What is Obon?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!