What’s Obon? – One of Japan’s Most Important Holidays

  • CULTURE
  • 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 summertime, you should have the chance to experience Japanese culture through this holiday!

    What Is Obon?

    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?

    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 practice Obon’s customs in July on so-called “Kyubon” or “old Bon”.

    Rituals During the Obon Period

    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 spirits back to their resting place. Lanterns are often placed on a nearby river to represent the spirits’ return to the other world.
    Bon Odori

    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.

    Shouryouuma (精霊馬)

    One of the most interesting aspects about Obon is that people buy eggplant and cucumbers as decorations. By sticking something like chopsticks or toothpicks to resemble legs, the eggplants and cucumbers end up looking like cows and horses (just use your imagination!).

    These “animals” represent the means of transportation one’s ancestors will take to travel to the world of the living, and preparing them is particularly popular among children.

    Naturall, you can always break with tradition and get a bit creative:

    Butsudan (仏壇)

    Butsudan is a Buddhist altar. Here people will place photos of their ancestors and family members who already passed away. The setting will vary depending on the region and household. Some will place food on the butsudan, as well as the Shouryouuma. Others will only place photos.

    What’s more, some have a different thing called a bontana (盆棚), where families place their ancestors’ and loved ones’ photos, the food, and other objects associated with Obon.

    Since Obon is a holiday to commemorate your ancestors, a visit to the graveyard is very important. Some people will also leave the offerings and the Shouryouuma there instead.

    Conclusion

    Obon is a very beautiful holiday that sees families gathering at someone’s home to remember their ancestors and loved ones. If you happen to be in Japan during this period, pay attention to the many celebrations and customs that take place around this time.