If you’ve been walking around Matsumoto this month, you’ve probably noticed some paper “dolls” hanging in many of the shop windows around town. That means it’s time for Tanabata, or the Star Festival, in Matsumoto!
In case you don’t know the story behind Tanabata, here is a little refresher. According to legend, there are two deities, the Prince Hikoboshi and Princess Orihime, who are separated by the Milky Way and can only meet once a year on Tanabata. Tanabata celebrates the meeting of these starry lovers as well as the health and happiness of children.
Tanabata was originally celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month on the Japanese lunar calendar, which corresponds to sometime in August on the modern calendar. Though many places now hold Tanabata events on July 7th, depending on the region (including Matsumoto), festivities are held in August according to the old calendar.
Tanabata often involves writing one’s wishes on paper slips which are then hung on cut branches of bamboo displayed outside. On top of this, Matsumoto has its own unique tradition—the Tanabata dolls.
Tanabata dolls, representing the prince and princess, come in few different forms. Some are made of colorful, patterned paper, while others use a kind of wooden hanger with a face upon which a mini-kimono is hung to dress it up. Another form is a wood block with a face that has wooden legs and is also dressed up in kimono.
Grandparents would often give the dolls as a gift when a new child was born. Another tradition that goes along with Tanabata in Matsumoto is eating houtou noodles (flat, wheat-based noodles similar to udon) with sweet red bean paste and kinako (roasted soybean powder).
A great place to see all these styles of Tanabata dolls is to go to the yearly Matsumoto Tanabata exhibit held at the Scale Museum in Nakamachi. They even offer some houtou noodles on Aug. 7th for you to try out! The exhibition will be held from July 1st to August 8th.
You can also buy the dolls at the various dolls shops along Takasago Street. They will have some other types of Tanabata decorations, like the confetti-like streamers, on sale as well.