There are so many holidays and celebrations in Japan. Some of these festivities only last for a day, but there are also some that last for a few days and even a few weeks. If you are wondering what obon is and how to celebrate obon in Japan, you are at the right place. Let’s take a look at what this Japanese event is all about!
What is Obon?
Obon is a Buddhist ceremony. It is the day that is believed that ancestors return to this world to visit relatives. The date differs from region to region, with three separate Obon celebrations taking place in Japan’s diverse prefectures.
Obon is celebrated at different times across japan. In 1873, Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar. In many areas, the holiday was shifted by exactly one month to around 15th August.
The origins of Obon are not well known, but there was a long-standing custom in Japan of making offerings to ancestors in midsummer. It is thought that the Buddhist event called Urabon-e, which is held on 13-16 July of the lunar calendar, was introduced to Japan, gradually turning into the unique event we know today.
When does Obon start and end?
The first bon to be celebrated is Shichigatsu Bon (July Bon), which is celebrated around the 15th of July in Japan’s eastern Kanto region (Tokyo, Yokohama and Tohoku region). In these areas, the date was shifted to 15th July as the new calendar came into effect. This Bon is sometimes referred to as the ‘New Obon’ or ‘Tokyo Bon.’
Next is the Hachigatsu Bon (August Bon), held on the 15th of August and is the most commonly commemorated bon.
This leaves us with Kyu Bon (Old Bon). This Bon is special as it is celebrated on the 15th day of the ninth month on the lunar calendar. That means that the date of this Bon changes every year but falls between 8th August and 7th September.
Kyu Bon is celebrated in Japan’s northern Kanto region, Chugoku Region, Shikoku, and Okinawa Prefecture. There are various theories as to why many regions chose this ‘old Obon’ period. Still, there were several reasons, one being that the transition to the new calendar fell during the busy farming season, and the rainy season had not yet ended.
What do people do during Obon?
Although Obon takes place in the middle of the months that each religion celebrates, preparations begin well in advance.
Here is a rundown of the days and events during the celebrations:
This day is called ‘Tanabata’ and is the time to set up a ‘Shoryodana’, a shelf with ancestral tablet and altarage used during obon, to welcome the ancestors.
A rug is laid on a stand, spectral horses’ made from aubergines and cucumbers are prepared, and toothpicks are placed in them to represent legs. The horse is believed to be used by the ancestors to travel between the other world and this world.
The cucumber represents a horse and the aubergine a cow, with the wish that when they return to our world, they will get here quickly like a horse, and when they depart for their world, they will leave slowly like a cow.
In the evening, welcome the ancestors by lighting a welcoming fire. The welcoming fire is a small fire burning outside. The fire is built in the hope that the smoke will help guide the horses, ridden by the ancestors, on their journey to our world.
14th and 15th Days
During the Obon period, ancestors are believed to stay at the spirit trellis. Offer fruits, sweetmeats, and food. Families will visit their ancestors’ graves and clean and repair them. In some cases, flowers and a bowl of water may even be offered. After this, families will often have a meal together while reminiscing about lost loved ones.
Ancestors are believed to stay at home until the morning; in the evening, hemp seed reeds are burnt in hopes that the smoke will guide the ancestors home. Bonfires are also a part of the celebrations. Fun fact: In Kyoto, bonfires in the shape of various kanji are sparked. It is also customary to float small paper lanterns down a river in a tradition known as toro nagashi.
What are some of the Obon events?
Obon events and customs vary from region to region. Some ancient, unique customs nurtured in each area are still alive today as local traditions. Here are some examples.
The most popular Obon event is the Bon dance (Bon Odori). It is said to have its roots in the Nenbutsu dance to comfort the spirits of ancestors, with the addition of prayers for a good harvest and as a form of entertainment for those attending the festival. Nowadays, the religious significance of the dance is all but gone and serves its purpose of providing entertainment.
Gozan Okuribi (Gozan Bonfire)
On 16th August, bonfires shaped as Kanji characters are brought to life on five mountains surrounding Kyoto: Higashiyama Nyoigatake, Matsugasaki Nishiyama and Higashiyama, Nishigamo Funayama, and Ohokuyama.
Shoronagashi (Floating Spirits)
A traditional event is held in Nagasaki Prefecture every year on the 15th of August to send the spirits of the deceased to paradise. Instead of being floated down a river, the family members of the dead, on the occasion of the first Obon (new Obon), pull a large spirit boat (with wheels) like an omikoshi (portable shrine) and parade it through the streets. The event is a loud one, with bells chanting and numerous large firecrackers being set off with the call of “doi doi.”
Obon is a day when most people remember their hometowns, their souls filled with nostalgia and memories of their ancestors—looking back at the events cherished in the community and each family. It stands out as one of Japan’s most unique celebrations that can only be experienced when you are here. If you want to participate in these celebrations, make sure to book your tickets before the festivities begin! ✈️ 🥳