Obon: Japanese communities dance, feast and welcome ancestors’ spirits

Japanese women dancing in traditional kimonos of white and pastel colors

Obon Matsuri in Concord, California, 2009. Photo by Todd Fong, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JULY 13: Halloween in July? Americans may find many similar elements in the Japanese festival of Obon. Summer brings the month-long festival of the dead across Japan and in Japanese communities worldwide, for the beloved season known as Obon.

Obon—also known as Bon—has been observed in Japan for more than 500 years, derived from a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. The Buddhist-Confucian holiday has now become popular for family reunions, visiting and cleaning ancestors’ graves, and inviting ancestors into the home. Most regions vary in their unique Bon-Odori dance, however: the traditional dance of Obon, born from the story of a Buddhist monk, often incorporates movements meant to imitate a region’s customs, traditions and people. (Get a participant’s perspective on Obon dancing in this article, from Huffington Post. Or, view a schedule of Bon dances and practices at Japanese-City.com.)

The festival of Obon lasts just three days—but the starting date for this festival varies widely around the world. Often, this is referred to as The Obon Season to accommodate all of the regional diversity. When Japan began using the Gregorian calendar instead of the lunar calendar, the localities of Japan interpreted the date of Obon differently. Today, eastern Japan—including Tokyo—celebrates Obon in mid-July; other regions of Japan observe Hachigatsu Bon, or Bon in August; still others mark Kyu Bon, or Old Bon, which falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so varies each year.

No matter the locality, light, cotton kimonos—usually in white or pastel palettes—can be spotted at almost every Obon festival. Carnivals, rides and games are popular, as is Japanese food—most commonly, sushi, rice, teriyaki chicken and sweets. (This article, from LA Weekly, reviews Obon festivals from a foodie POV.)

The festival ends with Toro Nagashi, the floating of lanterns. Paper lanterns are floated down rivers and other bodies of water, signaling the ancestors’ spirits to return to the world of the dead. Fireworks ensue. (Make your own lantern with instructions from this photographic tutorial.)

OBON, ULLAMBANA
AND THE BUDDHIST MONK                          

The origins of Obon are with Ullambana (Sanskrit for “hanging upside down”). When a disciple of Buddha used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering greatly. (Wikipedia has details.) The monk approached Buddha, asking how he could free his mother, and was instructed to make offerings to Buddhist monks. The disciple obeyed, saw his mother’s release, and danced for joy. This joyful dance was the first Bon Odori. (Learn more from the Shingon Buddhist International Institute.)

Obon 2014: The peak travel season for Obon 2014 is expected to take place between August 9 and August 17.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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