Kappabashi Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri: Old Tokyo’s “Star Festival”

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An ancient cosmic celebration on the streets of Tokyo 🎉 ✨✨✨

We’re not even halfway through July, yet the temperatures in Tokyo have already hit 35. It’s not so much the heat that is the killer but the humidity – making it feel like you are walking through a thick wall of invisible, warm jelly. Not really realising how warm it actually was, Naoko and I headed out east to see one of the many Tanabata festivals happening in the city last weekend.

East Tokyo has a much more shitamachi feel than the west where I live – shitamachi meaning Old Tokyo, remnants of what downtown used to be like many years ago. I don’t think I’d like to live out east, but I do like to visit now and again. I guess over the years I’ve become a bit of a Setagaya snob, too accustomed to the thrift stores, coffee shops and boutique feel of Shimokitazawa, Kichijoji et al. Saying that, these areas are becoming increasingly gentrified, and so it may well be east Tokyo that is the next big thing.

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Asakusa, east Tokyo

No matter how many times I drop by the Asakusa area, Sky Tree always takes me by surprise, hiding behind buildings only to reappear as you wander through the backstreets. Last weekend’s festival was held along the long stretch of Kappabashi-dori – a street off the main road, not too far from Senso-ji. From Kappabashi, Sky Tree is always in view, looming in front of you or watching from behind, whatever way you happen to be walking.

So what is Tanabata – also known as the “Star Festival” – all about? Well, folklore tells the story of Orihime, a gifted weaver, and Hikoboshi, a hard-working cow herder, who began to neglect their duties upon being wed. The couple incurred the wrath of the bride’s father Tentei, the emperor of heaven, and were exiled to separate ends of the Milky Way. They are granted a meeting just once a year so long as they both diligently fulfill their celestial obligations. And so once a year these exiled lovers are reunited. One popular Tanabata custom is to write one’s wishes on a piece of paper, and hang that piece of paper on a specially erected bamboo tree, in the hope that the wishes become true.

As you would expect, the streets were packed with food vendors, games for kids, and hundreds of men and women strolling around in yukata and jinbei – traditional Japanese clothing. Summer has well and truly arrived in Tokyo.

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