The Sendai Tanabata Festival in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868)
In Sendai, which follows the Edo-style Tanabata Festival, the festival was called “Tanabata-san”. Lord Date Masamune of the Sendai Clan wrote 8 poems related to Tanabata. These poems give a glimpse of the Tanabata Festival from that time.
The Tanabata festival was originally held on the evening of seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Sendai was no exception. The Tanabata decorations were put to flow on the river in the morning of the eighth day. This event is also described as following in “Yakutaigusa (Rakuzan KoOh Iko Vol.4. 1873)”, the essay of the 13th lord of the Sendai Domain Date Yoshikuni.
Tanabata is held the seventh day of the seventh month. I wrote poems on five colored papers on the evening of the sixth day. People are holding fans and girls have made decorations that are being attached to bamboo poles which are raised toward the stars. In the morning of the eighth day, decorations are flown through the river. It never changes.
However, over the continuation of this text, we learn that the event was moved ahead one day in the era of Date Shigemura, the 7th lord of the Sendai Domain. The decoration was done on the evening of the sixth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and that the decorations were flown over the river on the morning of the seventh day.
“In Sendai the festival was held on the evening of the sixth day. On the seventh day, the wind blew through the bamboo decorations at many places, such as on the bridge. So, it is remarkable that the 2 Stars of Tanabata (the Male Star and the Female Star) have been enshrined like this since the ancient timess. On the 7th, many women make offerings to the gods, and pray for the deceased.”
In the “Sankeiki” of year 3 of Bunsei (1820) we can find the following description.
“I went to the Tanabata Festival on the morning of the seventh day of the seventh month. I stayed up late on the night on the sixth day and I woke up early the next morning to go to the Tanabata Festival. I slept well and woke up early this morning as I mentioned”
Thus, on the evening of the sixth day bamboo poles are decorated to celebrate the male and female star. People wish for progress in academics or arts. Sometimes incense sticks are also lit; such is the tradition in the Kanto, the Hokuriku and the Tohoku region. Farmers pray for a good harvest by making decorations in the shape of the Tanabata horse. People also pray for their family and ancestors.
In the Sendai Tanabata Festival, bamboo poles with 7 leaves are special. Their leaves are clipped and used as drying rods. In the morning the seventh day (or the eighth day depending on the era) , they were washed in the stream of Hirosegawa river together with the decoration attached. This day is also called the Seventh Day Bathing (Nanokayoku). It was originally a purification ritual named “Misogi” in preparation for the Bon festival.
Thus, the Tanabata Festival has changed a lot and declined after the Meiji Restauration (1867 – 1912). The festival has especially become a lot more somber since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in year 6 of the Meiji Period (1973). The coming of the first World War has caused it to decline even further.
Ito Seijiro wrote in his “Sendai Mukashi Goden Tanuki Okina Yawa” that the Sendai Tanabata Matsuri at the end of the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926) leaves much to the imagination when compared to how the festival was in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868).
Local merchant volunteers (from the Omachi Gochome Association lead by president Susaki Shigero, together with Sakurai Takayosh and, Mihara Shota among others) revived the Festival in an attempt to forget the recession in 1952 by making gorgeous Tanabata decorations. Children cheered when seeing the decorations for the first time. Crowds rushed to the city to see all the gorgeous decorations.
The next year the date of the event was adapted to the new calendar, resulting in the festival being held from August 6 until August 8. Also, in that year a Decoration Competition was held at the Tohoku Industry Exposition in cooperation with the Sendai Chamber of Commerce and Industry and with the Sendai Supporter Association in order to boost the economy.
11 city councils participated in the decorative event (Among others: Higashi Ichibancho, Nakakecho, Shintenmachi, Omachidori, Kokubuncho and Tachimachidori). This was the revival of the Tanabata Festival to August 6 which lasts for two nights and three days. The festive mood in the city was strengthened by the various types of decorations, gimmicks and illuminations. It was so crowded that there was a necessity to restrict traffic. This year is regarded as the year that the Sendai Tanabata Festival truly revived.
However, the festival disappeared from the city again with the outbreak of the second war. It was especially somber during 1943 and 1944 when the war was most intense. There was only little decoration to be seen in the shopping districts.
After the war, in 1946, 52 decorated bamboo poles were risen in the burnt down Ichibandori. The newspaper (August 7, 1946 – Kahoku Shimpo) reported “The first Tanabata Festival in 10 years feels so nostalgic it brings us to tears”.
In 1947, Emperor Showa was welcomed with a 7 color arch made with 5000 decorated bamboo poles. The enthusiasm for the Tanabata Festival in the shopping districts has been extraordinary ever since.
In later years the Tanabata Festival changed from a promotional event for local businesses into a touristic event. Besides the decorations, other attractions at the festival are gathering more popularity, such as sporting events, workshops and gourmet food corner held in the Omatsuri Hiroba. Entertaining visitors from all over the country every year, it has become the largest Tanabata Festival in Japan.
The Kusudama paper decorations have since then been decorated with paper flowers with the aim of comforting the spirits of the deceased. Around the end of the post-war reconstruction, in 1954, Morishiga Goro, a resident of Sendai, started to decorate the Kusudama decorations with beautiful dahlias, such as those that bloom in the gardens. He made Kusudama decorations resembling bamboo baskets in Kyoto-style origami for them. His way of decorating spread throughout the city and has become the custom.
The Sendai Tanabata Festival honors Ta-no-Kami, the god of harvest. It is quite different from Aomori’s Nebuta Festival or Akita’s Kanto Festival. Since times past, the Sendai Tanabata Festival has been held to overcome tragic periods of history (e.g. the 250,000 victims of the Great Tenmei Famine in 1987). The wish for protection and good harvest is one of the big reasons the Tanabata Festival is actively being promoted.
The Festival stalls and the Festival songs are both used to honor the God of Harvest, as well for entertainment purposes. “Tanabata-san itsu gozasu, rainen no natsu mata gozaru(How much longer do we have to wait, Tanabata-san? Until next summer) *”. Every summer during the Tanabata Festival, the City of Sendai becomes as beautiful as if it were a dream.
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