Obon is one of the most important cultural traditions of the Japanese. It is a Buddhist festival and is traditionally a period of praying for the repose of the souls of one’s ancestors. Prayers are said especially for anyone who has died in the previous year as it is believed that they need more guidance to find their way. People believe that their ancestors’ spirits come back to their homes to be reunited with their family during Obon.
Obon is an important family gathering time and many people return to the place they were born or where their family resides. Traditionally, Obon was originally celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. However, with the introduction of the Western solar calendar to Japan, Obon periods are nowadays different in various regions of Japan. In most regions, Obon is celebrated around August 15th on the solar calendar. It starts from August 13th and ends on 16th. In some areas in Tokyo, Obon is celebrated around July 15th on the solar calendar, and it is still celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar in many areas in Okinawa.
The festival was started in the 7th century although many of the events have changed and it is one of the most significant and enjoyable of the Japanese festivals. It goes by a variety of names, the most popular of which is “The Festival of the Dead”. People clean their houses and offer a variety of food such as vegetables and fruits to the spirits of ancestors in front of the butsudan (Buddhist family altar). The butsudan is decorated with flowers and chouchin (paper lanterns). On the 13th, chouchin are lit inside houses, and people go to their family’s graves to call their ancestors’ spirits back home. This custom is called mukaebon. In some regions, fires called mukaebi are lit at the entrances to homes to guide the ancestors’ spirits.
On the 16th, People bring the ancestors’ spirits back to graves, hanging chouchin painted with the family crest to guide the ancestors’ spirits. This is called okuribon. In some regions, fires called okuribi are lit at entrances of homes to send the ancestors’ spirits away. During Obon, the air in houses and cemeteries in Japan are filled with the smell of incense called senko. Toro Nagashi (floating paper lanterns) is a custom often held during Obon. On the evening of the 15th, people send off ancestors’ spirits with a paper lantern inside which is a lit candle. The lanterns are floated down a river to the ocean.
Bon odori (folk dances) are customary during Obon. The kind of dance varies from area to area. People wearing yukata (summer kimono) go to the neighbourhood bon odori hall and dance around a yagura stage. Anyone can participate in bon odori, and everyone is invited to join the circle of dancers and imitate what others are doing. Usually, taiko drums keep the rhythms in bon odori.
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