This is one of the most important Japanese Buddhist traditions to honor and commemorate the spirits of his or her respective ancestors.
Traditionally, Obon used to be observed on the 15th day of the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar but now it is also celebrated on different dates in different places of Japan.
But generally, majority of the regions observe Obon on the 15th of August even though eastern Japan celebrates it around 15th of July. It typically starts on the 13th of August and continues till the 16th of the same month.
These three days are officially not listed as public holidays but it’s a custom to give people leave during this time. This festival is being celebrated in Japan every year since a time as long as 500 years and involves a traditional dance form known as Bon-Odori.
It is said that during this time, the spirits of the ancestors seek their way back home to meet their loved ones. This festival has thus progressed to be a perfect opportunity for people to host family reunions during which they return to their ancestral homes and pray for their ancestors.
- Origin And History
Obon is a shortened version of Ullambana which is the Sanskrit term for “hanging upside down” and refers to great suffering. The traditional dance form Bon Odori native to this festival has its roots in the legend of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren) who was a disciple of Lord Buddha and had put his superpowers to use to watch his dead mother. When he came to know that his mother had fallen into a torturous realm and was going through immense suffering, he went on to take the advice of his teacher on how to free his mother from the realm.
According to Buddha’s instructions, he made offerings to the Buddhist monks who had returned from their summer retreat on the 15th day of the 7th Lunar month and he got what he wanted. On seeing his mother’s retreat, he danced out of mirth and joy from which the Bon Odori or Bon dance was born. Till today, this dance is performed on this day to remember and appreciate the sacrifices made by the ancestors in their lifetime.
- On this day, the Japanese people get rid of all the dirt from their houses and offer a variety of food items like many vegetables and fruits in front of a Buddhist altar or Butsudan in respect of their ancestors.
- The altars are decorated with Chochin lanterns and flower designs.
- On the opening day of Obon, houses are found to be brightly lit with Chochin lanterns and graves of the deceased are visited by family members to escort their spirits back home.
- This tradition is called mukae-bon. Fires are lit at the entrances of houses called mukae-bi to guide the ancestors’ home.
- On the final day of the festival, people accompany the spirits back to their graves with the help of hanging Chochin lanterns with the family’s emblem on it. This ritual is known as okuri-bon and closing fires at the entrances are called okuri-bi.
- Incense sticks are also lit in the houses and cemeteries during Obon.
- The tradition of floating lanterns down a river with a lighted candle inside known as Toro Nagashi is prevalent during this festival.
- The most famous feature of Obon celebrations is the Nenbutsu folk dance Bon Odori to welcome the spirits of the dead. Japanese taiko drums keep up the beat and the participants wear ‘yukata’ meaning cotton summer kimonos.
- They dance around a wooden stage called “yagura” made especially for this event.
- Other Obon celebrations include carnivals with games, rides and summer festival food like watermelons.
- Not being a Japanese national holiday, most people take leave during this time.