Tanabata, or the Star Festival, is held on the evening of July 7. The festival traces its origins to a legend that the Cowherd Star (Altair) and Weaver Star (Vega), lovers separated by the Milky Way, are allowed to meet just once a year - on the seventh day of the seventh month.
Children and adults write their wishes on narrow strips of colored paper and hang them, along with other paper ornaments, on bamboo branches placed in the backyards or entrances of their homes. They then pray hard that their wishes will come true.
The Tanabata festival came to Japan during the feudal period and combined with traditional local customs to become an official event at the Imperial court. Commoners soon began observing this festival, with different localities developed their own distinctive ways of celebrating.
In Tokyo, most people now decorate bamboo branches with just the narrow strips of paper that carry their wishes. At some elementary schools, pupils attach their wishes to a huge bamboo branch, and others put on skits about the legend of the Cowherd and Weaver Stars.
Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture) and Hiratsuka (Kanagawa Prefecture) are particularly famous for their elaborate Tanabata displays. Shopping arcades in these two cities feature huge decorations that are sponsored by local shops, which try to outdo one another in the size of their displays.
Some areas of Japan celebrate Tanabata a month later, on August 7, since this is closer to the seventh day of the seventh month on the traditional lunar calendar. Such communities frequently perform the services for Bon, a period in mid-August when deceased relatives are thought to return, together with the ceremonies for Tanabata.
As Tanabata approaches, decorated bamboo branches can be seen all around the neighborhood, signaling that summer has finally arrived and that summer vacation is just around the corner.