Tanabata can fall on one of two sets of dates: Either July 7th or August 7th. One or the other depends on if you follow the solar calendar or the lunar festival. In the northern part of the main island of Japan, an area called Tohoku, there are three famous summer festivals that fall around the August dates for Tanabata. One of the famous festivals is the Sendai Tanabata Festival.
Sendai Tanabata (仙台七夕)
Sendai’s festival dates all the way back to the legendary warrior and first leader of Sendai, Odate Masamune. The star festival celebrates the meeting of Orihime, the Weaver Princess Star, and Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder Star. During the time of Masamune, the festival was used to highlight the important role of women in society. The festival took a break during World War I, but some intrepid merchants began hanging streamers across town to raise spirits. It is from this hanging of streamers that the modern Sendai Tanabata Festival began to take shape.
Tanabata Ornaments (Nanatsu-Kazari 七つ 飾り)
There are seven main ornaments meant to represent the wishes of those who make them. First, there are the Tanzaku, or paper strips. You can find these all over Japan and are the most common decoration for any Tanabata Festival. It is used to wish for better skills in calligraphy and knowledge or studies and often have poems written upon them.
Next is the Kamigoromo, or paper kimono charm. Hang one of these up if you want better sewing skills and better artistic skills in general. In the past, these charms were specifically taken at the end of the festival and floated down the river in order to wish for the well-being of children. This part of the tradition, sadly, has been lost to the sands of time.
Orizuru are paper cranes and they are for healthy and long lives. You may remember the story of Sadako and the 1000 Paper Cranes, which shows the meaning of these cranes quite clearly. In Sendai, they have a massive display of paper cranes outside of the Fujisaki Department Store at the intersection of Marble Road Omachi and Vlandoe Ichibancho.
Kinchaku, or purses, are for businesses, money, frugality, and all money-related wisdom and fortune.
The catching net, or Toami, are literally for catching many fish, but it has been expanded to mean catching good fortune more broadly. And lastly, there is the waste basket, or Kuzukago, is for cleanliness (and frugality, it seems!). Any waste made from making the other decorations is placed into this ornament.
Tips for Visiting Sendai
The festival is bumping, but the sheer amount of English-language support the city offers is truly amazing. They have PDF resources on their English website that will help with navigation, understanding the meaning and culture, and finding all manner of performance and festivity you may want to encounter.
While out there, we were approached by a friendly older gentleman who gave us his business card. You can contact the Sendai Volunteer English Tour Guide group Gozain to help you navigate Sendai, the festival, and the surrounding sites. While we were too late to utilize their services, the gentleman we spoke to, Mr. Sato, had great English and was incredibly friendly, so I can only imagine their tours are really something great!