After one year staying in Japan I have been given lots of chances to experience the “real” Japan; not the place that I used to imagine from watching Youtube videos or reading travel blogs, but a country that has all kinds of unique festivals. In Japan, local festivals are organised throughout the year (usually relating to the change of season) and can be found in pretty much any part of the country. And at this time of year (summer), a special festival is held across the entire country – the Tanabata festival or “Star festival”. The Tanabata celebrations I am lucky enough to have the chance to experience will take place in Sendai from 6th ~ 8th of August and is considered as the largest and most famous Tanabata celebration in Japan.
But I don’t mean simply attending the festival! Thanks to an special course I took about understanding Japan’s traditional culture, I had the rare chance to design and learn how to create authentic decorations for Sendai Tanabata. In this class I learned that this festival is to celebrate the meeting of two stars Altair (Hikoboshi) and Vega (Orihime), star-crossed lovers separated by the Milky Way; a story based on a famous legend of the same name – Tanabata. Although there is also a similar festival held in Vietnam to celebrate this once-in-a-year meeting, the way Sendai’s local residents celebrate this occasion is totally different. While Vietnamese only offer food and fruit to the Gods on that day, in Sendai, thousands of colorful streamers and other ornaments made from washi, a type of Japanese paper, are displayed along the streets in the downtown area.
In the spirit of “Seven”, seven types of auspicious ornaments made from washi are hung from bamboo trees. They consist of colored paper in rectangular strips (tanzaku), kimono (kamigoromo), cranes (orizuru), drawstring purse (kinchaku), cast nets (toami), waste baskets (kazukago) and streamers shaped into rings and joined in chains or like the brush of a broom (fukinagashi). This course also gave me a chance to visit the Tanabata Museum of Sendai. At the museum, we were introduced and explained to in more detail about the meanings behind these seven ornaments and were able to see them in reality, not just in the pictures and without having to wait for the actual festival. At the museum, you can also see many of the Tanabata decorations used in previous years’ festivals, which have their own meaning and various styles of design based on each year’s main theme.
During the class, I had the lucky opportunity to touch the special type of washi exclusively used for making decorations for the Sendai Tanabata festival. It is a fairly thin type of paper, but rather tough and hard to tear.
For our design, we chose the concept of “Connect Japan and the world”. We have created a design that describes the unity among international students, the symbol of Tohoku University as well as a prominent feature of Sendai – Samurai Lord Date Masamune – to celebrate his 450th anniversary. We folded thousands of cranes and boxes, made lots of paper flags of 200 countries from all over the world and attached them to golden frames. The thing that left the biggest impression on me during the decorating process was that all of us had to try to make these decorations in the exact same way, as required. Especially the paper boxes must be made from identical paper units, step by step. This method not only makes our decorations look more beautiful and homogeneous but also helped me to further understand about the spirit of Japanese origami art. Japanese origami art requires makers to fold sheets of washi paper with meticulous craftsmanship, sophistication, and with all of their patience. To make a perfect piece of origami requires a lot of practice as well as creativity, which reminds me of typical features of Do (道） spirit in Japanese culture.
Despite the fact that I had already learned a little about origami at my hometown’s elementary school, the course I took in Japan was the first time I made such a great number of paper flowers in my life! Perhaps this was the most challenging stage of our decoration process because each flower required much patience and each of us had to complete more than one hundred of them! Let me show you how to fold one of the paper flowers used to decorate the ball part of a Tanabata Streamer. First, take 5 sheets of washi paper with the shiny side facing up. Then, fold them 5 times each side, making sure that the edge of the paper is facing toward you. Lastly, tie one set of sheets with one length of wire through the center and pull-up each sheet of paper in the stack around the middle to complete a flower shape! And here is the result. Not quite perfect but good enough so far!
International students are making the decorations for the ball of streamers
International students are decorating the strips of paper for streamers
After folding thousands of paper flowers (it felt like millions!), we move on to the assembly of the streamers stage: tying the flowers onto the ball and attaching the flags of countries all over the world on the strips of paper. This step also took us a huge amount of time and effort. However, thanks to our own determination as well as solidarity spirit, we have nearly accomplished all the decorations! During this stage, I fully understood and appreciated the spirit of enthusiasm, patience, and dedication given to even the smallest detail when the locals come together to create lots of these types of decorations. This may be one of the core spirits of the Tanabata festival. This year I am extra looking forward to seeing all of the streamers decorating the streets and enjoying the real atmosphere of the festival!
So please come and visit Sendai to participate in one of the biggest festivals of Tohoku region, Sendai Tanabata festival!
Read about how the professionals have been making Tanabata decorations for centuries: here
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