Ullambana and Obon: Buddhists, Japanese celebrate summer festival

MONDAY, JULY 13: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture commences; and, today, the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Worldwide, this festival spans an entire month: “Shichigatsu Bon,” celebrated in Eastern Japan, begins in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon” commences in August; “Kyu Bon,” or “Old Bon,” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors—Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. (Wikipedia has details.) Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common at during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” Bon-Odori—and the Buddhist legend it stems from—recall a disciple of Buddha who used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother. When the disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering, he asked Buddha how he could help her. The disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat and, soon after, saw his mother released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. With his new-found insight, the disciple suddenly saw the true nature of his mother—her selflessness, and the sacrifices she had made for him—and with extra joy, he danced what is now the Bon-Odori. (Get a Buddhist perspective here.) A primary purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.


The official dance of Obon, though it follows a universal pattern, differs in many details by region. Music and steps typically reflect a region’s history, culture and livelihood. In addition, some regions incorporate items such as fans, small towels or wooden clappers into the dance, while others do not. Nonetheless, everyone is welcome to join in the Bon-Odori dance. When the festival draws to a close, paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolizing the ancestors’ return to the world of the dead (Toro Nagashi). Fireworks often follow.

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada. In Brazil, street Odori dancing complements the Matsuri dance, and Taiko (drumming) and Shamisen contests are held. Buddhist Churches of America temples host events throughout the United States, and in Hawaii and California, events are abundant.


Bon dances worldwide take on the values and culture of their regions, and in Oahu, Hawaii, 2015 will feature a Super Hero Bon Dance; a Buddhist Sangwa ceremony at Hawaii’s Plantation Village; children’s lantern parades; traditional drumming and dancing. (Learn more here.) Though travel is spread out through the month, experts estimate that the peak of Obon travel 2015 will be between August 8 and August 16.

Hinamatsuri: Japanese families bring out the dolls in elaborate displays

TUESDAY, MARCH 3: Intricately detailed dolls are displayed en masse across Japan and in Japanese communities worldwide, as Hinamatsuri commences.

Known alternatively as “Doll’s Day,” or “Girls’ Day,” Hinamatsuri draws from the custom of doll display that began during the Heian period. When people believed that dolls could contain bad spirits, it was also believed that by floating a doll down a river aboard a simple boat, bad spirits would be carried away, too. Today, few Japanese float dolls out to sea—due to environmental concerns and complaints from fishermen who find dolls tangled in their nets.  Alternatively, the dolls are placed onto boats until after ceremonies are complete, at which time the dolls are recollected and burned in a temple.


Elaborate hina dan, or platforms, used to display Hinamatsuri dolls have seven levels. The top tier holds two imperial dolls—the Emperor and Empress—placed in front of a gold folding screen; the second tier holds three court ladies; the third holds five male musicians. On the fourth platform, two ministers stand on either side of bowl tables; on the fifth tier, samurai are displayed, and on the final two platforms, various furniture pieces, tools and more are placed. When Hinamatsuri is over, dolls are taken down almost immediately, for fears of superstition.

Care to read more? Wikipedia has a detailed overview of the traditions behind these platforms.

While praying for the happiness and health of young girls, families often consume hina-arare, bite-sized crackers, and hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake. Sushi rice topped with raw fish and a salt-based soup, ushiojiru, are also commonly eaten on Hinamatsuri. The customary drink is shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. Though Hinamatsuri is primarily celebrated in Japan, festivities are also held in Hawaii and in select other regions of the world.


This year, a Japanese pastry and confectionery company, Mon Cher, is offering a line of Sanrio-inspired cakes for Hinamatsuri, featuring Hello Kitty and My Melody. (Read more here.) Similarly, many bakeries and food services offer specialty items for Doll’s Day.

At the Kyoto National Museum, an exhibition of historical Hinamatsuri dolls will be back for the first time in six years, as the museum’s new wing has reopened to the public after construction. (The Japan Times reported.) This year, the exhibition will feature dolls from different eras, including a new donation of dolls once commissioned for a baby girl in 1844.

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.)

Hinamatsuri: Japan marks Girls’ Day, doll displays and Baskin Robbins treats

MONDAY, MARCH 3: Anticipate the aroma of cherry blossoms and indulge in the elaborate beauty of dolls as Japanese communities across the globe celebrate Hinamatsuri. Alternatively called the Japanese Doll Festival, or Girls’ Day, Hinamatsuri sprung up from the ancient Japanese custom of floating dolls down a river in a tiny boat, in belief that the dolls would take any bad spirits with them. During the Heian period (Heian meaning “peace,” or “tranquility,” in Japanese, and representing the last division of classical Japanese history) it became customary to display dolls, too.

Today, Hinamatsuri serves as an opportunity for young girls, families, shops and museums alike to set out their best display of Hina dolls. The dolls are traditionally arranged on seven platforms, and community members pray for the health and well being of young girls.

