Obon Festival — Japan's Day of the Dead

Obon Festival — Japan's Day of the Dead

By Chris QuanUpdated Oct. 22, 2021

Obon is one of Japan's most important festivals and is celebrated over 3 days in mid-August or July depending on the region. During this time, Japanese people pay respect to their ancestors and loved ones who have passed away through many beautiful ceremonies.

Obon, sometimes just called Bon, is a Buddhist festival that celebrates the time when the spirits are able to return to Earth and be with their families.

This is a large family holiday and many Japanese people will travel to their family homes, clean the graves of ancestors, and leave offerings at Buddhist shrines. Although Obon is not a public holiday in Japan, most people take a few days off to celebrate.

When is Obon?

Obon festival in Japan, Toro NagashiObon festival

In Japan, Obon is mainly observed from August 13 to 16.

Traditionally, Obon is celebrated from the 13th to the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar year. Today, the dates of the festival have been converted to a standard solar calendar date and while most regions of Japan celebrate from the 13th-15th of August, there are some regions that celebrate in July depending on their interpretation of the original lunar calendar.

Obon is a traditional festival and not an official holiday in Japan, but it is customary for people to be given leave, usually a 7–15 days’ vacation, known as the Obon week.

Public transport may be busier than normal as many people take a vacation during this period and return to their family homes. It is also a time when tickets for flights and trains are more expensive.

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What is Obon?

Obon is a yearly festival that is celebrated to remember and cherish one's ancestors. During this time, it is believed that all spirits return back to Earth and most families will leave offerings for their ancestor's spirits or hang lanterns to lead them home.

This festival is often compared to Mexico's Day of the Dead and China's Hungry Ghost Festival. The idea behind all of these holidays is quite similar. During Obon, people also clean and decorate the graves of their ancestors. While cleaning the graves, some may talk to their ancestors and update them on events that have occurred over the previous year including births and marriages.

Although this holiday may sound a little somber to Westerners, Obon is actually a happy and joyous festival filled with dancing, street food, and celebrations. The festival starts and ends with a large bonfire and throughout the holiday the streets are decorated with beautiful lanterns.

The Origins of the Obon Festival

The Obon Festival originates from the Buddhist story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha.

He used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother only to discover she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering.

He tired using his powers to feed food into his mother's mouth, only to see the food just fed into her mouth turn into charcoal.

Greatly saddened, he went to the Buddha and asked how he could relieve his mother’s suffering. Buddha instructed him to make offerings to the many Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.

Mokuren did this and, thus, saw his mother's relief. He was happy and danced with joy. From this dance of joy comes Bon Odori or the "Bon Dance”.

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Traditions of Obon

Obon is the second biggest traditional holiday in Japan after Japanese New Year.

1. Sweeping Graves and Offering Sacrifices

People return to their hometowns from the cities and visit the graves of their ancestors to offer sacrifices, such as flowers and fruits.

The most distinctive offerings are cucumbers and eggplants made into the shapes of horses and cows respectively. They are known as spirit mounts for the ancestors.

The horse is fast, and the ox is slow. Therefore, when the first day of calling the spirits home comes, people offer cucumber horses, and when the last day of guiding the spirits back to their resting places comes, people offer eggplant cows. It expresses the people's hope that their ancestors will come back quickly and go away slowly.

In addition to sweeping tombs, people also place these offerings in front of Buddhist niches in their homes.

2. Bon Odori

Bon Odori, or the Bon dance, is a style of dancing performed during Obon in the night.

In the middle of a square is a platform on which, usually, someone leads a song and the participants dance around it to the beat of Japanese taiko drums. Participants traditionally wear yukatas, a kind of light cotton kimono.

3. Having Vegetarian Meals

During the festival, people eat vegetarian food for three meals a day.

There are also special requirements for the offerings at the Obon altar. Fish and meat are avoided. Food should be prepared to be directly edible. For example, grapes need to be washed and put in a bowl, and apples or pears need to be peeled and placed on a table.

4. Giving Gifts

People give gifts to show their gratitude to those who have taken care of them, including parents, friends, leaders, and colleagues. Gifts are usually given between August 1 and August 15.

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How Obon is Celebrated

Obon is a time to be with family and celebrate loved ones. Many Japanese people return to their ancestral homes during this festival and because it is not a public holiday, most will take time off work. The most important part of the celebrations is honoring ancestors by leaving a variety of food offerings for them at Buddhist altars.

Before Obon begins, it is common to clean the homes and set out offerings to be prepared for when the spirits arrive.

On August 13th — Calling the Spirits Home

The first day of Obon is for guiding the spirits home. On this day, people will light paper lanterns and hang them in their homes and on doorways. It's also common to see red and white lanterns decorating the streets of most towns and cities. Families may also carry a lantern with them to the graves of family members in order to help guide them home.

