Obon: The Festival of Honouring Ancestors’ Spirits

  • Obon is the festival celebrated in Japan in mid-August, on the 15th. But the Obon festival season lasts for a few days, from the 13th to the 17th of the month, but different areas of Japan celebrate this festival on different days. It is the day to remember and honour the spirits of the ancestors. All the Japanese will visit their family and go to the graveyards’ of their families. Actually it can hardly be called a festival, it is a Buddhist tradition observed in Japan and in the other Buddhist nations as well. It is not an official national holiday, but many companies are closed down in Japan on those days, and the Japanese get together with all their family members. They believe that the souls of ancestors will come back and join them on this particular day.


    All the houses are thoroughly cleaned in advance to welcome the spirits, and foods such as vegetables, sweets and fruits are placed as offerings in front of the altars in houses and temples. Incenses will be burnt during these days in every house. Paper lanterns called chochin and flowers are used to decorate the houses and the butsuden. People will go to the graveyard of their relatives to invite the souls to come home with them, and this tradition is called Mukae-bon. Mukae-bi are the lights, usually made of small bundles of straws, used at the entrances of the houses to guide the spirits on the first day of Obon festival. At the end of the Obon festival, these lights are burnt and the family directs the ancestors’ spirits back to their grave using the lanterns called Okuri-bon or the lights named Okuri-bi. These lanterns are then floated in the nearby river or lake, when they finally reach the sea they will direct the souls back to their land.


    During this festival, Bon Odori dance is performed accompanied with a special music and drums. All the people dress in kimonos or yukatas and dance on the stage. They normally form a circle and dance around a lamp or a lantern, and almost everyone in the crowd will join this dance. This is done to welcome the spirits and hence this dance is considered the dance for the spirits. These are usually held at parks, temples or shrines, adorned with countless paper lanterns. Some temples and shrines are famous for their festivals held during the obon season. Rokudo mairi is the practice in which people gather at the temples or shrines to call for their ancestral spirits.

    Special foods

    There are many Japanese foods and special sweets made for Obon. Colourful sugary sweets can be seen in most shops during this season. The foods like takoyaki, yakisoba, varieties of sushi, warabi mochi, kakigori and such can be found in festive spots all around Japan during summer.

    Modern days

    Nowadays, Obon is considered a time for the family reunion and, that aspect is more important than honouring the souls in the present day society. People working and living in urban areas, and those living far from their home and family, will be coming back to their homes and enjoying the family presence during these days.