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Japan's Obon Season - The Spirits Of Lost Loved Ones Return In August

naga toro lanterns

Translated by MATCHA_En

Written by Kazuki Tsuchido

2020.07.25 Bookmark

Obon is a summer holiday season in August when many families across Japan get together to honor their ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. Learn about this season where many visit and tidy family graves, and pray for the spirits of their ancestors.

Obon in Japan - Remembering Ancestors in August

Summer in Japan can be summarized as being hot, sunny, and humid days, filled with the piercing cries of cicadas, and gigantic columns of white clouds in a bright blue sky, with plenty of fireworks and other fun activities to take part in all day and night long. During mid-August, however, many people go off to visit the graves of their ancestors.

This is the yearly Japanese Buddhist event of Obon, also known as the Bon Festival, a family reunion time where people travel back to their hometowns and spend time with loved ones, both past and present.

When is Obon?

bon festival japan

Obon takes place usually between August 13 and August 16 throughout Japan; many people get paid leave from work during this time for the dates that are on weekdays. The exact dates vary by location and company to company, however.

During this short, four-day holiday, it is said that the spirits of ancestors and loved ones come back to this world. This period typically is very busy with travel, and many lodgings and transportation will be fully booked. In 2020, however, the government is urging people to not travel far during the Obon season due to the coronavirus, and to practice the appropriate social distancing and safety measures if they do.

To make sure that ancestors have a safe trip to this world and go peacefully back to the other world, there are many things that need to be taken care of during Obon.

August 12 - Preparing to Welcome Ancestors

Before Obon begins, people may prepare “spectral horses” made of cucumbers and eggplants with toothpicks as legs. The cucumber resembles a horse, and the eggplant resembles a cow. This practice is based on the wish that the deceased come back to Earth quickly, on a horse, and leave slowly, riding the cow. To have your lost loved ones around forever would be nice, but letting them leave as slowly as they can is a good second choice.

August 13 - Welcoming Fire

obon season in japan

At the beginning of Obon, on the 13th, we burn some bundled up hemp reed called ogara in Japanese.

It is said that our ancestors will come back to this world following the smoke from this fire. This smoke serves as a guide to our houses, so that our ancestors won’t get lost on the way.

August 14 to 15 - Grave Visits

obon season in japan

Many families gather to visit their family graves on these two days. As part of remembering our ancestors, we will clean or repair the graves, offer fresh flowers and a bowl of water, or maybe even some sake or their favorite drink or snack, and burn incense at the graveside. After this, families and relatives will enjoy a meal together, and reminisce about lost loved ones.

August 16 - Sending Off Fire

obon season in japan

On the last day of Obon, we have to part with our ancestors again. At this time, we will once again burn hemp seed reeds in order to send plumes of smoke to guide our loved ones back to the other world safely.

In Kyoto, Gozan no Okuribi (above) is a huge fire made into different characters; it is known as one of the most popular summer sights in Kyoto. Here you can see giant Japanese kanji characters written in flames against the summer night sky.

In other regions, there is a traditional event called toro nagashi, where paper lanterns and offerings are sent floating down rivers to our ancestors.

Parting again with ancestors is a dreamy, yet sorrowful scene.

awa odori japan

You can’t miss the Bon Odori (Bon festival dance) during Obon.* This dance has a memorial service and a welcoming meaning to the spirits that have come back to this world. Nowadays, the original religious meaning of these dances has faded away from popular knowledge, making them popular, lively summer events for the living along it seems.

*Most Bon Odori performances and festivals are canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus.

Bon Festival in Japan

Obon may seem like a sad event, but by thinking of and visiting with your family, you can also appreciate the bitter-sweetness of the passing of these loved ones as well. Obon can be both sad and happy, and is a great time to immerse yourself in Japanese culture, too, across the nation.

For this Obon, why not think of your own lost ones and fond memories, while spending your time with the ones you love?

All photos without logo by Pixta
Main image by Pixta

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