Obon お盆 is an annual Buddhist festival in Japan celebrated in honor of one’s ancestors. It is a time when the spirits of ancestors are believed to come back to visit the living and family members get together to commemorate their past loved ones. The festival is also known for the lively Bon Odori dances which have now become popular summer events in their own right.
In this article, let’s learn about this meaningful tradition as well as some of the celebrations taken place during the Obon period which visitors can attend and take part to experience this important aspect of Japanese culture.
What is Obon?
The custom of Obon originates from the story about a disciple of the Buddha, Mokuren, trying to save his deceased mother from the suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
The festival is commonly observed from August 13 to 16, but the exact dates vary depending on the region. In some regions such as Tokyo, Obon is observed between July 13 and 16, while in some other regions such as Okinawa, it is celebrated in the seventh month of the old lunar calendar.
Obon is an important event in the Japanese calendar that ranks alongside the New Year in terms of significance. Although it is not listed as a national holiday, most people take days off their work to return to their hometowns, many shops and companies are also closed during the period.
Time for Family Reunion
While the customs of Obon vary greatly from region to region, the rituals generally involve the families lighting up “mukaebi” (means “welcoming fire”) outside their houses or at the graves of the deceased so to guide their ancestors’ spirits home on the 13th.
Altars inside the houses are also tidied up, decorated, and placed with food offerings such as fruits and sweets to welcome their ancestors. Family graves are also visited, cleaned, with fresh flowers and incense being offered. Some families also go to the shrines or temples to make offerings and perform memorial service for their deceased loved ones.
Image: Kazuhiro Kimura on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
As the celebration comes to an end on the 16th, another fire called the “okuribi” (means “sending off fire”) is lit to guide the spirits back to the other world. In some places, it is done through a ceremony called “toro nagashi” whereby candle-lit lanterns are set afloat on rivers, lakes, or seas.
Obon Festivals Not to Miss
Obon celebration is not confined to more intimate, personal occasions limited to families only. There are many beautiful and culturally rich festivals held throughout the country during the Obon season which visitors can attend and take part for a wonderful summer experience.
Here are some of the famous Obon festivals which you should definitely check out if you are visiting Japan during the season:-
Asakusa Toro Nagashi (Tokyo)
First held in 1946 as the Festival of Recovery to commemorate the victims of Great Kanto Earthquake and Bombing of Tokyo, the Asakusa Toro Nagashi is an annual lantern floating event taking place at the Shinshui Terrace of Sumida Park, which is a 3 minute walk from Asakusa Station.
The event sees around 2,500 lanterns being released down the Sumida River between the Azuma Bridge and Kototoi Bridge, a surreally beautiful sight that attracts thousands of visitors every year. You can purchase and release a lantern at 1,500 yen, even though being there to unwind and take in the scenery is completely free.
Date: mid-August (usually Saturday)
Time: 6:30 PM to 8 PM
More info: http://www.gotokyo.org/jp/kanko/taito/event/tourou_nagashi.html (in Japanese)
Gozan Okuribi and Arashiyama Toro Nagashi (Kyoto)
Image: ajari on Flickr / CC BY 2.0
The procedure of sending off the spirits of the dead can be done by lighting up “okuribi” fires or floating candle-lit lanterns. If you are in Kyoto on the last day of Obon (16th), you are in luck because these two sending off ceremonies are carried out at two separate events on the same day, namely the Gozan Okuribi and the Arashiyama Toro Nagashi.
Image: Takeshi Kuboki on Flickr / CC BY 2.0
The Gozan Okuribi or commonly known as Daimonji, is an event during which five giant bonfires are lit on five mountains surrounding the city of Kyoto. The Arashiyama Toro Nagashi on the other hand is an event which sees lanterns are set on the Katsura River from the famed Togetsu Bridge. One good thing about this event is that the Daimonji bonfires can also be seen here along with the floating lanterns, so instead of staying in the city centre to see the okuribi you may as well catch both at Arashiyama Toro Nagashi!
Date: 16 August
Time: 8 PM, each fire lasts about 30 minutes
More info: http://sharing-kyoto.com/event_gozan_okuribi
Arashiyama Toro Nagashi
Date: 16 August
Time: 7 PM to 9 PM
More info: http://sharing-kyoto.com/event_toro-nagashi
Awa Odori (Tokushima)
Image: Rosino on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Held in Tokushima Prefecture on the island of Shikoku from August 12 to 15, Awa Odori is the biggest and most famous dance festival held in Japan during the Obon season. The festival is said to date back to the 16th century integrating Tokushima’s unique local dances and Obon dances traditionally performed for the spirits.
Expect to witness more than 1,000 dance troupes taking on to the streets in colourful obon costumes, singing and displaying their choreographed moves to the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen, taiko drums, and flute. It is the scale and enthusiasm that you have to be there in order to experience it yourself!
Date: 12 to 15 August
Chugen Mantoro Lantern Festival (Nara)
Image: Jim Thoburn on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Kasuga Taisha is celebrated as the most important shrine in Nara, and therefore one of the must-sees in the prefecture. On the evenings of August 14 and 15 every year, the UNESCO World Heritage Site becomes even more special in conjunction with the Chugen Mantoro Lantern Festival, when over 3,000 lanterns that spread throughout the shrine grounds are lit, creating a magically peaceful atmosphere.
Besides the beautiful yet solemn night scenery, visitors are also treated to court music and dance performance on the first night, as well as kagura theatrical dance on the second night. Kasuga taisha has been hosting this festival for the past 800 years.
Date: 14 and 15 August
Time: 7 PM to 9:30 PM
More info: https://www.visitnara.jp/venues/E02062/
Gujo Odori (Gifu)
Gujo Odori is a dance carnival like no other, with 10 kinds of dances being performed every night for over 30 days from mid-July to early September, and the peak of celebration during the four days of Obon (August 13 to 16) which sees thousands of people flooding the streets and dance all night from sunset till the next morning!
Moreover, Gujo Odori welcomes participants of all ages and skill levels. Some of the dances are very easy for beginners, but there will always be locals who are eager to teach anyone interested in participating how to dance the moves, so just follow what other people do and have fun!
Date: Mid July to early September (peak from 13 to 16 August)
When it comes to summer celebrations, there is nothing quite comparable to Obon festival in terms of the cultural aspect which combines the values family get together, ancestor worship and also Japanese people’s fondness for festivals.
If you are visiting Japan in the season, be sure to check out one of the many events that are held across the country in conjunction of the Obon festival. It will be a cultural experience not available any other time of the year.