Obon Week: Japan's Festival to Honor the Dead
By Adam "OMEGA" Arnold
Festivals are a big part of Japanese culture. Everywhere you look in Japan, there is something to remind you of the never-ending carnival that is Japanese life. From the Sports Day that schools hold to the celebration of the New Year, festivals are a natural part of Japanese culture. Heck, if you visit Tokyo you're pretty much guaranteed a year-round experience, but each prefecture of Japan has their own celebrations that are carried out each year, and a few of these are even national observances.
The most high profile of all the Japanese festivals is Obon Week, which is held each year in the middle of August -- But before you grab your passports, keep in mind that Obon is one of Japan's busiest travel seasons. Hotels are literally booked solid, and you're going to be spending a lot more money during this peak tourist season. Not to mention the fact that the vast majority of businesses are closed for either three days or for the duration of the whole week -- in most cases, businesses give their employees three mandatory vacation days which are often times used by their employees to go on a vacation rather than in observance of Obon.
So by now, you are probably wondering what happens during Obon. Well, the chief purpose of Obon is to remember one's deceased relatives, but it is also meant to be a joyful time to celebrate life. It is believed that the spirits of the dead return to the world on the first day of Obon Week and leave again on the final day. For this reason, one Obon tradition is always carried out within the family and this is at the family altar, where dolls fashioned out of a cucumber and an eggplant are placed inside the altar. The cucumber is made to look like a horse and represents the idea that it runs fast so the relatives can meet their ancestors earlier. The eggplant is fashioned to look like a cow because cows are slow-moving animals and symbolizes the desire to not part with the souls or their loved ones. Along with the dolls, a candle is lit and a prayer is said.
Some families even visit the ohaka (family tomb) to say prayers and burn incense, but for most people who live a long way from their ohaka it can be difficult to travel. If it rains, as it did in 1999, a bit of a damper is put on the other festivities as well.
Outside the home, paper lanterns (known as chouchin) that have the family crest on them are solemnly lit to serve as a beacon for the dead to find their way back. Lanterns are often also placed in small rafts to float in the waters around Japan. Obon has been widely referred to as the "Festival of Light" because of how beautiful the night becomes when all the lanterns are lit.
In the communities, people don their summer kimonos known as Yukata and while Bon Odori music is playing, they perform special dance to that is choreographed virtually the same throughout Japan. It is a widely held belief that the spirits of one's loved ones are also dancing in step at the same time with the dancers.
There are even more traditions and customs to round out this one-week event. Children are often heard screaming as ghost stories are told, Buddhist shrines are decorated, processions of people march in the streets, and fireworks are set off. There are even carnival booths to entertain the people, so expect to catch some goldfish. If you are in Tokyo or Kyoto, expect an insanely large number of people and a truly universal experience -- but if you want a more traditional and calm atmosphere then you should try visiting a small town.
Historically, the idea of group dancing and lighting fires to welcome back the dead originated from area folk beliefs and later became associated with Buddhism as it fit perfectly with a story told by the Shakyamuni Buddha. In the story, one of Buddha's disciples is distressed over a vision he saw where his mother is suffering in hell. He goes to the Buddha to see how she can be released and the Buddha gives him a task to accomplish his goal. The tale represents the need to change resentments and regrets about our parents and ancestors into appreciation for what they did to make our present life possible.
Regardless of a person's religious background, they are welcome to join in - because Obon is not just a cultural event, but also a desire to honor ancestors and the past. For Japan, a country that seems to incorporate so many foreign aspects, this is one time when the past is truly remembered.
Runker Room: Obon Rained Out
Outdoor Japan: Festivals and Events in Japan
Schauwecker's Guide to Japan: Obon