In the heat of midsummer, throughout Japan, a mysterious, otherworldly group descends upon these isles in hordes. Nope, it isn’t tourists flocking to climb Mt. Fuji – it’s the spirits of the dead. Obon may be Japan’s festival of the dead, but it’s far from being all doom and gloom. Here are the top 5 things you need to know to get your head around Obon…
1 – Origins
The story of Obon is an ancient one and its origins are bound up with Buddhism. The tale goes that a disciple of Buddha (who became known as Mokuren in Japan) gained supernatural powers. He used these to look upon his dead mother, but was startled to discover she had ended up in turmoil, tortured by nasty spirits known as ‘hungry ghosts’. He consulted with Buddha, who advised him to appease a selection of monks with offerings. This did the trick and he saw his mother released and at peace, whilst simultaneously recognising all the sacrifices she had made for him in life. Delighted at this result, Mokuren broke into an energetic dance for joy, which leads us neatly on to our next need to know feature of Obon…
2 – Dance
Mokuren’s joyful dance serves as the inspiration for today’s ‘Bon Odori‘, referring to the dances that take place during Obon. These dances light up villages, towns and cities throughout Japan, welcoming back the spirits of the dead. One of the great things about Bon Odori is that it’s universal; anyone from tottering toddlers to pottering pensioners can get involved, you can even learn the obon dance yourself. However, not all Bon Odori dances are the same, leading us on our next need-to-know point…
3- Regional Variation
Whilst these festivals honouring the dead pop up throughout Japan, they appear at different times and local colour always bleeds in, resulting in plenty of Obon variations. In Nagasaki, you can join the locals as they pull great boats formed of lanterns through the streets, accompanied by the banging of firecrackers, gongs and drums. Meanwhile at the Gujo Odori in Gifu, you can test your stamina in the all night long dances from 13th-16th August. Or make a trip to Kyoto and ogle at great flaming kanji adorning the hillsides at the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi Fire Festival. After all that you’ll undoubtedly be hungry, leading us to…
4 – Food
As with all major celebrations in Japan, food is a key factor in celebrating Obon. With the stifling mid summer heat at its peak, revellers often seek cool, refreshing watermelon and kakigori – frozen ice, shaved and flavoured (it’s nicer than it sounds). Other festival classics are also feasted upon, such as takoyaki, karaage, yakitori skewers and ika yaki. As well as eating, drinking and dancing, there are some other important facets of Obon celebrations in Japan…
5 – Customs
Despite Obon not being a public holiday, mid-August sees mass movements throughout Japan as folk flock back home to honour their ancestors with their loved ones, using some unique and interesting traditional methods. After cleaning and decorating the gravestones of the dead, families beckon the spirits to come out and join them, using lanterns and fires called mukae-bi to guide them. Many households erect a shoryodana shelf, a household centre-piece featuring lanterns, incense sticks, pictures of relatives that have passed-away and, somewhat bizarrely, cucumbers and eggplants on cocktail-stick legs. These latter two represent the vehicles the spirits will travel upon, with the sleek cucumber being a swift horse to collect the spirits and the rotund aubergine being the cow that will get them back to the afterlife at a leisurely pace.
Many Japanese people believe that Obon coincides with the arrival of pesky jellyfish to the seas surrounding Japan. So even if the sun is shining and the temperature is through the roof, you won’t see many people swimming in the sea after Obon.
Have you got any Obon tales or images? We’d love to hear about them!
Lanterns: jinkemoole, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Obon grave decorations: jj walsh