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Things to Know about Obon: Japan’s Festival of the Dead

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Delving into the cultural tapestry of Japan, the Obon Festival, also known as Japan’s Festival of the Dead, stands as a vibrant and significant celebration deeply rooted in the country’s traditions. This annual event holds great importance, marked by various rituals, customs, and a rich historical heritage. It serves as a time of remembrance, respect, and festivity, uniting families and communities in honoring departed ancestors. Exploring the facets of this profound event offers insights into the essence of Japanese culture, spanning from the festival’s origins and traditions to the diverse regional celebrations observed throughout the country. Additionally, navigating the taboos, regional customs, and ideal destinations during Obon paints a colorful picture of what to expect when traversing Japan during this special period.

What is the Obon Festival

The Obon Festival, a traditional Japanese celebration, pays homage to ancestors and the departed spirits. It’s deeply rooted in Buddhist beliefs but also incorporates some customs from Shinto, a native Japanese religion. This festival spans three days, typically falling in mid-August or July, varying by region and calendar preferences. During this period, many Japanese people make their way back to their family homes, paying respects at their relatives’ graves, and offering tributes at temples and shrines. To guide the spirits, they put up paper lanterns and engage in bon odori dances to warmly welcome them. In Japan, the Obon Festival holds a special place as a significant and joyous event, where people also take time to honor and value the heritage of their ancestors.

Often likened to Japan’s version of the Day of the Dead, the Obon Festival shares similarities with other cultural traditions that commemorate the departed, akin to Mexico’s Día de los Muertos. However, unlike a solemn or eerie affair, the Obon Festival is a vibrant, lively celebration of life and family. It stands out as a captivating facet of Japanese culture, showcasing its profound historical roots and spiritual practices.

Obon Festival in Japan
Obon Festival in Japan

When is the Obon Festival

Obon stands as a crucial festival in Japan, typically celebrated across three days in either mid-August or July, varying by region.

Usually observed from August 13 to 16, although in certain places it occurs in mid-July, the festival’s dates align with the lunar calendar, though many regions have adapted them to the solar calendar. While not officially a public holiday in Japan, many individuals take a few days off during this period to partake in the festivities with their families.

Origin of the Obon Festival in Japan

The Obon Festival stands as a significant summertime tradition in Japan, observed for many centuries. It’s a special occasion when families unite to pay tribute to their ancestors. The precise origins of Obon remain somewhat mysterious, with a tale that suggests its beginnings in India, later spreading to China and various parts of South Asia before becoming a part of Japan’s cultural tapestry. The story revolves around a disciple of Buddha who used mystical abilities to connect with his deceased mother’s spirit. Upon discovering that his mother had entered the ‘Realm of Hungry Ghosts’—a concept in Buddhism depicting insatiable supernatural beings—the disciple felt distressed. Seeking guidance, he approached Buddha to find a way to relieve his mother’s suffering. Buddha advised him to prepare offerings for the Buddhist monks returning from a summer retreat.

Obon Festival in Japan

Rituals and Traditions of the Obon Festival

Several customary practices and rituals are observed during the Obon Festival:

Hanging Lanterns and Lighting Fires:

Families hang paper lanterns, often adorned with their family emblem or name, at home entrances or by graves to guide spirits. Fires, known as mukaebi and okuribi, symbolize welcoming and bidding farewell, lit at the beginning and end of the festival.

Cleaning and Decorating Graves:

Ancestors’ graves are meticulously cleaned, adorned with flowers, water, and incense. Offerings like fruits, vegetables, rice cakes, and sweets are placed on a special altar, butsudan, while prayers for their peace are offered.

Temple Offerings: 

Families visit temples, presenting donations and offerings to monks or priests. Incense is burned, and sutras or scriptures are chanted, expressing gratitude and respect to ancestors.

Bon Odori Dance: 

Bon Odori, a regional folk dance, involves circles around a stage or tower named yagura. Adorned in colorful yukata (summer kimonos), dancers move to the beats of taiko drums, flutes, and bells. The dance and music vary by region, reflecting local culture, history, or industries. Examples include Tokyo Ondo, Awa Odori, Gujo Odori, and Nishimonai Bon Odori.

Floating Lanterns:

During the festival’s closing, toro nagashi, or “lantern floating,” occurs. Families inscribe messages or prayers on paper lanterns, releasing them onto rivers or seas, symbolically guiding spirits back to their realm. The glowing lanterns create a beautiful spectacle on the water.

Japan Obon Floating Lanterns
Floating Lanterns during Obon

How is Obon Celebrated in Different Regions of Japan?

Here’s how Obon is celebrated in various regions of Japan:

Tokyo’s Diverse Delights: Celebrating Obon with Samba and Splashing Festivities

Tokyo hosts its Obon festivities in July, particularly in the old downtown area of Shitamachi. One highlight is the vibrant Asakusa Samba Carnival, featuring a colorful parade with dancers and musicians inspired by Brazilian samba. Another popular event is the Fukagawa Hachiman Festival, where people joyfully splash water on one another for both cooling down and purifying purposes.

