What is Obon? | Guide to Japanese Halloween 2021

If a question like what is Obon in your mind, then don’t worry! I am here to answer it and tell you all about it.

It is the time of the year when Japan is peaceful, trains do not move and the cemeteries start lighting up and decorated with flowers. It’s Obon- the festival to welcome the spirits of the dead ancestors and returning back to their family’s root.

What is Obon?

Obon or Bon is a Buddist-Confucian festival in Japan that is celebrated to honour the spirits of the dead ancestors. Obon starts with lanterns and bonfire in the house to welcome the spirits of the dead ancestors and are bid goodbye with the same to guide them to their world. Obon lasts for four to five days, dates vary from region to region in Japan. It has evolved into a family reunion holiday where people return to their ancestral homes. 

Pretty much like New Years’ holidays, Japanese take their summer holidays of celebrating Obon quite seriously. The celebration is around 15th August for four-five days and is counted as one of the most important family events in the entire nation, every year.

Obon is often compared to Halloween in the west but it’s quite different in the crux and practises.

Even though Obon is celebrated throughout the nation, it is not an official national holiday and you’ll not find it on your calendars.

It is usually summer holidays and most companies take off around that time. What is Obon all about is just families now.

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What is Obon? 

Mukaebi- August 13

What is Obon festival’s first day like?

Mukaebi (welcoming fires) is the first practice that marks the beginning of the Obon celebration. On this day people light up small bonfires in front of their houses to guide the spirits upon their return back home.

The Japanese decorate the deceased’s alters with fruits, flowers, memorial tablets and Japanese sweets.

This is all a part of the early preparation stage- it is a practice to offer passed away loved ones the things they enjoyed when they were alive. 

what is obon
Source: Unsplash

Most people in the countryside recently, also prepare horses made of cucumbers and cows made of eggplant decorating with wooden sticks to give them limbs.

The myth behind this is the cucumber horses will help the spirit find their ways to their home as soon as possible, and the eggplant cows will guide back to heaven when the festival is over. 

What is obon’s most important ritual?

Most Japanese begin this festival by offering prayers called Ohaka-mairi by visiting their ancestor’s grave. They clean the grave and pray for their peaceful existence. 

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Hoyo/Kuyo- August 14-15

What is Obon festival’s next day like?

On the second and third day of Obon, Japanese families who follow the tradition invite Buddhist monks to their homes or visit the temple or shrine where they recite a sutra and perform the memorial services. This is known as Hoyo or Kuyo in Japanese. 

obon festival food,
Source: tokyotokyo.jp

After reciting sutras, the family has a lunch get-together where only vegetarian food is served. The food usually includes stewed beans, spinach and soy sauce and sesame, pickled cucumbers etc. and is called shyojin ryori. They also recall the old stories of the deceased loved ones.

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Okuribi – August 16

What is Obon’s last day like?

The last day of Obon is concluded by lighting the bonfire up in the sky, to see off the ancestor’s spirit to the netherworld.  In many Japanese regions, people organise traditional Bon Oduri dances originally performed for their ancestors.

In recent years they have become a symbol of summer festivals, where Bon Oduri dances are common.

Gozan Okuribi (or Daimonji) is one of the most famous bonfire festivals as a part of this tradition. It is very famous and it attracts thousands of tourists every year. 

obon festival traditions
Source: Tokyotokyo.jp

Hiroshima and Asakusa in the Toro Nagashi festival are some of the most famous places where Obon festival happens.

People in Japan are rather known to be non-religious. Festivals for them have become an excuse for entertainment rather than traditions.

Obon is one of the very few festivals taken seriously where families get together to celebrate the spirit of those who are dear to them.

It is incredible to see them take out some time for their family and share it together while praying for their ancestral roots. 

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A Brief History of Obon

The exact origin of Obon is quite ambiguous. However, the story behind the ritual is believed to have started in India where they celebrate Obon as Pitri Paksha by acknowledging and offering their prayers to their deceased ancestors.

The rituals were then spread to China and the rest of South Asia, eventually to Japan.

Mythologically, it is believed that a disciple of Buddha used supernatural powers to contact his deceased mother. Upon doing this, he realised that his mother had descended to the “Realm of Hungry Ghosts”.

In Buddhism, it is a supernatural ‘hungry ghost’ is a soul that has uncontrollable hunger for something particular, often grotesque.

Obon Festival in Tokyo
Source: Tokyotokyo.jp

The disciple became extremely worried and asked Buddha about how to free her from this pain. Buddha asked him to prepare offerings for the Buddhist monks who were coming back from their summer retreat. The disciple followed his instructions and his mother’s spirit was free. 

The transliteration of the word “Obon” in Sanskrit means “Ulambana” which means “to hang upside down” and signifies unbearable pain and sufferings. In Japanese culture, it is celebrated to free the ancestor’s spirit of their pain and visit their graves to clean and offer different things. 

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#1– How do you celebrate Obon at home?

During Obon, people in Japan clean their homes, visit the alters of their deceased ancestors and offer prayers with fruits, flowers, tablet memorials and Japanese sweets. They light paper lanterns inside their homes. These lanterns are brought to their family’s grave as a way to welcome their loved ones.

#2– Is Obon a Shinto?

The origin of festivals lies in Shinto a native Japanese “way of life” that cherishes nature. Obon festival ranges from the dignified to the old lively people. Quiet visits to family graves, enjoying the Bon Odori dances, parades of floats, drifting paper boats in the river etc,  are all a part of it.

#3– What food is eaten during Obon? 

During Obon, Japanese people only eat vegetarian food. The different kinds of food they eat are Takoyaki, Futomaki or Maki Sushi, Chirashi Sushi, Yakisoba, Inari Sushi, Uji-kintoki are some of the food items. 

#4– How do Japanese put lanterns in the water celebrate the Day of the Dead?

Lanterns and bonfires are hit in the homes on the first day of Obon to guide the spirit of the deceased ancestors to their homes. On the last day, these lanterns are left to float in a river to guide them back to the netherworld.

#5– What countries celebrate Obon?

Obon is mostly celebrated in the East or South of the Asian continent with different names. In India, it is celebrated as Pitri Paksha and in China, it is celebrated as Qingming where they offer sacrificial money in the honour of the dead. Obon lasts for four to five days and often comes in the month of August or July depending upon regions.

#6– Are dates for Obon festival in Japan fixed?

Most Japanese people celebrate the Obon festival in the month of August. However, the country is split into two parts where there are a few regions that celebrate the festival in the month of July, Tokyo falls in the former category. 

This happens due to the switch from the lunar calendar to the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji Era. Some people decided to change the date of the Obon festival while the others followed the old dates. People working in big companies often take off and go to their natives to celebrate Obon with their families.

What is the Obon festival’s best part is not just the offerings but family reunion!

The best part is everyone in the family comes together. Even the working people take off to return to their natives to celebrate Obon. Loads of delicious traditional Japanese cuisine is made that is enjoyed. People dance to mesmerising tunes- Bon Odori. Overall, Obon is one of the bes t Japanese festivals.

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