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What Is the Japanese Summer Tradition of Obon?

Obon is an important traditional event of the summer in Japan. It is the practice of honoring the memory of ancestors and others who have passed away, and paying them respects. Following is some background information on obon.

What Is Obon?

In Japan, there is an age-old summer tradition of welcoming back and honoring the spirits of ancestors. The period when ancestors and others who have passed away return to earth is called Obon, and many people visit their hometowns during this time. Many companies close down for about a week, so it is also a popular period for travel. As a result, shinkansen bullet trains, airplanes and highways are all very crowded and scenes of the crowds are often used to illustrate the period.

When Is It?

The exact timing of obon differs by region. It is most commonly observed from August 13 to 16, and areas including Hokkaido, Niigata, Nagano, southern Kanto and Kansai consider this period to be obon. However, in Tokyo, Yokohama and the Tohoku Region, obon is observed a month earlier from July 13 to 16, and in northern Kanto, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushu, and the southeastern islands, it is the three days with July 15 of the old Japanese calendar at the center, so the dates in the current calendar changes yearly (in 2018, it is August 24 - 26). Most companies take their obon break for three to five days around August 14 and 15.

What Kind of Events Are There?

During the obon period, people commonly visit the family grave or hold memorial services with relatives. The practices differ by region, with some regions lighting fires in front of their doors to welcome and send off the ancestral spirits and keep them from getting lost. There are also many regions that have fireworks and festivals to send off the spirits.

Gozan no Okuribi

A major summer event in Kyoto is Gozan no Okuribi. It is held on the last day of obon, and fires are lit on the five mountains surrounding Kyoto to send off the ancestral spirits.

Toro Nagashi / Shoryo Nagashi

Toro Nagashi and Shoryo Nagashi are also ways of sending off the spirits. Paper lanterns and boats with offerings are floated out to sea and down rivers so that the spirits can ride back to the netherworld.

Shoryo-uma / Shoryo-ushi

Shoryo-uma and Shoryo-ushi are created to welcome back and send off the ancestral spirits in the Tohoku, Kanto and Hokuriku Regions. They are horses and oxen made out of cucumbers and eggplants that are offered as vehicles for the spirits to travel between this world and the netherworld. Some believe that the horses are sent to bring back the spirits as soon as possible and the oxen are offered so they can go back as slowly as possible, while others think that the oxen are to welcome the spirits back slowly and gracefully, while the horses take them back swiftly.

Okinawa's Unique Style of Obon

In Okinawa, where ancestral worship is particularly important, obon (July 14 - 16 of the lunar calendar) is considered to be the most important traditional event of the year. The obon customs practiced in Okinawa is quite different from the rest of the country.
In each area of Okinawa, Michijune, which is the practice of dancing the traditional Eisa dance on the streets, is held to welcome the ancestral spirits back. It is also common for families to make offerings of sugar canes as walking sticks that the ancestral spirits can use when going back to the netherworld, so they "do not tire or fall". It is also a uniquely Okinawan practice to burn Uchikabi, which are wads of paper that represent money, so that the ancestors "are not short of cash" in the netherworld.

As you can see, the timing of obon and the practices can differ from region to region. There are many more obon-related practices, such as bon-odori, a dance by people of all ages to welcome back and send off the spirits.

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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