August (8/13 – 8/16) is most commonly known as “Hachigatsu Bon” in Japan. Obon (お盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.
Bon-Odori, meaning Bon dance, is a style of dancing originally a Nenbutsu folk dance to welcome the spirits of the dead. The style of celebration varies in many aspects from region to region. The dance of a region can depict the area’s history and specialization. For example, the movements of the dance of the Tanko Bushi (the “coal mining song”) in Kyushu show the movements of miners. The Soran Bushi dance of Hokkaido mimics the work of fishermen, etc.
While some bon traditions may varyfrom region to region, there are some other things you can expect to see at Obon no matter where you are in Japan:
1. Welcome fire (Mukaebi) – On the first day of Obon, people set out lanterns, the light of which is meant to guide the spirits back to their homes.
2. Offering of food, drinks, sweets (ozen) – Offerings of food/drinks, and sweets; when shared with the dead is called “ozen”; an attempt to treat the spirits as if they are still alive.
3. Grave visits and cleaning (ohakamairi) – Obon is also a time when the family visits the graves of the ancestors to perform the ritual cleaning of the grave stones.
4. Seeing off the spirits (okuribi/toronagashi) – At the end of the Bon period, to guide the ancestors to return to where they came from, the family sees them off with another fire. Paper lanterns may be set out on the river or sea in a ceremony called toronagashi.
Obon is a beautiful tradition; it brings family together from all over the nation and all those before them.