What is Obon?

Obon is the name given to a summer event held across Japan in which people welcome the spirit of their dead ancestors back home. It is usually held around the 15th of July on the old lunar calendar, this date relates to the festival being observed during the four days of August the 13th until the 16th.

A Significant Occasion

The festival of Obon is considered in Japan to be the most significant occasion of the Year after the New Year holiday. Most companies will close down during the period of Obon. Although it is observed nationwide it is not officially a holiday and most employees will take the time off as part of their annual leave entitlement. The customs followed and the manner in which they are observed and celebrated can vary considerably across the different regions of Japan.

Fire and lanterns

Some traditions followed that included lighting a welcoming fire at their front door as a way to greet their ancestors as well as a send off fire to see them safely out once the celebrations come to an end. Other traditions include the floating of lanterns down a river while other people will insert disposable chopsticks or even matchsticks into items such as eggplant or cucumbers to create horse or cow shaped figures for their ancestors to travel home from the spirit world and back again once the celebrations have ended.

 

Obon dances

In several regions of Japan, men and women of all ages will gather together at temples and shrines wearing casual kimonos known as yukata. They will then perform Obon dances also known as Bon Odori.

An important time for family gatherings

The unofficial holiday of Obon is an important time for families to gather together, particularly those families that are separated due to working away from their hometown or city. People will make the often long journey home to gather together with their family for a chance to pray together while waiting for the return of their ancestor’s spirits.

The History of Obon

The periods when Obon is celebrated can today differ in each of the regions of Japan, although, initially the festival was celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month according to the lunar calendar according to the historical ‘Month of Books’ or Fumizuki in the Japanese language. In most areas of the country Obon occurs in August which is known as Hazuki in Japanese or the ‘Month of Leaves.’ In some areas such as Tokyo for example, Obon is celebrated in the month of July, usually in the middle of that month. In other areas of Japan such as in Okinawa, Obon is recognized in August. Obon is also celebrated by Buddhists and Japanese across the world.



The Old Bon and the New Bon

Obon can be divided into the Old Bon and New Bon. The reasons for this divide were based on agriculture, centuries ago most of the Japanese population was involved in farming and July was one of the busiest months for the harvesting of crops. The Obon festival was delayed until the middle of August with the exception of the area around Tokyo.

The Traditions of Obon

In the days before the start of the holiday, traditions dictate that Japanese people clean their houses and leave offerings of food, usually fruit and vegetables for the spirits of their ancestors. These offerings are left in front of a Buddhist altar or butsudan.

On the first day of the festival paper lanterns known as chochin are lit inside people’s houses, people will take these lanterns to the family’s grave site and guide the spirits back to the family home. This part of the celebration is known as mukae-bon. In some regions this term is given to the fires that are lit at the entrance to houses to guide the spirits home. Other offerings include arrangements of flowers placed at the butsudan.

Superstitions surrounding Obon

One of the superstitions surrounding the festival of Obon is that you should avoid going into the sea during the festival, in addition to swimming this includes fishermen not catching fish. It is believed by many that the spirits in the sea may take away those living souls that enter the sea during this period. In addition to fishing, the culling of animals for eating the meat of those animals is also frowned upon.

Bon Odori

Bon Odori, or folk dancing begins on the second day. The dance styles can vary from one area to another one they are all kept in rhythm by Japanese taiko drums. These dances traditionally take place at venues such as parks, gardens, temples or shrines where dancers in traditional dress perform around a stage or yagura. Anyone is welcome to join the celebrations and join the circle of dancers.

Floating Lanterns

The use of floating lanterns has gained popularity around the world in recent years. In Japan they are known as toro nagashi and are an important part of the traditions of Obon. Inside each floating lantern is a candle that eventually burns out as each lantern floats downstream towards the sea.

The last day of Obon

During the last day of Obon families assist their ancestor’s spirits on their return to the grave by hanging chochin lanterns sometimes adorned with the family crest. This is known as okuri-bon and is some regions fires known as okuri-bi are lit at the entrance to houses to send the spirits back to their graves. Another significant factor of Obon is the smell of senko incense; this aroma fills Japanese homes and cemeteries during this festival.