Kyoto’s Illuminated Tradition: Sending Spirits Off with Mountain Bonfires

In Kyoto, Obon celebrations occur in August, showcasing impressive giant bonfires on five mountains encircling the city, known as Gozan no Okuribi or “sending off fires.” These fires guide spirits back to the other world after their visit, each fire displaying distinct shapes like boats, torii gates, or characters, each with unique symbolism.

Okinawa’s Vibrant Revelry: Eisa Dances and Harvest Tug-of-War at Obon

Okinawa observes Obon in June or July as per the lunar calendar, known locally as Eisa or Uukui. This lively festival involves drumming, dancing, and singing with colorful costumes. Participants perform in the streets or at temples, culminating in a highlight: a spirited tug-of-war contest determining the fate of the harvest.

Hokkaido’s Seaside Tribute: Lantern Wishes in the Otaru Ushio Matsuri

Hokkaido celebrates Obon in August with the unique Otaru Ushio Matsuri, translating to the “sea tide festival,” paying tribute to the sea and its abundance. People craft lanterns from bamboo and paper, floating them on the water at night, believed to carry the hopes and prayers of the people to the spirits.

Nagasaki’s Cultural Fusion: Spirit Boat Farewell in Shoro Nagashi at Obon

In Nagasaki, Obon festivities in August blend Japanese and Chinese cultural elements, termed Shoro Nagashi or the “spirit boat procession.” Elaborate wooden and paper boats adorned with lanterns, flowers, and photos of the deceased are paraded through the streets and then set afloat in the sea or river, where they’re ceremoniously set on fire. This ritual signifies a respectful farewell to the spirits.

Japan Obon in Kyoto
Obon in Kyoto - Sending off fires

Taboos in Obon Festival

Avoid Wind Chimes: It’s best to avoid wind chimes during Obon as they’re believed to draw spirits, potentially disturbing the peace of visiting ancestors.

Not leaving clothes outside: Leaving clothes outside might result in spirits wearing them or absorbing their energy. It’s advised to bring clothes indoors before Obon or wash them after the festival.

Nighttime Precaution: Nighttime is when spirits freely wander, so it’s seen as risky to go out after dark. This is to avoid encountering ghosts or evil spirits and to respect the returning ancestors at their graves.

Haircut Avoidance: Getting a haircut during Obon is seen as disrespectful to ancestors, hinting at severing ties with them. Additionally, it’s a superstition that cutting hair in the first lunar month might bring about the death of an uncle.

Meat Abstinence: Eating meat during Obon can be considered disrespectful to animal spirits and ancestors who might have been vegetarians. It’s also a way of showing compassion and self-restraint.

Not sweeping the floor: Avoiding floor sweeping during Obon is a common practice to prevent disturbing spirits or their offerings and symbolizes respect for home cleanliness before the festival.

Fire and Knives Caution: Fire and knives are avoided during Obon due to their association with harm to spirits. This is to prevent accidents or injuries and usually involves preparing food in advance.

Top Places to Visit during Obon

Top Destinations to Experience Obon Celebrations:

Shikoku:

This island boasts the renowned Awa Odori, a traditional dance festival drawing millions of visitors annually. Dancers in vibrant attire chant, “Odoru aho ni miru aho; onaji aho nara odoranya son son!”—meaning “Fools dance and fools watch; if both are fools, you might as well dance!”

Kyoto:

The ancient capital showcases a distinctive Obon tradition, Daimonji Gozan Okuribi, where massive bonfires shaped like Chinese characters and symbols light up the surrounding hills on the evening of August 16, offering a spectacular sight.

Hokkaido:

Japan’s northernmost island hosts Hokkai Bon Odori, a dance festival featuring diverse music and dance styles from various Hokkaido regions. The festivities in Mikasa City from August 14 to 16 attract thousands of participants and onlookers.

Nagasaki:

In this port city, the unique Obon tradition, Shoro Nagashi or “lantern floating,” unfolds on August 15. People carry lanterns adorned with flowers and paper boats to the harbor, symbolizing the departed souls’ journey to the other world.

Japan Obon Awa Odori
Awa Odori in Shikoku

What to Expect When Traveling Japan During Obon

  • Obon, though not an official public holiday, prompts many to take days off for family visits or trips, leading to bustling and pricey public transport, flights, and accommodations. Booking travel and stays well in advance is wise if planning a trip to Japan during Obon.
  • During Obon, people pay homage to departed relatives by tidying graves, offering flowers, incense, and food, and using lanterns to guide spirits. Some also hang lanterns or light bonfires near their homes, observed in temples, cemeteries, and local communities.
  • The season presents various local and regional festivals (matsuri) with music, dance, food, games, and fireworks. The Bon-Odori, a traditional dance, invites everyone to join in a circle around a tower (yagura) where musicians play. This dance, with variations across areas, is easy to learn and fun to engage in, often found in parks, schoolyards, or streets.
  • Obon offers a rich cultural experience, providing a chance to explore Japan’s diverse traditions. Museums and cultural centers offer insights into Obon’s history and traditions.

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