Festival of the Dead: Obon (お盆)
Do you know about Obon? Obon is a holiday where families in Japan return home for 3 days to pay their respects to their ancestors. Depending on the region of Japan, it can start on either the 15th of July or August. It can be considered the Halloween or All Soul’s Day of Japan, however the holiday is not considered a spooky event but rather a celebration!
To mark the beginning of Obon, lanterns or fires are lit outside the home to help the spirits find their way. Japanese homes usually have a butsudan, or shrine, that houses a statue of Buddha and supposedly the spirits of ancestors! Small offerings of fruit, tea, and rice are often placed in front of the shrine and during Obon, offerings of sake and sweets are also given. Another tradition is to make a horse and cow statue out of a cucumber and eggplant as it’s believed that the spirits will ride them into this world. They are placed outside of homes on the first day of Obon and brought inside and placed at the butsudan after.
Did you know? Cucumbers are used to make horses and eggplants are used to make the cows. The horse will bring your ancestors to this world and the cow will send them back! Why? Because the horse is faster, so it brings your ancestors faster while the cow is slower and will prolong the time you have with them. Cute, huh?
Families will make trips to grave sites to perform the ritual of cleaning the grave stones. You can find water taps, buckets, ladles, and brushes at cemeteries for this purpose! Using water and the brush, dirt is gently scrubbed off the stones and fresh flowers replace the old. Incense is bought and lit before bowing to pay respects. Cemeteries can be quite beautiful and look more like parks so it’s not uncommon for families to have picnics while visiting their ancestors.
One of the biggest parts of Obon is the festival! Since Obon falls in July or August, it’s the perfect time to have a summer matsuri. As Obon is one of the biggest holidays in Japan, festivals take place all over the country! One of the highlights of Obon is bon-odori, a type of dance that was once used in religious practices. Now, participants practice synchronized movements and wear special costumes or yukata. The style of the Bon dance and the sound of the music will very per region! Dancers move around a middle platform called a yagura, where the band and singers perform. The movements are somewhat similar to line dancing.
Do you celebrate any holidays similar to Obon? How does it differ from Japan’s traditions? Let us know in the comments below!