Obon: Japanese communities worldwide begin month-long festival season

WEDNESDAY, JULY 13: Crisp cotton kimonos swirl through the streets, colorful trays of cool and tangy sushi await diners and the music of the Bon dance all announce the arrival of Obon—a centuries-old Japanese festival whose activities span an entire month around the globe. From Tokyo to Las Vegas, Buddhist temples in cities around the world host Obon festivals: vendors offer tantalizing Japanese cuisine, temples fill with visitors and an Asian cultural influence is in full force. Originally a Buddhist-Confucian custom, the Japanese have been visiting ancestors’ graves and honoring the spirits of deceased loved ones during Obon for more than 500 years.

Bondancersize? Yes, it’s a real thing! The Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin (headquarters of Hawai’i’s largest Japanese Buddhist denomination) offers weekly classes on Bon dance; Bondancersize, an enormously popular class geared toward seniors, has been reported as bringing in close to 100 students. (Watch a video of the class on YouTube, filmed less than two months ago.)

The traditional story behind Obon begins with a disciple of Buddha. When this disciple used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. (Obon is shortened from Ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down” and implying much suffering.) The disciple mourned his mother’s state, and pleaded to Buddha for a way to free her.

In response to his disciple’s request, Buddha suggested one thing: to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat. The disciple did as he had been instructed, and saw his mother freed. In great happiness, the disciple danced with joy—and, thus, the first “Bon dance” was performed. Duly, upon viewing his mother, the disciple had come to a full realization of the many sacrifices his mother had made for him, and he was exceptionally grateful. Even today, the deeper roots of Obon lie in paying respects to ancestors—thus easing their suffering—and expressing joy for the sacrifices that loved ones have made.

Did you know? When the ancient Japanese lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar, the date of Obon spread out: “Shichigatsu Bon” became the modern observance, marked in Tokyo and eastern Japan in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon,” based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated in mid-August. “Old Bon” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.


Whether in Japan, Korea, Argentina or a community of Hawai’i, Obon festivals often span several days and include public Bon dances, tea ceremonies, fireworks and carnivals. Festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in many regions of the United States and Canada. In Hawaii, festivities span an even longer period than they do in Japan: Bon festivals are held June through September, from the Garden Island to the Big Island.

On a more personal level, Obon means that families take time to freshly decorate household altars and reunite with family members at ancestral gravesites. Most every Bon festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of paper lanterns. At the culmination, hundreds and thousands of paper lanterns, illuminated by interior candles, can be seen floating down rivers and streams. The belief is that ancestors’ spirits are symbolically returned to the world of the dead.


Cooking up some traditional Japanese Obon cuisine in your kitchen? Check out the recipes at JapaneseFood.about.com.

How does the Japanese Obon differ from the American Obon? This writer gives an inside perspective.

Thinking of crafting a paper lantern? Find simple-to-follow instructions for a DIY lantern, here.


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

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.)

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.)