The Japanese Tradition of Visiting the Ancestors’ Graves during ‘Obon’

Visiting graveyards to rest your ancestor’s soul is called “Haka-mairi”. You can visit the graveyards anytime, but people will usually visit on the same day as the Buddhist memorial service and on the same day of their death.



Obon is the season to visit graveyards.

In Japan, the Bon festival, or ‘Obon’ is a time of Summer when the spirits of the deceased are believed to come back to the family altars. It is also a time of the year when people visit their ancestors’ graves. (Also read our related article: 7 Japanese traditions for Obon)
Ancestors are believed to be enshrined in the graves, resting there. When they visit their graves, people pray for the rest of the souls of the deceased. They also talk to their ancestors, express their gratitude to them, report them about the latest news of the family.



They acknowledge their ancestors by polishing their graves.

A visit to a grave starts by cleaning the grave. In Japan, the graves are not individual but familial and several ancestors rest at the same place. After washing and purifying your hands, you collect water in a pail and head to the grave. A pail can be rented free of charge. After joining your hands in prayer, you pour the water onto the tombstone a little bit at a time and carefully wash the tombstone.
After cleaning the grave, you offer foods and fruits that the deceased enjoyed when they were alive. Flowers are also always placed at the grave. Chrysanthemum flowers are typically placed, but any flower the deceased liked may also be placed.
After lighting a candle and offering incenses, you quietly join your hands in prayer.


People will visit graveyards at other times besides the Obon season.

I used to go to my parent’s house and spend time with my grandparents and cousins. “Ohaka-mairi”, visiting the grave, is one of the customs that we do every year. I remember that I cleaned the graveyard and joined my hands to pray for them when I was little.  Today, I sometimes go there now to see my grandparents and talk to them about my life.

If you liked this article, you might want to read:

7 Japanese traditions for Obon 

Ohigan, an other tradition of visiting graves.

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