If you are thinking about visiting Sendai in the summer, the best time to visit is around 7 August. Known for its famous Tanabata Festival (arguably the most well-known and definitely the largest one held in Japan), or the Star Festival, Sendai is decorated to the nines!
What is the star festival?
The Tanabata Festival originally came from China in 755 (from the Wixi Festival). In the legend, a woman named Orihime sits at the side of the Milky Way (known as Amanogawa, or “Heavenly River” in Japanese). She is an amazing weaver and her clothes are breathtakingly beautiful. Her father, Tentei, loves these clothes and prizes her for her skill. However Orihime is lonely, so she tells Tentei she wants to find love. He introduces her to Hikoboshi, a cowherd. It is love at first sight and Orihime and Hikoboshi marry soon thereafter. She moves in with him and they are so happy.
However, they both begin to neglect their duties. Orihime does not weave and Hikoboshi does not tend his herd of cows because they are too infatuated with each other. Tentei, outraged, takes his daughter back and forces her to continue her weaving. He also forbids her from seeing Hikobashi ever again. She is distraught and cries to Tentei, begging him to let her see Hikobashi. Tentei relents and allows her to meet him once a year. This celebration is the Tanabata Festival.
But what is the Tanabata Festival?
The Tanabata Festival corresponds with two real stars that only meet once a year in the night sky: Vega and Altair. It is said that if it is cloudy or raining, the stars cannot meet and they have to wait another year for their reunion. The Japanese (and Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese with their respective versions) celebrate this almost like Westerners consider New Year’s: wishing for things for the upcoming year (until the next festival) and creating decorations that represent this. More about this later.
While the event of the stars meeting changes every year, the name “Tanabata” means the night of the 7th day of the 7th month, so in most places, it is celebrated on 7 July. In fact, it is celebrated from 6 to 8 July. Many places have also added a fireworks display on 5 July that officially marks the start of the festival. However, Sendai and the Tohoku region of Japan are a bit different…
Tanabata Festival in Sendai
The Tanabata Festival in Sendai is unique for two reasons: 1) it is the largest one in Japan and 2) Sendai (and most of the Tohoku region of Japan) celebrate it “one month late”. Rather than 7 July being the festival, they hold theirs on 7 August. While several reasons have been given over the years, the main reason is that the standard date, 7 July, is often a rainy period in Tohoku. Instead of the festival being cancelled for successive years due to rain, it is held in August.
If you are in Sendai during this period, the best place to see the Tanabata Festival is just to the west of the main station. The well-known covered arcades in this area feature long fukinagashi, or streamers that are meant to protect from harm. On these, the residents, businesses and organisations of Sendai put up 6 different kinds of decorations:
- tanzaku – coloured paper slips that represent academic success
- kamigoromo – paper kimonos that represent healing and sewing skills
- orizuru – paper cranes that represent safety and longevity
- sanchyaku – paper wallets that represent wealth
- toomi – paper fishnets representing a bountiful harvest
- kuzukago – a waste bin of paper representing cleanliness
While there are literally tens of thousands of these fukinagashi around the city, the best place to see them is along the covered arcades, located on Clis Road, Vlandome and Sun Mall Ichibancho, which are also major shopping centres.
Tanabata Festival Events
In addition to the decorations, there are also some events that take place. The first one is the fireworks display on 5 August that officially starts the Tanabata Festival. There are also other various events that happen around the city. While some places host music, these are not part of the official events. However, if you go to the castle once the sun has set, you can see some historical re-enactments that are.
What else is there to do in Sendai?
I mentioned a castle, Sendai Castle; it is one of a couple of castle ruins within the city limits of Sendai. There are also several temples, mausoleums, and other sightseeing locations. One such example is Sendai’s Sendai Daikannon, the world’s fifth largest statue and a prominent feature of Sendai’s skyline.
If you are looking to escape the city, nearby Matsushima is a quick 30-minute train ride. It is most well-known for Matsushima Bay – one of Japan’s most beautiful sights. Sendai is also the largest city in Tohoku and serves as its gateway. As a result, it sits on the bullet train to other Tohoku cities like Morioka, Aomori and even to Hokkaido. All bullet trains from those places to Tokyo also go through Sendai.
Especially in August, one of the main times to see festivals in Japan, Tohoku is a great place to be. Examples include Morioka’s Sansa Odori (the world’s biggest taiko drumming festival) and Aomori’s Nebuta Festival (famous illuminated parade).
If you are looking for food in Sendai, many of their regional dishes include beef. If you are like me and do not eat beef, there is still Zunda, a sweet edamame paste. I have to admit that I had Zunda every day while I was in Sendai – it is deliciously addictive. At Sendai train station, there is Zunda Shake (3 actually, the store is doing very well) where you can get various Zunda products including their signature Zunda Shake. Very popular with locals and travellers alike!
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