Spiritual Summers in Japan: All about Obon

Japan is a wonderful place to visit year round, for a number of reasons. The seasons are all so diverse, and different times of year have their own unique beauty and traditions. Festivals are one of those traditions that you can look forward to no matter the time of year you visit - there's just about always something exciting happening.

When it comes to summer festivals though, there is a significant one that comes to mind - and that's the Obon Festival.

PC: Flickr User Al Case

What is Obon?

Obon is a yearly Japanese festival - and the purpose of it is to commemorate loved ones that have passed away. The history behind how it started comes from a Buddhist text, which described how a devout monk danced with joy after releasing his mother’s spirit from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (think of the Realm of Hungry Ghosts a bit like a limbo state).

The Japanese have extremely strong ties to their ancestors - and one of the main traditions that existed even before Buddhism was brought to Japan is known as haka mairi, or grave worshipping. This is where families go annually to their ancestral gravesite -  they clean the area and pay homage to those that have passed, whilst asking for support and blessings with their lives in the present. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, Obon was really a natural progression from beliefs and traditions that already existed here. The foundation of strong ties to ancestors and paying homage to them was already in place - Obon was just another way to express this.

Like the monk that danced to set his mother's spirit free, you'll see dancing as being central to the Obon festival - the purpose of it is to express happiness for life and health right now, and to also honor and remember the loved ones that have gone before us.
Lanterns at an Obon Festival in Asakusa. PC: Flickr User line.

When in summer is Obon held?

There is a little bit of variation with this. The reason for the variation all comes down to when Japan went from observing the Lunar Calendar to observing the Gregorian calendar. As a result, different parts of Japan decided on which calendar they would use for Obon dates.

Shichigatsu Bon - or Bon in July, is based off the solar calendar and is celebrated around  the 15th of July in the Eastern part of Japan (including Tokyo, Yokohama, and the Tohoku region). The majority of the country however stuck with Hachigatsu Bon - you guessed it, Bon in August, which is based on the lunar calendar. Hachigatsu Bon is celebrated around the 15th of August. 

The good thing about the differing dates is hopefully you'll get to experience one or the other since they're held a month apart. Who knows - depending on the duration of your stay in Japan you might be able to time it right and get to experience both Shichigatsu Bon and Hachigatsu Bon, if you're a real festival aficionado.

Where are some good places for me to check out an Obon Festival, if I'm interested?

If you want to experience the Obon Festival that is arguably the most famous and popular, it might be worth your  while to head down to Kyoto for the Daimonji Gozan Okuribi Fire Festival. The unique part of this Obon Festival is that at the end, bonfires are lit in the surrounding hillside with poignant Chinese characters to farewell the ancestral spirits. Kyoto does get particularly busy around this time of year, so if it is a must see on your travel itinerary it's important to ensure you have your plans squared away in advance.

Another great spot if you want a bit of a different Obon experience is Okinawa. Not only is Okinawa a beautiful island to visit (and has some amazing beaches, perfect for summertime!) but they celebrate Obon a little bit differently too. In the rest of Japan, Obon is finalized with the lighting of lanterns and the Bon Odori dancing. In Okinawa however, Obon celebrations conclude with Eisa Festival dancing, which literally goes into the early hours of the morning. If you want a taste of the Eisa Festival but can't get to Okinawa, there's one held in Shinjuku on July 29th this year. You can check out the website here for more information.

People in the street celebrating the Eisa Festival of Obon in Okinawa. PC: Flickr User japanstyle

You'll find Obon Festivals being held all around the place though - my first year in Japan, I was just heading to my local train station in the Tokyo suburbs and came across one. Another year, we were in Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, and there was one being held at an elementary school ground. 

A smaller Obon Festival we attended a couple of summers back in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

Obon festivities are also held outside Japan - there are a large number of festivals held in the United States  (Hawaii alone has a bunch of them!)  as well as in Brazil, Malaysia, China and more. If your Japan vacation is still in the planning stages or the timing isn't going to line up for you to attend Obon, depending on where you are located in the world you might have a festival being held nearby.

