Traditional Japanese Events: What is Obon Week?

Obon floating lanterns (toro nagashi Events

Summer is a season filled with sunshine, full of outdoor activities, cheerful events and festivals packed with crowds, and hot weather which melts ice cream and our body. Summer in Japan is no exception to this and summer is a popular time to travel, with a wide range of (adventure) options in nature as well as seasonal festivals (Japanese matsuri) that are often accompanied with stunning fireworks displays. Summer plants and flowers such as sunflowers and lavender grow abundantly thanks to the plenty of sunshine. It seems like everything is back alive after a depressing rainy season. Japanese people also spend a peaceful period of time called “Obon” in the beginning of summer, a traditional Japanese event to honor the spirits of families and ancestors who have passed away. Here you can learn the basic idea and history of Obon culture in Japan!          

1. What is Obon?

In Japan, Obon (お盆) refers to an annual holiday when the spirits of families and ancestors travel back to this world. The Buddhist event generally takes place from August 13th through 16th, and during this period many people pay a visit to their family graves to honor the spirits of their ancestors and loved ones. Although it is a nationwide event, manners and rules may slightly differ depending on each region. In general. families will come together, visit the graves of their ancestors and make food offerings at altars and temples. You will also see many fires at the entrances of houses to guide the ancestral spirits home.

While Obon is a time when people spend time to welcome the spirits of their ancestors, it is also recognized as one of Japan’s three biggest holidays along with Golden Week in May and New Year’s holiday in January. If you are planning to visit Japan in Summer, remember that public transport and accommodation in popular tourist destinations easily gets fully booked during Obon holidays. Even though Obon week is not an actual public holiday in Japan, many people take the time off from work and Obon week is one of the busiest travel seasons of the year!

2. Origin of Obon

It is believed that the custom of Obon originally came from a traditional Buddhist event in India. The word “Obon” is a shortened form of Ura-bone (also known as Ullambana in Sanskrit), which refers to an annual Buddhist festival aiming to console the spirits of their ancestors and relieve them from suffering. Similar festivals are held in some Asian countries such as China in mid-June.

The history of Obon culture in Japan started around the early 7th Century as a part of a formal ceremony held by the emperor Suiko at the imperial court. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), it became popular among ordinary citizens as a special holiday to honor the spirits of their ancestors by lighting candles or praying in front of their Buddhist altar at home.

3. Traditional Customs during Obon

During the four-day Obon holidays, a series of events are held in order to welcome back the spirits and see them off as they return to another world on the last day. Here are the traditional customs on Obon to remember, you can witness them everywhere!

  1. Mukaebi (Welcoming fire)
    Mukaebi is a sacred fire which is often burned on August 13th in front of each household to guide the spirits of their ancestors back home.  
  2. Okuribi (Seeing off fire)
    Okuribi is lit on the last day of Obon, which is generally August 16th to send the ancestors back to their world. 
  3. Shouryouma (Spirit horses)
    Shouryouma are spirit horses made of cucumber and eggplant with chopsticks or skewer legs. The cucumber represents a horse that takes the ancestors back home quickly, whereas the eggplant cow slowly takes them back to their world.
  4. Toro Nagashi (Floating lanterns)
    Recently, the ceremony of floating lanterns (toro nagashi) have gained in popularity. The beautiful lanterns are set afloat down a river to symbolically send off the ancestors’ spirits.

4. Bon Odori

Bon odori Japan

Bon Odori is a traditional Japanese dance which is generally performed at events or festivals during Obon holidays. It is said to have a history of about 600 years dating back to the Muromachi period (1336 -1573). Participants wear yukata, a casual traditional Kimono-style garment, and dance to traditional music while circling around a stage called Yagura to honor the spirits of ancestors. The dance is often accompanied by Japanese taiko drums. There are numerous Bon Odori festivals that can be seen around Japan and the music and the style of dance performance may differ depending on region. Visiting a Japanese festival like the Bon Odori is a great reason to visit Japan!

Three Great Bon Odori Festivals in Japan

Odori

1. Awa Dance Festival (Tokushima)

Awa Dance Festival is the most famous Bon-odori festival in Japan, held from August 12th – 15 in Tokushima Prefecture every year. With a history of over 400 years, it attracts more than 1 million visitors with a range of events and lively Bon-odori performances held around the entire city! Tokyo has its own dance festival based on the famous Awa Odori Festival. Each year in the last weekend of August, the streets of Koenji form the centerstage of the Koenji Awa Odori attracting huge crowds!

2. Gujo Odori Festival (Gifu)

Gujo Odori Festival is a 400-year old Bon Odori festival in Gifu Prefecture. It is widely known as the longest Bon-odori festival held over a period of 30 festive nights from mid-July through early September! During Obon season from August 13th to 16th, several dances and songs are performed and everyone can join the crowds and enjoy dancing all through the night!  

3. Nishimonai Bon Odori (Akita)

Akita Prefecture is home to Nishimonai Bon Odori, which is not as well-known as the other two Bon Odori festivals above, but still recognized as one of the three great Bon Odori festivals in Japan. The festival is held from August 16 – 18 and has a history of over 700 years! The dance is known as the ‘dance with the spirits of the dead’ and participants cover their faces with black hoods known as Hikozukin and woven half-moon hats known as Amigasa. Enjoy the attractive dance performances by mysterious and alluring dancers dressing in traditional patchwork Kimono called Hanui!

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Obon week is a major holiday season and many Japanese people use this time to travel. The original meaning of the annual festival is to welcome back the spirits of ancestors and families come together and visit the graves of the deceased. The customs of Obon differ per region in Japan, but often involve food offerings, fires and festivals. Major dance festivals called Bon Odori are held and joining these events will be an unforgettable part of your stay in Japan! Bear in mind that Obon week is also the busiest travel season of the year so make sure to make your reservations ahead of time.

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Miho Shimizu is a Japanese freelance writer settled in Shizuoka with her husband and two rabbits. Fascinated with travelling at the age of 18, she has spent most of her long holidays exploring incredible spots around Japan. Also love to listen to music, draw, and read novels over a cup of green tea.

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