Looking for a guide to the Japanese Halloween Obon festival? You’re at the right place.
If you’ve lived in Japan long enough, you know that every occasion in Japan is taken seriously and given a lot of importance.
There are some celebrations that are full of fun, filled with colour, lots of delicious food to eat and a treat for the senses, while there are others that hold a lot of meaning for the Japanese.
One of the most important festivals in Japan is Japanese Halloween Obon festival, where the Japanese pay respects to their deceased ancestors and others who were very dear to them.
Unlike the New Years celebrations, Obon is not really declared a holiday, but you will find the streets full of processions and everybody’s home decorated. You might even find a lot of Japanese taking a day or two off for this festival.
These days, many offices and commercial buildings also close shop for three or four days during Obon.
For those in the Western part of the world, Japanese Halloween Obon festival might sound a lot like Halloween. While there are some similarities, there are huge differences as well between the two festivals.
So, if you’re in Japan and you want to get ready to participate in this year’s Obon festival, read through this guide to understand why the is it conducted, the customs and practices etc. during the festival.
Guide to Japanese Halloween Obon festival
Origins of the Japanese Halloween Obon Festival
Many traditional cultures have a day in the calendar when the dead are remembered and honored. The Obon festival seems to have its origins in Buddhism and is said to have been brought to Japan by the Buddists.
You probably already know that Buddhism believes in the afterlife. The belief is that, sometimes, the spirits of the deceased might be in pain, and to ease their suffering, the Gods are offered food and other material to appease them.
This is said to have originated from the Buddha Himself when he advised his disciples to follow this practice.
Over time, of course, different traditions and practices have been included in the Japanese Halloween Obon festival.
What is the Japanese Halloween Obon Festival?
Today’s Obon is celebrated over a period of four days during the summer months in Japan. The main theme or the most important element used in the rituals is fire.
The days of the Japanese Halloween Obon festival start with fire and the last day of the festival weekends with fire as well.
Everyday has a different ritual, and every part of Japan celebrates this festival with slight variations, following different customs. However, all of them have a four day celebration and the idea behind it is the same.
The Week of Obon:
Day 1 : Mukaebi – August 13th
Mukaebi is the first day of the Japanese Halloween Obon festival. This is when people go to the cemeteries to wash and clean the headstones and graves of their loved ones and ancestors.
The area around the grave and headstone is also swept well and cleaned up. This practice is called Ohaka Mairi.
They then decorate these headstones with flowers and make offerings. A small bonfire is lit in the family’s house as it is believed that the spirits find their way back home on the day of the Japanese Halloween Obon festival.
This bonfire is meant to guide them and show them the path.
The altar in the home, dedicated to the deceased loved one is decorated with items that they would have loved. Offerings are made in the form of fruit, food, flowers and special Japanese sweets.
The altar is cleaned very well before decorating it.
A very unique practice during Obon is making models of a cow and a horse using eggplants and cucumbers respectively, along with sticks or chopsticks.
The idea is that the horse helps bring the spirits home swiftly for the Obon festival, while the cow slowly accompanies them when they are going back to heaven after the festival.
You might not come across this in the urban cities of Japan, but drive down to the countryside and you will see these creative vegetable models in many homes.
Day 2 & Day 3: Hoyo Kuyo – August 14th & 15th
The second and third days are spent visiting religious shrines, offering prayers. Many families also invite a Buddhist priest to their homes to offer prayers in the altar for the spirits.
Families which don’t do this make sure they visit a temple and offer their prayers there.
Hoyo Kuyo is also a time for getting together with the family. Family members gather for lunch or a meal and spend their time talking about their ancestors, narrating anecdotes.
They remember and speaking good about them.
While the Japanese in general eat a lot of non-vegetarian food, this particular meal is completely vegetarian. There are quite a few delicious items on the menu, though.
You can find lip smacking dishes made from stewed beans, tofu, vegetables and fresh fruit. As with everything in Japan, the food is elegantly presented too. This special meal is called Shojin Ryori.
Day 4: Okuribi – August 16th
Just as the first day of the Japanese Halloween Obon festival starts with fire, the last day ends the same way. The reason behind the fire being lit on the last day is to show the path to the spirits to go back to heaven.
This is the day when the Bon Odori dances are also organised across the country.
Go to the streets of Japan on the last day of the Obon festival and you will find them brightly lit with bonfires, lanterns, beautiful music and energetic dancers.
Want to Buy Lanterns for Japanese Halloween Obon festival:
What is a festival without some traditional festivities, dance and music. Bon Odori is the traditional Japanese dance performance (Odori translates to dance) that is held during the Obon festival to entertain the crowds.
It is believed that this dance dates back to the early 14th century. This dance is specially performed in dedication to the ancestors. In some parts of Japan, the dancers dress up in costumes and perform on the streets.
This could be considered similar to the Halloween celebrations in the West where people adorn costumes.
Another popular part of the Obon rituals is the Toro Nagashi. In some parts of the country, people go to the rivers and streams and float paper lanterns in the water.
These lanterns also signify the guiding light for the spirits to go back to heaven.
Best Places in Japan to Witness the Japanese Halloween Obon Festival:
People in different parts of Japan follow different customs when it comes to celebrating Obon. To truly experience Obon, you have to visit every part of the country and spend the entirety of the festival.
It is quite difficult to choose which city or prefecture you must visit this year as they are all a treat to the senses.
To witness something very similar to Halloween, pay a visit to Hokkaido during Obon.
Families exchange a lot of sweets and candles during the Obon festival, kind of like giving out candy and chocolates during Halloween.
A visit to the Iwate prefecture is guaranteed to get you real cheerful and happy. The streets are usually decorated colourfully and the festival lasts for four days as usual.
The final day is the most magical as you will witness beautiful boats decorated with lanterns.
These boats are then lit on fire and floated down the streams. As extreme as that may sound, it is something you must definitely see and experience.
Tono City has the custom of people lighting lanterns in the homes of those who have passed away within three years of each other.
This custom is called Torogi. Dance is a huge part of the Japanese culture, and in Tono City, you will find groups of deer dancers performing in honour of the deceased.
The Tochigi prefecture of Japan has yet another interesting custom. The people of this prefecture believe that the spirits take exactly 13 days to make their journey back.
To ease this journey, they leave out 13 carbonated buns for the spirits, for each day that they travel. This custom is called Kama No Futa.
If dance is something that you are very passionate about, you must visit the Tokushima prefecture.
Although every prefecture honors the dead with dance, the people of Tokushima take it one step further with music and dance performances on the streets throughout the period of Obon.
In fact, this is considered the biggest “dance festival” of Japan. Taking on the name of the place this festival originated from nearly 400 years ago, it is called Awa Odori.
Yet another performance that you must not miss out on is the one put up by the dancers in the Tottori prefecture. These are dainty dancers using umbrellas as props.
This dance is called Kasa Odori, where Kasa means Umbrella.
Though this dance originated in this prefecture, the Kasa Odori has spread nationwide and you can quite easily see many dancers in many other prefectures putting up performance using the popular paper umbrellas.
The biggest and most elaborate, however, is still the Shan Shan Kasa Odori, in Tottori prefecture.
Happy Japanese Halloween Obon Festival!
Hope this guide helped you to see Japan’s most famous festival of the dead-Obon. Japanese culture is so vivid and unique. You’ll definitely fall in love with our culture.