- Obon: a summer vacation?
- 1: Welcome Fires
- 2: Send off Fires
- 3: Mountain Bonfire
- 4: Spirit Boat Procession
- 5: Spirit Horses (Shoryo-uma)
- 6: Spending time with the family
- 7: Bon-Odori
Obon: a summer vacation?
Every year, for a few days before and after August 15th, it gets very crowded in Japan! This period is the peak of the summer vacation. Trains and tourist resorts overflow with people and not only are hotels and flights expensive, they become fully booked at an early stage.
But it is not just a simple summer vacation. This period is called “obon” and it is an important few days for the Japanese.
From ancient times, obon has been regarded as a period when the spirits of our ancestors return from the afterlife to spend time with their families, at the end of which they will go back to where they came from. For this reason, people return to their hometown, thank their ancestors together with all their relatives and hold a memorial service for them.
There are various customs and events concerning obon all across Japan. Maybe you’ll notice some of these during your trip.
1: Welcome Fires
When welcoming the spirits of ancestors, a fire is lit in front of houses to ensure that the spirits are able to return without getting lost.
2: Send off Fires
After obon, people also light fires as signposts leading to the after life when seeing off their ancestors.
3: Mountain Bonfire
This is a “ceremonial bonfire” event in Kyoto that is held on August 16th each year, in which bonfires are lit on 5 mountains all at once.
Letters are drawn on mountains with fire and spirits that were welcomed during obon are sent off to the afterlife. For more information, click here.
4: Spirit Boat Procession
This is a traditional event held on August 15th in Nagasaki.
People make boats for sending off the spirits of the dead to the afterlife. They carry the boats and walk in procession through the town.
The procession is marked by loud firecrackers.
5: Spirit Horses (Shoryo-uma)
There are some regions where decorations made by attaching disposable chopsticks etc. as legs to cucumber and eggplant are displayed.
When welcoming the spirits of ancestors, people put a cucumber resembling a horse on display so that their ancestors can “come home quickly.”
When sending them off, an eggplant resembling a cow is put on display so that their ancestors may “return at a leisurely pace, carrying plenty of offerings.”
6: Spending time with the family
It is one of the customs of obon for all the relatives to share a meal while they’re all gathered together. People look forward to presenting their newborn baby, bringing and introducing their fiancé/fiancée and seeing their grown children. They also visit their ancestors’ graves.
During this period in Japan, it is very crowded everywhere you go, but please remember that people are enjoying their summer vacation with their ancestors.
Incidentally, business districts and commuter trains are very quiet during the obon period!
If you wish to take part to these celebrations with the locals, please check our article: The Best Japanese Festivals for the Second Half of August
Bon-Odori, or Bon dances, take place all over Japan. As for Obon customs themselves, the dances and costumes vary depending on the region. For more information about the dances, you can read our article about bon-odori dance festivals.