Tanabata Matsuri

By Ben Mirin, CIR

July 7th, 2011

Parents race to catch up with their kids as they cross Route 5 at rush hour.

The drive home from the Yakuba usually takes about two minutes, but this evening was different.  At nearly every intersection, Nanae’s rush hour traffic came to a halt as crowds of children in brightly-colored yukata flooded the crosswalks.  They rushed to keep time with the changing of the lights, swinging bulky cloth knapsacks and scattering their contents of sweets and little trinkets that clattered like a festive hail on the pavement.

It was a rare spectacle to see Japanese people trying to cheat the flickering crosswalk signs, but I had to pull over into a 7-11 parking lot to learn what could entice them exhibit such outlandish behavior.  I got out just as a group of girls emerged from the store peering intently into their bags and nearly tripping over one another to compare their latest payload.  They mingled and danced impatiently on the corner until the lights changed, then merged with an oncoming group of mothers and toddlers and raced over to the yakiniku shop across the street. I followed them up to the door, but there was no way to see inside beyond the crowd that had amassed outside, so I waited.

Through the doorway sounds of chanting could be heard, punctuated frequently by the affirming laughter of several deeper, gruff voices inside.  Within moments, the children emerged in a rush to meet up with their parents, who had caught up and were waiting just outside.  As they moved off and crossed the street again I pushed through the tousled curtains hanging above the doorway and entered the shop.

Inside, a man in his late sixties sat at the ready next to a stack of boxes just inside the door.  He looked up expectantly with a warm but tired gaze and showed hardly any surprise at the 23-year-old foreigner standing in his doorway.  In broken Japanese, I asked if I might sit with him and wait for the next group to arrive.

“Please do” he said, “but do you know what this is?” referring to the processions I had just witnessed outside.

I admitted I had no idea.

“Today is Tanabata Matsuri!” he cried.

Aptly assuming that my Japanese vocabulary could not encompass a more detailed discussion about the history and meaning of Tanabata, he handed me a snack, a small strip of what appeared to be dried salmon coated in sticky soy sauce.  I made a mental note to consult Wikipedia as I took a seat and waited for the next group to arrive.

Moments later the restaurant was crowded again.  Some of these visitors were older–maybe 14–and wore merely t-shirts and jeans, but everyone crowded ravenously around their host and launched into song as the trailing members of their group were still squeezing through the doorway:

Handing out treats during the Tanabata song.
Sasa no ha sara-sara
Nokiba ni yureru
Ohoshi-sama kira-kira
Kingin sunago
The bamboo leaves rustle,
shaking away in the eaves.
The stars twinkle;
Gold and silver grains of sand.
*Wikipedia: “Tanabata


The process was over in less than a minute.  The children ran outside, and the old man pivoted on his stool to open a fresh box of treats.  He had barely made a dent in the stockpile amassed behind him.

“How many children do you expect will visit for Tanabata?” I asked.

“Tonight?” he said, “Oh, about 400.”♦

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2 Replies to “Tanabata Matsuri”

  1. Hi, Ben. I enjoyed this article. I think it was a so strange event for a foreigner like you. Even for me, you know, I wasn’t born around here. We didn’t have this kind of customs in my mother town. I had same feeling with you in the first July after I moved here. Does it remind you ” trick or treat” ? And I think the song they sang was ” Take ni tanzaku Tanabata matsuri O-ini iwaou, rosoku ippon choudaina. It means ” Oblong cards on banboo tree. It’s Tanabata-matsuri. Let’s selebrate ! Give me a candle.”

    1. Hi, Kenny. I’m glad you liked the piece. Tanabata in Nanae really did remind me of trick-or-treating in the US! On Halloween, though, trick-or-treaters usually don’t pour into the streets until the later evening, after rush hour. It was a little nerve-racking watching kids race around with so many cars about.

      Thanks for your comment!

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