August is the hottest time of the year here in Japan.
Schools are on holiday and people head off into the mountains or to the seaside to try and escape from the heat.
August is also the time many Japanese companies close for a few days allowing their employees to return to their hometowns for the Obon festival which takes place between the 13th to the 15th of August. This is the Hachitgatsu Bon.
However, in some parts of Kanto, Obon takes place between the same dates in July, the Shichigatsu Bon.This discrepancy occured when Japan switched from the Lunar calendar to the Solar, or Gregorian, calendar. This happened at the beginning of the Meiji Era (明治時代 Meiji-jidai).
Not everyone returns to their hometowns. Many people take advantage of these holidays to travel overseas, so all motorways, bullet trains and airports are overcrowded at this time of the year.
Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) originates in the Japanese Buddhist custom of honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. It is similar to the Christian All Souls Day celebration. The Chinese have their QingMing festival and in India, they celebrate Pitru Paksha.
In Japan, this custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places.
Everyone visits and cleans their family graves. This is known as Ohakamairi 御墓参り. Graves are almost always located near the home of the male head of the family (Father, Grandfather etc.). Water is sprinkled on the grave stone, fresh flowers are placed in the holders and incense sticks are lit and prayers said.
During this period, the spirits of ancestors are supposed to return to their family homes, so a special altar is set up inside. This could be just an ordinary table covered with cloth, and pictures of deceased relatives placed on it. Decorative lanterns called bonbori 雪洞 are placed on the sides of the table.
Food, drinks and sweets are also placed on the table as offerings to the deceased. These are called Ozen お膳. Family members talk about their deceased relatives and will eat the food as well. In this way, the spirits of the deceased as treated as if they are still alive.
After the grave cleaning, families return home to get the evening meal ready. As they are expecting their ancestors to visit, a special fire is lit in front of the family grave and outside the front door to guide the spirits home. This fire is called mukaebi 迎え火. Some parts of Japan, a lantern is used instead of a fire.
As many family members return home to celebrate Obon, it is an enjoyable time with the house crowded with people, and grandparents get to spend time with their grandchildren. After dinner, the family talk about those who have passed on, thus keeping the memory alive.
However, Obon is not just about the dead. Everywhere comes alive with large festivals 祭り or smaller, local fairs known as ennichi 縁日.Ennichi are very popular with children as many vendors selling food and drink and confectionery, as well as games and toys, are present.
The highlight of the Obon season is, of course, the Bon Odori 盆踊り.These can be simple affairs held in the local temple during an ennichi and involving the local community, or huge tourist attractions live the Awa Odori 阿波踊り festival in Tokushima, which attracts over 1.3 million tourists every year.
As Obon occurs in the heat of the summer, participants traditionally wear yukata 浴衣, or light cotton kimonos. Bon dances generally take place around a yagura 矢倉, a central raised platform from which one person sings out a tune and others play traditional instruments such as a taiko drum 太鼓. All dancers perform the same steps simultaneously, while moving in a large circle around the yagura. Young and old alike dance together, having fun. In many places, practices for the bon odori start a few months before. Music played is traditional bon music and traditional Japanese music called min`yo 民謡,but some more modern and children`s songs are played, as well. Stalls selling soft drinks and food surround the dance area so people can stop and refresh themselves at any time.
After the few days of merrymaking and enjoyment, it`s time for the spirits to depart from the home and return to where they came from.Again, like the start of Obon, it is marked by fire. Families light a fire in front to their homes and the graves called okuribi 送り火.
In some communities that are near water, like a river or the seaside, lanterns may be set out on the river or sea to be floated away. This ceremony is called toronagashi 灯籠流し. In other places, fires are lit on the mountain side in the shape of a kanji character, the most popular being 大/dai (big). The most famous of these ceremonies is Kyoto`s Daimonji Gozan Okuribi 大文字五山送り火, or “Daimonji 大文字” for short. Five fires are lit on the mountain slopes around the Kyoto Basin 盆地, with the 大/dai character the most recognisable.
Obon is a beautiful tradition that brings entire families, and communities together, to pay respect to and honour their dead. Even the deceased get a chance to enjoy themselves, even if only spiritually.
So, get yourself a yukata and head down to the nearest ennichi and enjoy the bon odori!