All About Obon From Traditional Customs to Exciting Festivals All Over Japan

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  • How much do you know about Japan’s Obon customs? Normally during this period, Japanese people are allowed to take long vacations, and there are festivals in several places throughout the country. If you learn about Obon, its background and how it is celebrated, you’ll definitely learn a lot about Japanese culture. If you are in Japan in the summer time, you should have the chance to experience Japanese culture through this holiday!

    What Is Obon?

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    Obon, or sometimes Bon Festival in English, is a Japanese custom that is believed to have been celebrated for over 500 years. With some roots in Confucianism, Obon is a mainly Buddhist tradition that involves honoring ancestors through visiting family graves, guiding ancestors home and then back into the spirit world through the use of bon (lanterns).

    Obon lasts over a period of 3 to 4 days on which different rituals are carried out as you will see below. However, Obon is not an entirely solemn affair, as the spirits are celebrated through several festivals, complete with a special dance called Bon Odori. During this time, although it is not a national holiday, most workers and students are given time off, both to visit the graves of their families with relatives and to take a summer vacation.

    When Is Obon?

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    During the use of the lunar calendar, Obon was originally celebrated around the time of what is now July 15th. However after the Gregorian calendar was implemented in Japan, Obon was celebrated around the time of August 15th in most areas instead. There are still some places in Tokyo or Yokohama and other areas that hold celebrations and and practice Obon’s customs in July on so-called “Kyubon” or “old Bon”.

    Rituals During the Obon Period

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    Obon rituals usually begin on the 13th of July or August, depending on the location. The main rituals include Obon Iri (setting up of lanterns), Mukaebi (a “welcoming fire” to guide ancestors home), Obon Ake or Okuribon (the ceremony or service for the deceased), and Okuribi (a “sending off” fire).

    A typical schdule of Obon rituals:

    DATE MAIN RESPONSIBILITIES DETAILS
    July or August 13th Obon Iri The family of the deceased prepare to welcome their ancestors, decorating the altar in their home and making offerings. The mukaebi fire is lit, placed outside the house. The family is meant to guide the spirits home with the mukaebi. The graves of the deceased are often visited and cleaned during this time, and some families light their mukaebi or lantern at the grave itself.
    July or August 14th-15th Obon Ake or Okuribon (Day1) A memorial service is held for the ancestors or a Buddhist Obon ceremony is held if it is the first Obon for a deceased family member.
    July or August 16th Obon Ake or Okuribon (Day 2) The okuribi fire is lit, guiding the spirts back to their resting place. Lanterns are often placed on a nearby river to represent the spirits’ return to the other world.
    Bon Odori

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    During this time, there may be several festivals during which the Bon Odori will be performed. The reason why the dance is performed is an interesting story and relates to the holiday’s Buddhist origins.

    The original Buddhist story tells the tale of a follower of Buddha having seen how his mother lived in the afterlife. Upon discovering that she was suffering in the “Realm of Hungry Ghosts” he asked Buddha how to release his mother. When he was told to make offerings to monks who returned from a pilgrimage in the middle of July, he did so and his mother was freed from that realm. In his happiness, the man danced, and thus the Bon dance was born.

    Modern versions of the dance are not strongly connected with the old tale and each region has its own dance as well as its own music. During the festival, onlookers can expect to see a performance entirely unique to their location. For example, some versions incorporate fans or other accessories into the dance, and some areas of Japan have special hats or clothing worn for the dance while some do not. Famous versions of the dance include the Awa Odori in Tokushima, Shikoku, the Gujo Odori in Gujo, Gifu, and the Nishimonai Bon Odori in Nishimonai, Akita.

    Obon Festivals in 2016

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    In 2016, the Obon holidays will fall on Saturday, August 13th and last until Tuesday, August 16th. In spite of the rather somber-sounding customs, Obon festivals inspire the feeling of the perfect summer festival. Parades, performances, food stalls, music, and fireworks are what most can expect during these events. If you are traveling to Japan this summer in time for Obon, these are some of the festivals that might be most accessible for tourists, depending on your location!

    Tokyo

    • Roppongi Hills Bon Odori: Held at Roppongi Hills Arena, this large Obon festival promises original dishes from the numerous restaurants in Roppongi Hills served in food stalls. Last year’s dance was done with Roppongi Hills’ original song “Ropponin Ondo.”
    • Roppongi Hills Access

    • Miyashita Park Summer Festival: This park in Shibuya hosts an epic summer festival that includes a special Bon Odori as well as live bands and other activities depending on the year.
    • Otemachi, Marunouchi, Yurakucho Summer Festival: Combining 3 major areas in Tokyo, this massive festival was held in Gyoko Doori, Marunouchi Nakadoori and other locations after Kyubon in 2015 and offered a large array of dishes from nearby restaurants and, of course, an impressive Bon dance!

    Osaka

    • Joko-ji no Jizobonodori: A festival in Yao with a famous traditional song dating back more than 600 years used for the dance! It takes place, as with many festivals, after the initial Obon holidays near Joko-ji Temple.

    Kyoto

    • Kyoto is famous for its Daimonji festival on August 16th, where a large okuribi is lit on the mountainside.

      For those who would like to see many okuribi, you can see these famous flames from Kyoto Tower or Kyoto Station Building, but take note that they may be quite small in the distance from these locations.

      If you prefer to see one or two of these large fires up close, you can go to Kyoto Gyoen or the area around Ginkakuji! There are many other places to view the Daimonji okuribi, so be sure to check where you would like to see them from.

    Nagoya

    • Nagoya Port Festival: An impressive display of the symbol of Japanese summer – fireworks! This festival normally takes place around the time of Kyubon near Nagoya Port. The dates for 2016 is July 18th.

    Obon is a special time of year with modern celebrations along with the traditional rituals. This festival gives us some insight into Japan’s Buddhist roots as well as the unique way each part of the country celebrates the holiday and carries out its fun-filled summer festivals. If you plan to be in Japan in July or August, it would certainly be worth it to attend an Obon or summer festival, especially now that you are familiar with the customs.

    Related Articles:
    Obon: The Festival of Honouring Ancestors’ Spirits
    The Hills are on Fire! Kyoto’s Daimonji Festival