Ai Nihon 愛日本: Obon festival, in memory of the dead

- September 20, 2013 - 1

The obon(お盆) festival, also known as bon(盆) festival is a Japanese Buddhist folk celebration held every summer, usually celebrated on the 13 to 15 July or August every year. Japanese believe that during this period, the dead would revisit earth.

annual obon festival in japan

The historical origin of obon is rather a seasonal calendar event marking the middle of the year. It is similar to the Japanese New Year celebration, worshiping the ancestors through offerings for prayers. Shingon Buddhism, the mainstreame of Japanese Buddhism believe that the word obon is originated from Sanskirt phrase ullamabana, literally meaning ‘hanging upside down’. The phrase signifies the unendurable suffering in both spiritual and physical means when one is hung upside down. During this period the shroud, that separates the dead and living is lifted.

Obon festival lanterns
Photo by Bill

Unlike any other ghost festivals or Halloween, Japanese believe that spirits would return home to be honored. The three days event is observed with family members returning to their hometown to gather for a reunion.

bon festival japan
Photo by Eric Flexyourhead

Obon celebrations starts with bon hajime or nanuko bon where preparations for the celebration would begin. Japanese would visit their ancestors’ cemetery and wash the tombstones. In each home, offerings are placed on alter or shelves, known as shoryo-dana for the ancestors spirit. The preparation and decoration of shoryo-dana is known as tana-tsuri. Flower arrangements and paper chochin lanterns are placed around the altar. Family members would gather around the shoryo-dana reciting prayers or sutra.

Obon festival with lanterns
Photo by lauripiper

Japanese would lit chochin lanterns or fire pits on their house entrance to guide the spirits. On the last day of the festival, Japanese would send off their ancestors’ spirit with floating lanterns, toro nagashi. The peak of obon festival is a communal folk dance, bon odori. People would gather around a yagura stage and dance according to the rhythm of Japanese taiko drums.

Obon Festival in Japan
Photo by Ilya Brook

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