Some regions light a giant fire called a mukaebi which is meant to welcome the spirits and families may also light a small bonfire at their homes. It's also common to create an altar for ancestors where offerings and small memorial tablets are placed.

On August 14th — Celebrations and Bon Dances

On this day, families may invite Buddhist monks to visit their homes or go to a temple or shrine to recite prayers.

There is also a traditional activity called Bon Odori dancing that is performed in parks, gardens, or shrines across the country. The styles of folk dance may differ from region to region, but most are accompanied by traditional Japanese taiko drums and are free to watch.

Entire families often spend this day together laughing and telling stories about the deceased. Meals served on this day are typically vegetarian.

On August 16th — Seeing off the Spirits

The last day of Obon is for guiding the spirits back to their resting places or back to the water, which is where spirits are traditionally believed to reside. During this day, many regions light another bonfire and hang more lanterns painted with the family crest to guide spirits back to their graves.

There is a big ceremony of sending off fires in the mountains of Kyoto. People use wood to form a large "大" character, and then set it on fire.

Some regions of the country celebrate a festival called Toro Nagashi on this day which involves releasing hundreds of floating lanterns onto rivers and lakes. These floating lanterns are meant to guide the spirits back to their world. Each toro nagashi contains a candle and is often placed in a waterway that will eventually lead to the ocean.

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Taboos in Obon Festival

  • Do not hang wind chimes at the head of the bed — it is said that if there is a noise, it will bring bad things.
  • Don't hang your clothes out at night — strange ghosts may take your clothes to wear.
  • Don't stay outside too long. In Japan, there is a saying that during the festival, ghosts will walk on the streets. If you come back too late, you will meet them and be abducted.
  • Don't steal the offerings.
  • Don’t take photos at night — cameras will capture bad spirits.
  • Don’t swim — It is said that water ghosts in the water will drag you down.
  • Don't tap people on the shoulder. It is said that people have (spiritual) fire on their shoulders, and ghosts will be afraid to get close. If the fires are put out (by tapping shoulders), ghosts will come.
  • Do not put slipper heels towards the direction of your bed — Ghosts may figure out where you're sleeping based on the direction, and come and sleep with you, which may lead to sleep paralysis.

Japan’s Obon Festival vs China’s Ghost Festival

Japan’s Obon is similar to China’s Ghost Festival (Zhongyuan Festival). They have many similarities. They have similar taboos; they are both traditional festivals; they are both related to death…

However, there are some differences between Obon and China’s Ghost Festival.

Different Dates

Japan’s Obon has fixed dates to celebrate Obon, usually from August 13 to 16 (following a switch from using the lunar calendar). But the Chinese Ghost Festival is calculated according to the lunar calendar, on the 15th of the 7th lunar month (falling from early August to early September). This Year [2021] China’s Ghost Day falls on August 22.

In Japan, people usually have a vacation, while in China, no holidays are taken for the Ghost Festival.

Different Religious Connections

The Japanese Obon Festival is influenced by Buddhism. It focuses on ancestor-worshipping celebrations. The Chinese Ghost Festival is more influenced by Taoism. It is more focused on the worship of ghosts.

Different Ways to Celebrate

Obon is a grand traditional festival in Japan. There are big sacrificial events, dance events, and markets.

In China, the main Ghost Festival ceremony is usually held at dusk on one day. People put the family’s ancestral tablets and old paintings and photographs on a table and then burn incense near them. People also feast on this night, and they might leave a place open at the table for a lost ancestor.

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Obon Festival Foods

Obon is one of the biggest summer festivals in Japan and is a great time for street food so its a great time to visit for adventurous eaters especially because the country has surprisingly little street food available in cities during normal times.

Some of the top foods to try at street food stalls during Obon include Takoyaki (breaded octopus topped with pancake sauce and dried seaweed), maki sushi (traditional sushi rolls where all the ingredients are wrapped together in seaweed), yakisoba (fried noodles), yakitori (chicken skewers), and okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancakes).

Top Places to Visit during Obon

If you are planning to visit Japan in July, then you can see the Obon celebrations in some areas of Tokyo and also in Okinawa.

If you plan on visiting in August, then some of the best Obon celebrations to see include Awa Odori in Tokushima and Tokyo, the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi Fire Festival in Kyoto, the Hokkai Bon Odori in Hokkaido, and the Nagasaki Shoro Nagashi Festival in Nagasaki.

During Toro Nagashi, you can see some of the best lantern releases in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo and in Hiroshima.

Traveling in Japan during Obon

One important thing to note when visiting Japan during Obon is that along with New Year and Golden Week, this is the busiest travel time of the year with plenty of domestic and international travel occurring at the same time. It's likely that hotel prices will be higher than normal during Obon and it will be necessary to book all tickets and rooms well in advance.

Japan's famous high-speed trains see a lot of traffic between August 8 and 16 as Japanese people travel back home for the holiday and then back to the cities for work. Make sure to keep this in mind when buying rail passes and traveling.

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