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The Spirits Of Lost Loved Ones Return: What Is The Obon Festival?

The Spirits Of Lost Loved Ones Return: What Is The Obon Festival?

Translated by MATCHA_En

Written by Kazuki Tsuchido

2014.08.11 Bookmark

Obon is a summer holiday marked by families getting together to visit and tidy their family graves, and to pray for the spirits of their ancestors. Learn all about this special occasion in this article.

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. But during this time of year, 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.

In Memory of the Deceased

Obon takes place from either July 13th-16th in Tokyo, and from August 13th-16th in other regions of Japan, but the exact dates vary not only by location, but also by region, and even from company to company. During this short four day holiday, it is said that the spirits of our ancestors and loved ones come back to this world.

To make sure that our 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 12th - Preparing to Welcome Our Ancestors

Before Obon begins, we prepare “spectral horses” made of cucumbers and eggplants with toothpicks as legs.
The cucumber resembles a horse and the eggplant resembles a cow. This is because we wish that “lost ones will come to this world on a horse, and go back to the other world on a cow”, or in other words, "to have them come quickly and take as long as possible to leave us once more". 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 13th - Welcoming Fire

Photo by: iScene/scenic-sceneryon Flickr

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 14th-15th - Grave Visits

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 16th - Sending Off Fire

Photo by: detch on Flickr

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.

Photo by: masatoshi_ on Flickr

In Kyoto there is a ceremonial bonfire, Gozan no Okuribi, which is 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.

Photo by: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr

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 our ancestors is a dreamy yet sorrowful scene.

Photo by: --Mark-- on Flickr

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.

In the End

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, all 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?

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