Am I allowed to just get up and join in with the dancing? Are there procedures or protocols I need to keep in mind?

You can absolutely get up and join in! There is usually a raised platform (like you can see in the picture I took above, and also in the one with the taiko drums below) which will have lanterns strung up and people will be on there already. Those people will be demonstrating the moves for you and indicating which way in the circle to dance. You can also just jump into the circle and follow your neighbors to the left and right of you as well, if you're feeling confident - you'll usually make some quick friends in the process! 

Another really fun thing about Obon is that different regions in Japan have different dances - for instance, the one I went to in the Tokyo suburbs wasn't the same dance as the one I went to in Kanazawa. You see things like coastal locations having dance moves that mimic actions like casting nets or throwing out fishing lines, and mining towns having moves that mimic digging, or pushing a cart. That uniqueness is a little foray into the culture of an area too!

A couple of other reasons why Obon is great to experience...

It's a good excuse to buy and wear a yukata

If you're in Japan right now, you may have already seen people walking around the streets in their beautiful patterned yukata - think of them as a lightweight, more casual version of a kimono. They're one of the most functional pieces of attire you could wear in the humid Japanese summer, since they're most often made of breathable cotton. Just about everyone will be in yukata at these festivals - and that's not to say that you need to wear one (it's certainly not compulsory!) However, if you have been contemplating purchasing one as a souvenir and you're wondering about where you'd feel comfortable wearing it - you'll be right at home wearing one here.

An Obon Festival held near Marunouchi in Tokyo, with everyone wearing their yukata. PC: Flickr User Guilhem Vellut

Festival Food!

If you're a foodie and enjoy experiencing that side of a country when you're on vacation you're in luck - every Obon festival I've been to has had multiple vendors selling a range of festival foods - you might find things like yakitori skewers, takoyaki, yakisoba, dango...my best advice would be follow your nose and go for whatever smells good to you. Festival foods also tend to be pretty budget friendly, so you can enjoy a cheap dinner and a cultural experience all at once. Don't forget to bring money for food, too - like most small vendors you'll encounter in Japan, cash is king and if you only have an ATM card on you, you'll be out of luck!

Getting around during Obon

Similar to the busy nature of Golden Week, the Obon timeframe also sees a lot of people traveling. The big difference with the purpose behind travel from Golden Week compared to Obon is that during Golden Week, most people are vacation bound - whereas during Obon, people are usually headed back to their hometowns. 

If you're here in Japan around the Obon timeframe, you might find things like heavier traffic, busier trains, and some accommodation options booking up faster than usual (and being more expensive as a result). Do bear that in mind and where possible have things reserved in advance. This is not really one of those times where I would suggest just winging it when it comes to having a place to stay!

This years busiest traffic days are anticipated to be around the 11th and 12th of August where most people will be heading out for Obon festivities, and then again around the 15th and 16th of August when most people would be making their return home. If you have to catch road transportation (such as an Airport Limousine Bus) to get to the airport for a flight on those dates, just give yourself a bit of extra time so as not to miss your departure.

One thing I will say about Obon is that since people are headed back to their hometowns, this makes a lot of rural areas incredibly interesting at this time of year. So often, the countryside of Japan gets passed over in favor of the cities - and don't get me wrong, the cities of Japan are amazing and absolutely worth your time! In saying that though, if you want a unique opportunity to see a rural town at its' vibrant best, then visiting during the Obon timeframe is an incredible experience.

Festivals truly are a wonderful way of soaking up the culture and traditions of Japan - and Obon is a great one to experience. I hope if you get the chance to attend the celebrations, you'll remember how lucky you are to be here and have the ability to dance, to travel, to eat, and to experience all the wonders life has to offer - do it while you can!

Enjoy summer in Japan, and safe travels!

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