of local Tanabata events, participating in the world exhibition in Milan, as well as performing with other festival groups from Tohoku in Taiwan.
More than just decorations
Traditionally, there are seven important elements to each of set of Tanabata decorations, each beckoning good fortune and health. There a long strips of colourful paper called tanzaku on which people will write their hopes and wishes, orizuru paper cranes for long life, toami symbolising a fishing net for a bountiful catch, kinchaku purses for wealth and prosperity, kuzukago to symbolise cleanliness, kamigoromo for better sewing skills (a reference to Orihime, the seamstress of the Tanabata legend) and, of course, the fukinagashi streamers which represent the fabric made by Orihime and are perhaps the most recognisable decoration of Sendai’s Tanabata.
Tanabata decorations are traditionally made only from bamboo and washi rice-paper. The decorations made by Narumiya are made with a special kind of washi-paper mixed with stronger elements such as silk to protect the decorations in the event of rain.
During the months and weeks leading up to the festival itself, teams of local women come together to put all the elements of the decorations together according to the requested design.
Can you guess which business these decorations belong to??
After showcasing the festival all over Japan and around the world, Narumi-san told us that the most attractive point for the majority of people is not the decorations themselves, but having fun making them! Traditionally the decorations were all hand-made by families and businesses, trying to out-do one another every year. Both designing and constructing the decorations requires people and communities to come together and use their hands. It is within this shared experience and feeling of satisfaction after the decorations are hung that you can really find the spirit of the Sendai Tanabata festival.
SENDAI TANABATA FESTIVAL
When: August 6 ~ 8 annually (with a fireworks display held on the eve of the festival, August 5th, along the banks of the Hirosegawa River
Where: Most of the action takes place in the central city of Sendai. The decorations can be seen all over the city, with the grandest display along the shopping arcades stretching from Sendai Station towards Jozenji-dori Avenue. Live music, dance and stage performances are also held at various locations across the city, such as Kotodai-koen.
Festival Homepage: http://www.sendaitanabata.com/en
Narumiya Kamishoji Homepage: http://www.tanabatank.co.jp/index.html