About This Festival
We’ve all lost someone we’d like to bring back, and at Japan’s Obon Festival (also O-bon or Bon), spirits that have left the living are lured back with lanterns, candles and dance. This Japanese version of Asia’s hungry ghosts festivals is the nation’s most important religious holiday, based on the Buddhist belief that on the 15th day of the 7th month, the gateways to Heaven and Hell open, allowing spirits to visit the living world.
Obon's Spiritual Tale
The Obon Festival originates from the story of Mokuren, one of Buddha’s disciples who used his supernatural powers to check on his deceased mother. Mokuren discovered she had fallen into the realm of the hungry ghosts, a spiritual place often described as a parallel world of suffering endless hunger. Japan’s hungry ghosts come in two forms: Gaki (餓鬼), who were greedy in their lives and in the afterlife suffer insatiable hunger for one particular object, no matter how strange; and Jikininki (食人鬼), who were selfish among the living and now only have an appetite for the dead, looting graveyards at night searching for human flesh.
Buddha suggested Mokuren pray to a group of monks, who were returning from a summer pilgrimage on the auspicious 15th day of the 7th lunar month. Mokuren’s prayers were answered, and his mother was released from the realm of the hungry ghosts. Upon her release, Mokuren remembered his mother’s acts of kindness and danced for joy. That very dance has turned into the Bon dance, one of the most lasting cultural symbols of this festival.
A Family Affair
The Obon Festival has transformed into a family reunion of sorts. It’s common for urban dwellers to visit their hometowns and adorn their ancestors' graves with flowers, and many homes have altars dedicated to the spirits with food offerings and chochin lanterns. One of the most common and beautiful rituals is releasing toro nagashi (floating lanterns) into the ocean, rivers and lakes, carrying the spirit of ones ancestors back to the afterlife. Fire also plays a central role and is used in purification ceremonies (most temples have a candle-lighting ceremony).
The Awa Odori is perhaps the best part of the Obon Festival and takes place every August 13th through the 15th at Tokushima on Shikoku Island. Though the island’s population is only around 250,000, nearly 1.3 million visitors attend every year. The rowdy, street-dancing riot of color and culture originated in 1586, when a feudal lord hosted a sake-drenched party of epic proportions to inaugurate the Tokushima Castle. The ancient rules were strict: dancing in the streets was only allowed for these 3 days, samurai were only permitted to dance at home with the door closed, and there was no dancing at temples or with swords or masks. The Awa Odori dance was born from a mix of the Bon Odori and the aforementioned castle party, and the steps imitate the irregularity of a dancer who’s had one too many drinks. There are two forms of the dance: Nagashi, the daytime version, is beautiful and calculated, while the nighttime version, Zomeki, is wild and unpredictable. The best way to sum up this wild dance party is to look at the lyrics of the festival’s traditional song, which translate to, “The dancers are fools, the watchers are fools, both are fools alike so, why not dance?”
The Obon Festival lasts for 3 days and is celebrated at different times in different regions. Due to a shift from the lunar to the Gregorian calendar, there can be up to three different dates. Shichigatsu Bon (Bon in July) is celebrated in eastern cities such as Tokyo on July 15th. Hachigatsu Bon (Bon in August) and Kyu Bon (Old Bon) are based on the lunar calendar, and both are usually celebrated around August 15th. That can change yearly, however, so it’s best to check in advance.