Japanese Obon Festival also referred to as Bon, is a ceremonial custom which dates back some 500 years – honoring and celebrating the spirits of family members who have passed. The tradition comes from Buddhist-Confucianism and is celebrated over three days, it is considered a festival of souls. It involves both the cleaning of gravesites and altars of ancestors who have passed and the belief that these passed loved ones return to visit. With the belief in mind, the traditional has grown and changed over time, and in modern days it serves as a family reunion of sorts, a time when families come together to remember those who have passed. Traditionally speaking, Obon includes a classic dance, referred to as Bon-Odori and lanterns are hung outside of homes. Food offerings are also presented at house altars and temples in honor.
When to celebrate Obon Festival in Japan
Depending on the specific region in Japan, the time to celebrate Obon festivals may vary. These variations are due to adjustments made over time, when Japan once followed a lunar calendar and now follows a Gregorian calendar, since the Meiji era. These slight discrepancies in date, mean that Obon is celebrated in three different windows of time. If following the solar calendar, then Obon takes places between the 13th and 15th of the seventh month- July. However, if using the lunar calendar, the seventh month indicated August, therefore Obon is celebrated both in July and August, in different regions throughout Japan.
How to celebrate Obon Festival in Japan
To celebrate this important Japanese holiday there are several traditions and customs. In general, on the first day of Obon, people will light paper lanterns inside their homes, these are referred to as chochin and are also brought to grave sites, to call the spirits to visit. This spiritual process of contacting the ancestral spirits is known as mukae-bon. There are also mukae-bi, a variation of this concept in which fires are lit at the entrances of homes, this is believed to guide the spirits and encourage them to enter. At the end of Obon, the third and final day, families work together to return the spirits back to their gravesites, they do this by hanging the lanterns. Oftentimes, the chochin lanterns are adorned with a family crest to signify the familial bond and the resting place at the gravesite.
Toro Nagashi, floating lanterns are also an element of the Obon festival, in which lanterns are lit with candles and placed out onto the water to float. The Bon Odori dance is generally held outdoors and takes place by shrines and temples or in parks and gardens. Oftentimes people will wear summer kimonos – yukata when dancing.
If traveling in Japan in the summer months, it is important to be mindful of Obon, as it is a peak travel time, and one of the busiest days for travel within the country, as family members are moving to spend time together in various parts of the country, generally moving from large cities to smaller areas and vice versa. It is also common to smell Senko incense and burning during this festival.