Disaster-stricken city decides to continue to hold annual summer festival this August

Ofunato Sakari Tanabata Festival

A street scene of the Tanabata Festival at Sakari, Ofunato City, shows paper streamers and a box-shaped lantern float known as Andon Tanabata. (Courtesy of Tohkai Shimpo in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture)

This article is appeared at Cultural News 2011 June issue.

By Shige Higashi, Editor of Cultural News

As a result of the March 11 tsunami, Ofunato, a city with a population of about 41,000 in Iwate Prefecture, lost 3,700 homes. As of June 4, more than 3,000 people are still living in shelters. Amid struggling efforts to recover from the disaster, the store-owners’ association along Chuo Street in Sakari, the commercial center of Ofunato city, decided to continue to hold their summer event, the Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival), on the weekend of August 6 and 7 this year.

Tanabata festivals in the eastern part of Japan are known for their paper streamer decorations. But the highlight of the Sakari Tanabata Festival is the Andon (lantern) Tanabata float parade, which is not seen elsewhere in Japan.

The Sakari Chuo Street Store-Owners’ Association, consisting of 80 stores along the half-mile long street, has been the sponsor for Ofunato’s traditional Andon Tanabata float parade, which dates back to the mid-19th century. The Andon Tanabata float is a large box-shaped float with paper walls. Using light reflected from candles inside the box float, pictures of samurai and animation figures are illuminated on the wall.

Until last year, ten floats were presented by ten local communities in the Sakari area every summer. But two floats from Tamoyama, Oyamashita, and the Public Housing areas were damaged by the March 11 tsunami. Many people from these areas are still living in shelters, and cannot afford to rebuild their floats by August.

The Nagoya-based NPO Aichi Net, which has sent volunteers to Ofunato since March, introduced the Anjo Tanabata Festival Committee to the Sakari Chuo Street Store-Owners’ Association. The Anjo Tanabata Festival, held in Anjo, Aichi Prefecture, is known as one of the top three Tanabata festivals in Japan, along with those of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture and Hiratsuka in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Despite the fact that the Anjo Tanabata Festival will be held on the same date in August, the people of Anjo, located near Nagoya City, offered to donate 40 head parts of Tanabata streamers and to send volunteers to help in preparation of Sakari’s Tanabata Festival so that it could be held in August as usual. The Sakari Chuo Street Store-Owners’ Association then decided to hold the Tanabata Festival in August and accepted the streamer heads and the help of volunteers from Anjo.

Mr. Kosei Mizuno, head of the Sakari Tanabata Festival Committee, said that the younger generation was willing to continue holding the festival this August, and that the Sakari Tanabata Matsuri would encourage people in the disaster areas to work to rebuild their communities. Mr. Mizuno also said they agreed to subsidize the Tamoyama, Oyamashita, and the Public Housing area efforts to repair their floats before August 6.

Mr. Mizuno runs a gas station in Sakari in Ofunato, and he is vice president of the Ofunato Chamber of Commerce.

Under the current plan, the Andon Tanabata float parade will start around 4 pm on Saturday, August 6, and around noon on Sunday, August 7. On Sunday from 10 am to noon, kindergarten children will be invited to participate in the fun time of pulling floats.

The Dochu Odori dance parade is another attraction of the Sakari Tanabata Festival. In past years, 600 to 700 people formed various dance troupes.  It was a festival custom that only uniformed yukata-kimono troupes were invited to participate in this parade. But many people in Ofunato lost their yukata-kimonos in the March disaster. So this year, the dance parade will be open to anyone who wishes to dance, even without wearing yukata-kimono.

Ofunato Sakari Tanabata Balloons from Anjo

“Wishing Balloons” will be added to the Sakari Tanabata Festival as part of support activities to rebuild tsunami-stricken communities. (Courtesy of Anjo Tanabata Festival in Aichi Prefecture)

In addition to donating Tanabata streamer heads and sending volunteers, the Anjo Tanabata Committee will donate “Wishing Balloons” to Sakari. They will fly balloons with messages conveying wishes during the Tanabata Festival.

Mr. Shoji Kojima, head of “Team Love Tanabata” on the Anjo Tanabata Committee, said they were excited to help this Tanabata festival in tsunami-stricken Ofunato. He expected over 50 volunteers would go to the Sakari festival in August. Mr. Kojima runs an event planning agency in Anjo.

Huntington Beach in Southern California is a sister city of Anjo in Aichi Prefecture.

The main source of this article is Tohkai Shimpo newspaper in Ofunato, Iwate prefecture.