Obon (お盆) is one of the most important Japanese summer traditions. People believe that their ancestors' spirits come back to their homes to reunite with their family during the holiday. Because of that, Obon is an important family gathering time. Many people return to their hometowns to pray together as a family and await for their ancestors' spirits to return. People also visit and clean their ancestors' graves when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit.
The history of Obon
Obon originated from the Ghost festival of China and it has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years. Obon was initially celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. In most areas, Obon takes place in August because the seventh month of the lunar calendar is August in the modern calendar. However, in some places, Obon takes place in July. The official dates of Obon in 2020 are August 13-15 or July 13-15 in some places. Usually, in the Kanto region, it is celebrated in July. Obon is not only celebrated in Japan but also by Buddhists and Japanese-Americans across the world. As Obon takes place in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear yukata, summer Kimono made of light cotton. Many Obon celebrations include a huge festival with games and summer street foods.
Obon originates from the story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren). He was a disciple of Buddha who used his powers to see the spirit of his deceased mother. He discovered she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. Buddha advised Mokuren to make offerings to Buddhist monks. On the 15th day of the 7th month, he followed Buddha’s advice and his mother was released from her suffering. Mokuren danced with joy and that is the origin of the Obon dance.
Obon traditions and celebrations
Before the start of the Obon holiday, Japanese people clean their houses and give a variety of food offerings such as vegetables and fruits to the spirits of their ancestors in front of a butsudan which is a household altar.
On the first day of Obon, chochin (paper lanterns) are lit inside houses, and people bring the lanterns to their family's gravesites to call their ancestors' spirits back home. This process is called mukae-bon. In some regions, huge fires called mukae-bi are lit at the entrances of houses to guide the spirits to their house. On the second day, another tradition called Bon Odori which is a folk dance takes a place. Bon Odori is typically held at parks, gardens, shrines, or temples, where dancers perform around a yagura stage. On the last day, families assist the returning of their ancestor's spirits back to the grave, by hanging the chochin lanterns, painted with the family crest to guide the souls to their resting place. This process is called okuri-bon.
To celebrate Obon, some regions perform Toro Nagashi which is the floating lanterns. Inside each lantern, there is a candle that will eventually burn out, and the lantern will then float down a river that flows into the ocean. By performing Toro Nagashi, family members can beautifully, and symbolically send off their ancestors' spirits back into the sky.
There are a number of special festivals that celebrate Obon and tourists can visit those festivals. The Daimonji Festival in Kyoto is probably the most famous Obon festival. A series of spectacular, 200m-long, Kanji (Chinese character) shaped okuri-bi are built on mountainsides and when it’s lit, it is visible throughout the city.
Other famous Obon festivals are Awa Odori (Tokushima, Shikoku), Nagasaki Shoro Nagashi Festival (Nagasaki), and Hokkai Bon Odori (Mikasa, Hokkaido). For those who love to dance, the Gujo Odori Festival In Gujo, (Gifu prefecture) runs for 32 nights where dancers perform each night from 8 pm until 5 in the morning. Over 1.3 million tourists go there each year.
Japanese people are known for being rather non-religious and Obon festivals have become more related to entertainment rather than tradition. Obon is one of the important events that focus on the importance of families sharing time together and returning to their ancestors.