The dolls on a Hinamatsuri set of platforms may be simple or elaborate, but placing instructions are, customarily, very specific. The entire stand of dolls must represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians of the Heian period—all in traditional attire. (Wikipedia has details.) The first platform displays the Emperor and Empress, in front of a golden screen; the second platform holds three court ladies, each of which hold sake equipment. The third platform presents five male musicians; the fourth platform demonstrates two ministers, a mandarin orange tree and a cherry blossom tree. On the fifth platform, three helpers protect the Emperor and Empress; on the sixth and seventh platforms, a variety of doll furniture and tools is displayed.

Most doll displays are constructed in February, although superstition prevents them from being left up after March 3. Outside of Japan, Hinamatsuri is met with revel in Florence, Italy, in Hawai’i and in Japanese communities worldwide.

Chirashizushi (rice topped with raw fish), sugar- or soy-flavored crackers and sake made from fermented rice are all popular fare for the day.


These days, Hina doll displays are so popular that they are making headlines far and wide: The Portland Japanese Garden, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo, Mitsui Memorial Museum and Meguro Gajoen in Tokyo are just a few of the places advertising their doll platforms and goings-on for Hinamatsuri.

Baskin Robbins is taking a cue from the holiday and has released five new ice cream dolls in a tiered box, each in a different flavor—representing, of course, the Emperor and Empress and their attendants. (Fox News reported.)

Starbucks has also taken a cultural prompt with this season’s springtime sakura beverage lineup, which reflects Hinamatsuri’s sakuramochi (a Japanese confectionery of pink rice cake, red bean paste and a cherry blossom leaf). Drinks boasts white chocolate, sakura flowers and leaves and strawberry infused whipped cream—but, unfortunately for international clients, this lineup is only offered in Japan.

Obon: Buddhists, Japanese culture embrace ancestors and Bon dances

MONDAY, JULY 15-SUNDAY, AUGUST 18: It’s Obon season! From China to Japan to Hawai’i and in Buddhist communities worldwide, temples are adorned with hundreds of paper lanterns; devotees honor the spirits of deceased ancestors; the Bon-Odori dance invites participants of every age; flavorful chicken teriyaki, steaming bowls of udon and juicy watermelon slices are the common fare.

The festival of Obon lasts just three days, but when the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian at the beginning of the Meiji area, localities reacted differently—and now, different regions mark Obon at widely varying times between mid-July and mid-August. (Wikipedia has details.)

Obon is a shortened version of the term Ullambana, which, in Buddhism, indicates great suffering. By praying for ancestors’ spirits, it’s believed that their suffering can be lessened; the Bon-Odori dance is a joyful recognition of the alleviation of suffering.


Japanese culture has embraced Obon for more than 500 years, but the story of Bon Odori begins much earlier, with a disciple of Buddha. According to legend, this disciple possessed supernatural powers that he used to look upon his deceased mother. The disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and was suffering there. Deeply bothered, the disciple approached Buddha and asked how he might free his mother’s soul from the realm. Buddha instructed the monk to make offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, and when the monk did this, he saw his mother’s release. In joy, he also began to see his mother’s past unselfishness and the numerous sacrifices she had made for him. Now overjoyed, the monk danced the first “Bon Odori” dance. (The Shingon Buddhist International Institute has more.) Centuries later, adherents continue to recognize the sacrifices and goodness of their ancestors during the festival of Obon.


Legend has it that the monk of Bon Odori called upon Buddha in the seventh lunar month, and as such, Obon has always been a summer festival. (Interested in a short documentary of a Japanese observation of Obon? Check out this one on YouTube.)

Lightweight, cotton kimonos are commonly worn by dancers and festival attendees, with carnivals in some areas and a mix of summer and traditional foods. Bon dances are as different as the regions that perform them, with some using accessories like fans or towels and others imitating the area’s history. (This press story interviews a 77-year-old woman who has been dancing traditionally since age 4.) Modern Bon dance music can be written to the beat of well-known songs or kids’ tunes, and often, steps are intentionally simple so that everyone can participate.

Lanterns are hung on the front of houses throughout Obon to guide ancestors’ spirits home, and on the last day of Obon, the paper lanterns are illuminated with a candle and floated down a river or body of water to symbolize the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the deceased. (Make your own lanterns and teach kids about Obon with help from Circle Time Kids and In Culture Parent.) A grand fireworks display ends the ceremonies.


Though Obon is not a national holiday, many Japanese citizens take vacations during this time and return home for family reunions. (Get the scoop for 2013 in Japan at Japan-Guide.) Calendar interpretations vary widely, placing Obon in mid-July in Tokyo, in mid-August in China, and varying in other regions of Japan, such as Okinawa.

Outside of Japan, dates also vary in Brazil, which houses the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Hawai’i follows suit, where Japanese-American events are prominent. (In San Jose, Japantown provides food and entertainment in mid-July; the Kauai Museum in Hawai’i is currently running a “Buddhist Temples of Hawaii” exhibit; in Ontario, a press story covers the deep-rooted history of its Buddhist temple.) Street festivals stocked with Japanese culture, art and cuisine are also popular during Obon season.