Japanese Culture Explained: Obon (お盆)

Do you know what Obon (お盆) is? Is it a national holiday in Japan? What does it have to do with cucumbers and eggplants anyway? Here is a guide to enlighten you on Obon, one Japanese summer tradition!


Japanese Culture

1. Obon is a set of activities done around 7/15 or 8/15, according to which calendar you follow.


Obon is a set of events done over the course of several days to worship the ancestor's spirits. Generally, Obon is now done according to the new calendar, which is around 8/15. Some regions celebrate the Obon according to the old calendar, which is around 7/15.

2. The word origin of "Obon" comes from the Buddhism term, "Urabone" (盂蘭盆会).


Urabone is an event for the ancestors' and parents' spirits to save them from suffering. It's said that Japan started this event around 606. Then it stuck around after that, and the word shortened to "Obon".

Obon events differ from region to regions. Here I will introduce the standard Obon events.

3. Kamabutatsuitachi (釜蓋朔日)


This event is done on the 1st. It is told that on the day of the lid of the cauldron of hell opens, so it's the start of Obon. People go to their ancestors' graves, and start preparations to welcome their spirits.

4. Tanabata (七夕)


Tanabata is also written as 棚幡. You might know it as the Tanabata Matsuri, with the story of the two lovers in the Milky Way, but this is different. On the 7th, the Shouryoudana (精霊棚), shown in the image above, which is a shelf that welcomes the spirit, and a Ban (幡) beside the Shouryoudana, which is a flag, and shown in the image above, are set. 

5. Mukaebi (迎え火)


On the evening of 13th, you make a small fire called Mukaebi. This fire is done to welcome the spirit. After this, people pile offerings on the Shouryoudana, such as watermelons, fruits, vegetables, sweet snacks, and so on.

6. Okuribi (送り火)

iScene / scenicscenery/Flickr

On the 16th, you make another fire called an Okuribi. This fire is done to send the spirit from the living world to the world of the dead. The scale of the fire is small, done at the entrance of the house, which is shown in the image above, or large, done in the mountains or by the oceans. 

7. Bon Odori (盆踊り)


Bon Odori is done on the evening of the 16th. Inside the grounds of the temple, people gather around and dance to the beat of the Japanese drum. This event is said to imitate the joy and dancing of the dead who escaped the torture and suffering of hell. Lately, Bon Odori is no longer a religious event, and has become more of an entertaining event. The video below is footage of the Bon Odori.

8. Shouryou Uma (精霊馬)


Shouryou Uma are a cucumber and an eggplant that have 4 sticks impaled in them. The cucumber represents a horse that takes the spirits to their homes quickly. The eggplant represents the cow that will slow down the spirit's return to the other world, making them stay longer in the living world. The Shouryou Uma is offered on the Shouryoudana. 

9. Uibon (初盆)


In Buddhism, when a person dies, the family mourns for 49 days. It is said that it takes 49 days for the spirit of the dead to go to the land of the dead. Uibon is the first Obon that is done after the 49 days. It is also called the Shinbon (新盆). Some regions use white lanterns to indicate their Uibon.

10. The period of Obon is treated as a holiday in Japan.


The days of the Obon period are not national holidays, yet many people take days off to go home. Celebrating Obon doesn't exaclty mean you're a devoted Buddhist. Going home at Obon means more of a chance to meet with your family. If you're planning on going anywhere in Japan during the Obon season, be aware to reserve your train/plane tickets beforehand, because it's likely that many people are going places during that period. 

Here on, I'll introduce Obon events that are particular to different regions.

11. Gozan no Okuribi (五山の送り火) - Kyoto


Gozan no Okuribi is a form of Okuribi done at Nyoigadake (如意ヶ獄) on 8/16 of every year. 5 fires imitating a letter or a shape is done around 20:00 on 5 mountains. It is also called "Daimonji no Okuribi" (大文字の送り火). Official website in Japanese here.

12. Funakko Nagashi (舟っこ流し) - Iwate


Funakko Nagashi is an event of Okuri Bon (送り盆), which is to see off the spirits at Morioka-shi, Iwate. It is a form of Okuribi. The neighborhood association or temples write the names of the family's ancestors or the deceased's Buddhist name on a note and then tapes it on a small boat. These boats are then decorated with lanterns and paper flowers, and called "Funakko" (舟っこ). The Funakko are transported to the river, lit on fire and set off into the stream. Official website in Japanese here.

13. Kemanai no Bon Odori (毛馬内の盆踊り) - Akita

Kemanai no Bon Odori is done from 8/21 - 8/23, in Kazuno-shi, Akita. It is named as one of Japan's intangible folk culture assets. Bonfires are lit on the road, and the dancers dance around it in an ellipses shape. 

14. Fukagawa Matsuri (深川祭) - Tokyo

shuets udono/Flickr

Fukagawa Matsuri is done on 8/15 in Koto-ku, Tokyo. It has a history of 370 years. The Omikoshi is carried out of the Shinto shrine, and transported around the roads with shouts of "Wasshoi!" (わっしょい), then carried back inside. It is customary to spray water to the people who carry the Omikoshi, to avoid them overheating. For this reason, this matsuri is also called "Mizukake Sai" (水掛け祭).

15. Kisarazukou Matsuri (木更津港まつり) - Chiba

Kisarazukou Matsuri is done from 8/14 - 8/15 in Kisarazu-shi, Chiba. The first day is Yassai Mossai Odori Taikai (やっさいもっさい踊り大会). A group of people, called Ren (連), dance through the streets singing and shouting "Yassai Mossai". There is a standard dance, which is shown in the video above. Freestyle dancing is also allowed, but it must be adequate to the atmosphere of the whole dance. The second day is a firework festival. Every year, approximately 8000 fireworks display the night skies. 

16. Owara Kaze no Bon (おわら風の盆) - Toyama

Owara Kaze no Bon is a festival that is done from 9/1 - 9/3 in Yatsuo (八尾), Toyama-shi, Toyama. The dancers perform in silence as they dance to the folk song Ecchu Owara Setsu (越中おわら節). 

17. Gujyou Odori (郡上おどり) - Gifu

Gujyou Odori is a Bon Odori done from the middle of July up to the first week of September, in Gujyou-shi, Gifu. From 8/13 - 8/16, people dance from 20:00 till morning. The dancing sites change throughout the day, from fields, parks, parking lots, ad roads to inside the temple grounds, and so on. 

18. Enshu Dainenbutsu (遠州大念仏) - Shizuoka

Enshu Daninenbutsu is a custom festival done on July within the areas of Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka. During the night of the Obon every July, people go around and perform the Nenbutsu Odori (念仏踊り) to the rhythm of the Japanese drum and bell at the houses going through Uibon.

19. Awa Odori (阿波踊り) - Tokushima

Awa Odori is a Bon Odori done during the summertime at cities, towns, and villages in Tokushima. It has a history of 400 years, and is one of the traditional performance arts in Japan. The number of dancers and visitors of the Awa Odori in Tokushima-shi is the largest in the country. Dancers perform in Ren, accompanied by the Shamisen, Japanese Drum, Shoko, and Shinobue, and the rhythm of the Yoshiko. Official website in Japanese here.

20. Eisa (エイサー) - Okinawa and Kagoshima


Eisa is a traditional performance art done during the Obon period in Okinawa and Kagoshima. To welcome their ancestors' spirits to the living world, young people go through the roads dancing to the rhythm of song and Hayashi (囃子). 

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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