This Obon, Days For the Departed post was written by my good friend Efrot Weiss. She is a long-term resident of Japan, and intercultural trainer and coach. From August 8 – 16th, 2015 Japanese families will celebrate Obon. Learn & Live!
Obon, Days For the Departed
The centuries-old festival of Obon in August is marked by ancestral worship, fire and dance. Besides searing heat and humidity, August in Japan means mass migration. The middle of the month sees airports, train stations and highways teeming with Japanese returning to their hometowns for the annual festival of Obon.
Similar to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, this Buddhist custom is for families to honor the spirits of their ancestors. In preparation for these visiting “dignitaries,” home altars and family graves are cleaned and incense sticks are lit.
People often fashion a cucumber horse and an eggplant cow and place them on the family altar. The speedy horse represents people’s desire to soon welcome their ancestors home and thelumbering cow symbolizes their hope that time will pass slowly during Obon.
The holiday is observed at slightly different times around the country but is around August 13 to 16. Since it is one of Japan’s three main holidays (along with New Year and Golden Week), many companies shut down during this time.
There are various rituals associated with the start and finish of the holiday, with numerous regional variations. Some people light a welcoming fire to guide the souls of the departed while other families hang lanterns outside their homes.
Flames mark the end of Obon as well, with send-off fires and the release of paper lanterns on rivers, called toro nagashi. Such ceremonies sometimes culminate in a fireworks display.
One particularly famous festival takes place in Kyoto on August 16. Five huge bonfires, depicting symbolic Chinese characters, are lit on mountainsides surrounding the city. These signify the return of ancestors to the spirit world. The most well-known character is the one for big, which burns on the slopes of Mount Daimonji.
The traditional dance performed at this time is called Bon odori. Its origin can be found in the story of Mokuren, a disciple of Buddha who used his supernatural powers to look after his deceased mother.
When Mokuren found out about her suffering in the realm of the hungry ghosts, he asked Buddha for help. Buddha advised him to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had returned from their summer retreat. When Mokuren’s mother was eventually set free, he celebrated with a dance.
Obon is also about lively local festivals, complete with games, food stalls, lanterns and taiko drummers pounding out a beat for yukata kimono-clad celebrants as they dance around a yagura tower.
Living in or visiting Japan with Kids? Here are our favorite holidays and celebrations you should know about in Japan!
January – Coming of Age Day – Celebration of Adulthood for people becoming 18-20.
February – Setsubun – Devil Day
March – Girls Day and White Day
May – Boys Day or Kids Day
July – Tanabata
August – Obon
October – Sports Day
October/November – 7-5-3
December –New Years Celebration
Obon, Days For the Departed by Efrot Weiss
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