Yoko Kawakami
My Eyes Tokyo E/J Translator


Summer vacation time for Japanese people is approaching. In mid-August, you will see that many people try to go everywhere at the same time, so the Shinkansen platforms are full of people and highways are jammed for miles and miles. Some of them are enjoying traveling, and some of them are heading to their hometowns for obon. Well…



WHAT is obon?

Obon (おぼん、お盆)”, or just “bon (ぼん、盆)”, means the annual event held from August (July in some area) 13th to the 16th to welcome back the ancestors’ spirits to their homes. Along with the New Year’s Day, obon is one of the two big holiday events in Japan.  


WHEN is obon?

Obon used to be held in July according to the lunar calendar. After the solar calendar was adopted, most places have obon in August in the Solar calendar, because many companies give their workers holidays, and farmers are not yet busy for harvest around that time. But, there are some areas where people celebrate obon in July in either the solar or lunar calendars.  


The origin of obon

Obon is thought to have originated from both Buddhist and Japanese native events. The name “bon” is an abbreviation of a Buddhist term “urabon (うらぼん、盂蘭盆)”, or “Ullambana” in Sanskrit, which means “suffering like being hung upside down”. At “urabon-e (うらぼんえ、盂蘭盆会)”, people pray for ancestors who are suffering in hell. On the other hand, there was an ancient Japanese custom called “mitama matsuri (みたままつり、魂祭)” to worship the ancestors’ spirits who are usually somewhere near the descendants and watch them. These ancestors’ spirits visit them at certain times of a year. It is said that these two different events explained above were merged together during Edo period (1603 – 1868) and became “obon” as it is known today.

みたままつりMitama Matsuri at Yasukuni Shrine *Photo from web  


What do they do in obon?

The details of the event “obon” differ from region to region. In general, however, on the first day of the 13th, people visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, prepare an altar called “bondana (ぼんだな、盆棚)” at home, and put offerings such as sweets, fruits, vegetables, and the lantern-like plant called “hozuki (ほおずき)” on bondana.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABondana *Photo from web

They also create two little animals made from vegetables called “Syoryoma (しょうりょうま、精霊馬)” as their ancestors’ vehicles. One is a horse made of cucumber for the ancestors’ quick travel to their former home, and the other is a cow made of eggplant for their relaxing, slow return to afterworld.

1024px-Syoryou-uma,obon,katori-city,japanShoryoma made of cucumbers and eggplants *Photo from Wikipedia

Then, in the evening, they light a small bonfire called “mukae-bi (むかえび、迎え火)” at the entrance of their homes to guide the ancestors.

20110713203321d8cMukae-bi *Photo from web

During the bon holidays, many places hold dance festivals called “bon odori (ぼんおどり、盆踊り)” in order not only to entertain the ancestors and themselves, but also to chase away evil spirits and to pray for a good harvest.

800px-盆踊り_001Bon odori *Photo from Wikipedia

In the late evening of the last day, the 16th, people light a small farewell bonfire called “okuri-bi (おくりび、送り火)” to see the ancestors’ spirits off. In some areas, people float lanterns called “toro (灯籠)” down the rivers or to the sea.

lgf01a201308220000Toro *Photo by MIKI Yoshihito (´・ω・)  


Time to think of the deceased

As explained above, because of welcoming the ancestors’ returning spirits, obon is a special and important family reunion holidays for many Japanese people. Even though some people go on a vacation to the beaches, the mountains, or abroad, August is still a kind of time to think of the deceased.


Do you have similar family reunion holidays in your countries?


Yoko Kawakami
A cat lover who admires the power of humor. Also an organizer of an international karaoke club in Tokyo. Enjoy karaoke together at the Meetup group “Enjoy Karaoke Together“!!!  

*Proofread by Daniel Penso
*Produced by Chieko Tanaka (My Eyes Tokyo)