Obon: Ancient Buddhist festival reaches peak numbers in Japan

People drumming in the street with crowds on either side and festival atmosphere

Taiko drummers taking part in an earlier Obon festival in San Jose. Photo by Wilson Lam.

JULY and AUGUST 2017: Obon—a sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes and a celebration of Japanese culture—unfolds around the world from mid-July through mid-August. that began last month reaches peak numbers in August, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. These traditions represent a mix of Buddhist, Confucian and Japanese cultures honoring the spirits of ancestors. Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

NOTE to American readers about the dates: If you are interested in visiting an Obon-themed festival in your part of the U.S., watch local news media for listings. The peak of the festival is mid-August in Japan—from about August 11-20 this year. However, many American communities host events in July. In Hawaii, for example, the “Obon season” was kicked off with a festival on the first weekend of July. Why such a wide range of dates for this “season”? Because families honoring Obon interpret the calendar in several ways—for example, some families still look back to the ancient Japanese lunar calendar, which varies from the current global calendar. Wikipedia has more about the range of dates.

The term “Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” The purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.

The sacred Bon Odori dance is at the center of Obon festivities, with teachers performing difficult steps on yagura, elevated stages, and attendees circling the stage as they imitate the dance. Though there is a basic pattern to the dance, details vary by region and culture.

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon are most likely to show up in Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada.

A BUDDHIST STORY

The traditional story behind Obon begins with a disciple of Buddha. When this disciple used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she was suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The disciple mourned his mother’s state, and pleaded to Buddha for a way to free her.

In response to his disciple’s request, Buddha suggested one thing: to make offerings to the Buddhist monks who had completed their summer retreat. The disciple did as he had been instructed, and saw his mother freed. In great happiness, the disciple danced with joy—and, thus, the first “Bon dance” was performed. Duly, upon viewing his mother, the disciple had come to a full realization of the many sacrifices his mother had made for him, and he was exceptionally grateful. Even today, the deeper roots of Obon lie in paying respects to ancestors—thus easing their suffering—and expressing joy for the sacrifices that loved ones have made.

On a more personal level, Obon means that families take time to freshly decorate household altars and reunite with family members at ancestral gravesites. Most every Bon festival ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating of paper lanterns. At the culmination, hundreds and thousands of paper lanterns, illuminated by interior candles, can be seen floating down rivers and streams. The belief is that ancestors’ spirits are symbolically returned to the world of the dead.

One style of Obon lantern in Los Angeles. Photo by Dietmar Rabich, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

WANT MORE?

Cooking up some traditional Japanese Obon cuisine in your kitchen? Check out the recipes at JapaneseFood.about.com.

How does the Japanese Obon differ from the American Obon? This writer gives an inside perspective.

Thinking of crafting a paper lantern? Over the years in covering Obon in our Holidays & Festivals column, we have recommended links to Do-It-Yourself Japanese lanterns. Obviously, readers in other parts of the world, especially in Japan, have kits and traditional materials handy in their homes and neighborhoods. American readers, however, can make a beautiful paper lantern with this dollar-store approach to the craft. What we like about this particular set of instructions is: There’s a helpful video, as well as step-by-step photos and the result is a multi-tiered lantern that impresses us.

Want a different approach to making a lantern? Here’s an alternative set of instructions, written for K-12 teachers.

 

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