Summer is a a time myself and family enjoy going on vacation. When we travel to Japan, we take advantage of seeing the sights, shopping, and visiting relatives & friends. This is also a unique opportunity to experience seasonal traditions and practices, some of which can appear dark in nature. Today I will introduce one of these traditions called “Obon”, which is an age-old practice of connecting with ancestors. Celebrated widely throughout Japan, the official dates are set from dusk of August 13th¹ to nighttime of August 16th².
For this article, we’ll cover a brief summary of Obon’s fabled lore, it’s history in Japan, the standard way of celebrating in a homely setting, and the other unique ways Obon is carried out around Japan in a public setting.
BEGINNINGS: A BUDDHIST TALE
The word “Obon” is written as “お盆” in Japanese, and has the meaning “Festival of the Dead”. It also is known as “Lantern Festival”. The history behind this practice is related to Buddhism, and is practiced not only in Japan, but in India and other Asian countries. From surviving sources, it is said to have 1st been practiced by Buddhist monks, nobles, and military families around the year 606. Later, from the 1600s and forward of Edo period, commoners adopted the practice.
Originally it was called “Ura Bon-e” (盂蘭盆会), with Ura Bon being derived from the sanskrit phrase “suffering being suspended upside down”. Sutras that are chanted during this celebration are called “Ura Bon-kyō” (盂蘭盆経). This is derived from the story where Shakyakuni instructed a disciple who wanted to save his deceased mom from hell to hold a memorial service with other Buddhist monks on a certain date. Traversing the 3 trails of suffering, the disciple was able to guide his mom from hell to nirvana, where she could find peace.
For some prefectures, extra lore may accompany this origin story, to paint a particular picture unique to the locales in their respected areas.
GUIDANCE BY FIRE: MUKAEBI AND OKURIBI
Fire has a prominent symbolism in Obon, as it represents a means for souls to be guided during this event. As a lighting source, souls can both find their way to visit those who are still alive, as well be lead back to the land of the dead. A popular lighting source are candles, which was introduced as a means to celebrate Obon during Edo period. This was a major contribution for commoners to adapt Obon into their lives and carry it on as a tradition. Fire is used during the start and the ending of Obon, where the former is called mukaebi (迎え火, light of guidance), and for the latter it’s called okuribi (送り火, light for sending off).
Here’s a general way residents carry out Obon, which also my parents-in-law followed this year. A lantern is hung in front of a family’s entrance way of a house or mansion on the evening of August 13th as a means to guide souls into one’s home. For those who don’t live in their own personal and/or detached home, they can also hang a lantern at their family grave, which serves the same purpose. Once in the home, the spirit will temporarily reside in an ihai (位牌), which is a Buddhist mortuary tablet with the name of the deceased family member’s name inscribed on it. This sits in a butsudan (仏壇), which is a small cabinet that is adorned with flowers in a small vase, a bowl, incense, and pictures of those loved ones departed, which serves the purpose of remembering those individuals dear to one’s heart. For the next few days, families eat specific foods that can be shared with the visiting souls in a figurative sense, such as cucumbers, eggplants, peaches, grapes, and pears. Incense is also burned during this period.
Finally, as Obon comes to a close on the eve of August 16th, a lantern is be hung outside in front of the home as a means to lead the souls out from the house so they may head back to nirvana. As mentioned earlier, there may be some slight variations based on prefecture or people’s preferences. As an example, on the night of August 16th there is a simultaneous spectacle called “Gozan no Okuribi” (五山送り火) which takes place on 5 mountains in Kyōto³. A Buddhist ritual is conducted where many torches are assembled to form large kanji on each one as a means to send off the visiting souls properly.
MANY PREFECTURES, DIFFERENT WAYS
Obon is observed nationwide. Depending on prefecture, it can be a personal experience for families, or celebrated together as a community. For example, some areas retain the old calendar date for this and celebrate on July 13th, while others follow the modern calendar and begin on the August 13th. There are areas that also begin Obon with “Shōrō Nagashi” (精霊流し), where locals gather by the ocean to let numerous floating lanterns sail out into the distance. This is also accompanied by special boats set out to sea, or a large boat-shaped float similar to a dashi⁴ called a “Shōrō-bune” (精霊船), which is adorned with many lanterns in a grand manner and is pulled through the streets at night.
Then there are some areas where a public festival called “Obon Odori” (お盆踊り) is held, which has participating performers dress up in traditional garb like yukata, and perform a dance routine. Some have a routine that is much slower and performed on or around a wooden stage-like platform called a yagura (櫓), while some have the performance done in the streets. Some areas also use fireworks as a means to mark the commencement of Obon. On a more subtle level, those who have a family grave, where their ancestors are buried at, and have the time may do Obon no Ohaka Matsuri (お盆のお墓参り). This is a process of showing respect to those who’ve passed by going to the grave site and paying respect which involves paying respect through prayers, as well as performing maintenance from cleaning with water to adding fresh flowers.
In closing, Obon is but one of few traditional celebrations that is carried out widely throughout Japan. Although how it is practiced varies, the purpose remains the same, which is the superstitious belief of connecting with ancestors and deceased loved ones.
1) This is based on the modern calendar. On the old calendar, Obon fell on around July 15th.
2) Not all areas in Japan end Obon on this date, for some places end late August 15th.
3) The 5 mountains are the following: eastern mountain of Nyoigatake (東山如意ヶ嶽), Mt. Matsugasakinishi (松ヶ崎西山), Mt. Nishigamofune (西賀茂船山), Mt. Ookita (大北山), and Mt. Mandara (曼荼羅山).
4) 山車. There is an article about dashi on this site, which can be read here.