What is Obon?

As Obon often coincides with summer vacation for ALTs, it’s common for the office to be especially empty during this summer holiday. But what exactly is Obon?

Travel Season

Obon is not a national holiday, but many people take vacations during this time to visit their hometowns. Mid-August is another peak travel season much like Golden Week in early May, so airports, train stations and highways are jammed with travelers. Travel expenses are also at peak price during this period.

Cultural Meaning

Obon is one of the most important traditions in Japan. People pray for the spirits of their ancestors, who they believe come back to their homes to be reunited with their family during Obon. For this reason, family gatherings are very important during this time, and many people return to their hometowns.

Post-Disaster Obon 2011

Asahi news article available here.
Following the tsunami disaster of 2011, even 5 months after the disaster, thousands of bodies were still missing in the Tohoku region. With the approaching Obon holiday, many cities ramped up efforts to dig through areas of hardened sludge and rubble to try and find as many remains of bodies as they could, so the souls of the dead could find peace and safely return home. In the meantime, some families pay respects to lost family members by directly visiting the disaster sites and offering gifts and prayers to their loved ones. Many other evacuee families have mourned over their inability to return to their hometown to meet the souls of ancestors and lost family members awaiting them.

Date of Observance

Obon is celebrated from the 13th to the 15th day of the 7th month of the year, which is July according to the solar calendar. However, according to the formerly used lunar calendar, the 7th month of the year roughly coincides with August. So Obon is celebrated in mid-July in some regions of Japan (namely the Kanto region), and mid-August in others.

Cultural Practices
source image by chrisdesu

Japanese people clean their houses and place a variety of food offerings such as vegetables and fruits to the spirits of ancestors in front of a butsudan (Buddhist altar). Chochin (paper lanterns) and flower arrangements are usually placed by the butsudan.

On the first day of Obon, the chochin lanterns are lit inside houses, and people go to their family’s grave to call their ancestors’ spirits back home. This is called mukae-bon. In some regions, fires called mukae-bi are lit at the entrances of houses to guide the spirits. On the last day, people bring the ancestor’s spirits back to the grave, hanging chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits. This is called okuri-bon. In some regions, fires called okuri-bi are lit at entrances of houses to send off the ancestors’ spirits. Some fires are lit on the side of mountains, such as in Kyoto. During Obon, the smell of senko (Japanese incense sticks) fills Japanese houses and cemeteries.

source image by frognavel

People go to their neighborhood Bon Odori (folk dance) held at night in parks, gardens, shrines, or temples, and wear yukata (summer kimono) and dance around a yagura stage. Styles of dance vary from area to area, but Japanese taiko drums keep the rhythm while people from the community dance in yukatas. Anyone may participate in Bon Odori, so you are free to join the line and imitate the dance of those around you.

Toro Nagashi (floating lanterns) is a tradition often observed during Obon. People send off their ancestors’ spirits with the lanterns, lit by a candle inside and floated down a river to the ocean.


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