Memos from Asia

Obon, a Summer Tradition with a Variety of Spiritual Events Across Japan

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One of Fushimi, Kyoto’s major festivals is the 1000 Lantern on the River festival. Participants write messages on paper lanterns that symbolically float to their ancestors.

Obon (お盆), also known as Bon (盆), is a traditional Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of your ancestors that originated from the Ghost Festival celebrated in China.

A tradition with over 500 years of history

The festival of Obon had been celebrated annually for over 500 years, and traditionally lasts for three days, even though each region of Japan tends to start the celebration at different dates.

Obon is not only a traditional event for Japanese people, but also a period of time when companies and schools are closed.The schedule of Obon is basically the same from year to year, and the Obon holiday is around August 15 across the country.

However, Obon, as a tradition rather than a holiday period, varies from region to region: some celebrate in July, some in August, and some in September.

For example, in the Okinawa area, events are often held according to the lunar calendar, with the 2020 Obon coming much later than August 15 on September 2.

a visit to a grave in japan

This holiday is considered to be a family reunion when people visit ancestral family places and clean their ancestors’ graves, also tending to household altars. During this holiday, spirits of one’s ancestors are expected to visit the said altars and their families for a reunion.

If it were not for the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, the whole country’s roads, trains, buses and other transportation systems would be paralyzed. Traffic jams at the beginning and end of the Obon vacation period are a tradition.

As Obon being celebrated during the summer or occasionally early September, the weather tends to be very hot and humid, so it is common for people to wear yukata, a light cotton summer kimono.

Japanese women wearing traditional casual summer costume “Yukata” “kimono”

The events and customs of Obon vary from region to region. Some of the unique events that have been nurtured in each area are still very much alive as a local tradition.

The celebration of Obon festival starts with Mukaebi (‘welcoming fire’), during which people set a little bonfire in front of their houses to help spirits find their way home. Besides, it is common to decorate altars with flowers, fruits and sweets, and other things the deceased person enjoyed during their lifetime.

Obon also includes Bon Odori (Bon dance), huge carnivals and fairs with games, music, summer foods, festival candies and sweets, and fire.

Tokyo, Japan – August 1, 2013: Musicians and dancers at the Bon Dance summer festival of the Tsukiji area.
Obon Candy – Summer festival sweets

At the end of the festival, a ritual which is known as Okuribi (‘sending fire’) also occurs. This is the ritual when families send their spirit ancestors back under the guidance of fire to the place beyond our own. Fire had always been a symbol of purification in many cultures from ancient times, and by this day, many celebrations involve fire in one way or another.

The Floating Lamp is a type of lamp that floats on the surface of the water. It is also known as a river lamp or lake lamp , lantern floating

Even though in recent years, most of the festivals and holidays had become more of an entertainment rather than tradition, Obon is still one of the few events that focuses on the importance of family, ancestry, and honoring your roots – together with your closed ones and the spirits of the deceased.

The Obon festival is a very colorful event and is definitely worth visiting if you are planning your summer trip to Japan. Make sure you know the area you’re visiting and the dates of the Bon festival in that area.

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