With its roaring fires, spectacular fireworks, and traditional dances, the Obon Festival is one of the three most important Japanese celebrations of all, even though it is not an official Japanese holiday. For many Japanese, the Obon Festival in mid-August is an occasion for the souls of their ancestors to visit their families, not only to commemorate deceased family members but also to return home to their families. Instead of sadness, the main focus of the ancestral memorial festival is on celebrating the gathering.
The origin of Obon Japan: Japanese Buddhism
Obon is one of Japan’s Buddhist festivals and has been celebrated for many centuries. The roots of Buddhism in Japan go back to the 6th century and still characterize the daily life of many Japanese families. The Obon festival goes back to various legends about a Buddhist monk. According to these legends, the monk’s special abilities enabled him to see his deceased mother in the afterlife and finally redeem her by making offerings to Buddhist monks. Relieved by this, he performed a joyful dance – since then, it has been part of the Obon festival to commemorate the deceased, make offerings, and perform dances. Many families visit the graves of family members on this occasion, decorate their home altar, and lay small offerings in the form of flowers or fruit there and in temples.
The many traditions of Obon
Photo by Fred Rivett
Obon is celebrated throughout Japan, but many local differences and peculiarities exist. While individual regions celebrate the Obon Festival in July, the festivities are mostly celebrated around August 13th-15th. Although each region has its Obon Fest characteristics; lanterns, fire, and fireworks are central to Obon festivities throughout the country. Many Japanese hang chochin, Japanese lanterns, in front of their houses to guide the deceased home. At the end of the festivities, countless floating lanterns light up Japanese rivers, streams, and lakes to guide the deceased back home, offering viewers a beautiful sight. A special and very famous Obon tradition can be witnessed in Kyoto. On Daimonji Gozan Okuribi on August 16th, five huge blazing fires in the shape of Chinese characters and symbols are lit on the mountains surrounding the city, illuminating the whole place. In addition, spectacular fireworks displays take place all over Japan: In Kumano, large fireworks shows light up the beach as part of the Obon Festival, and one of Japan’s largest fireworks displays takes place in Obihiro on August 13th.
Japanese dance at the Obon Festival
In addition to home traditions and large light shows, other celebrations are held in public spaces where Japanese traditions are revealed to visitors. For example, Bon Odori, the traditional centuries-old Obon dance, is part of the festival and can be experienced live in many parks and squares. For the dance performances, among other things, Yagura stages are set up from which singers and musicians invite visitors to dance along in the glow of Japanese lanterns. Almost every region has its own Bon Odori traditions – for example, Tokyo has Tokyo Ondo, Okinawa has Eisa, and Tokushima has Awa Odori. The latter can be seen performed by 100,000 dancers at the four-day Awa Odori festival each year from August 12th to 15th.
Also, perfect to experience Bon dances are the Morioka Sansa Odori Festival, the Gujo Odori Festival in Gifu Prefecture that lasts from July to September, the Yosakoi Soran Festival in Hokkaido or the Hanagasa Festival of Yamagata. A special local form of Bon dance can be seen in Tottori: The Shanshan festival features dancing with umbrellas.
The greatest thing about Bon Odori? Everyone can join in! The steps are easy to learn and are demonstrated right on the spot at numerous stages during summer festivals. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture than by dancing together.
Obon is not only a perfect opportunity to learn about Japanese holidays but also to experience a unique, family and festive atmosphere in the land of the rising sun.