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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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

Obon: Japanese communities worldwide begin month-long festival season

People in street clothes dance underneath lanterns with Japanese inscriptions

The Tsukiji Honganji Bon Dance Festival. Photo by Guilhem Vellut, courtesy of Flickr

WEDNESDAY, JULY 13: Crisp cotton kimonos swirl through the streets, colorful trays of cool and tangy sushi await diners and the music of the Bon dance all announce the arrival of Obon—a centuries-old Japanese festival whose activities span an entire month around the globe. From Tokyo to Las Vegas, Buddhist temples in cities around the world host Obon festivals: vendors offer tantalizing Japanese cuisine, temples fill with visitors and an Asian cultural influence is in full force. Originally a Buddhist-Confucian custom, the Japanese have been visiting ancestors’ graves and honoring the spirits of deceased loved ones during Obon for more than 500 years.

Bondancersize? Yes, it’s a real thing! The Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin (headquarters of Hawai’i’s largest Japanese Buddhist denomination) offers weekly classes on Bon dance; Bondancersize, an enormously popular class geared toward seniors, has been reported as bringing in close to 100 students. (Watch a video of the class on YouTube, filmed less than two months ago.)

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. (Obon is shortened from Ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down” and implying much suffering.) 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.

Girl smiles while drumming on large Taiko drum

Taiko drumming is an integral part of many Obon festivals. Above, a girl participates in San Francisco’s Obon festival. Photo by Mark, courtesy of Flickr

Did you know? When the ancient Japanese lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian calendar, the date of Obon spread out: “Shichigatsu Bon” became the modern observance, marked in Tokyo and eastern Japan in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon,” based on the lunar calendar, is celebrated in mid-August. “Old Bon” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

BON DANCES,
TEA CEREMONIES
& FIREWORKS

Whether in Japan, Korea, Argentina or a community of Hawai’i, Obon festivals often span several days and include public Bon dances, tea ceremonies, fireworks and carnivals. Festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in many regions of the United States and Canada. In Hawaii, festivities span an even longer period than they do in Japan: Bon festivals are held June through September, from the Garden Island to the Big Island.

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.

RECIPES, PERSPECTIVES & A PAPER LANTERN DIY

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? Find simple-to-follow instructions for a DIY lantern, here.

 

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

Hinamatsuri: Japanese culture celebrates girls during centuries-old doll festival

Young Japanese girl in pink kimono

On Hinamatsuri, Japan celebrates girls. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

THURSDAY, MARCH 3: The first scents of cherry blossom are in the air as Japanese families gather to celebrate the centuries-old festival of Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival (or Girls’ Day). Based loosely on the ancient Japanese custom of floating dolls down a river in a tiny boat, in hopes that the dolls will take bad spirits away with them, Hinamatsuri is now an opportunity to display prized dolls. A set of seven platforms, set up days and weeks before Hinamatsuri, display dolls in a very specific manner. Dolls represent the Emperor, Empress, attendants and musicians of the Heian period, and are equipped with tools, golden screens, mandarin orange and cherry blossom trees, furniture and sake equipment. There is still some lore involved with the dolls, though: it’s said that leaving out the platforms after Hinamatsuri is over will bring bad luck.

IN THE NEWS: HELLO KITTY SWEETS AND KONA COFFEE GIRLS’ DAY

In Japan today, community members pray for the health and well being of young girls. Sugar- or soy-flavored crackers and sake are common fare, as is chirashizushi (rice topped with raw fish). This year, limited-edition Hello Kitty sweets—in flavors peach and matcha—will be available across Japan. Outside of Japan, Hinamatsuri is widely celebrated in Hawai’i, in Florence, Italy and in Japanese communities worldwide. In Hawai’i this year, the Kona Coffee Living History Farm celebrates Girls’ Day with special events.

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Categories: International Observances

Obon: Buddhist, Japanese festival reaches peak numbers

Asian girl in kimono and straw hat smiling, lit lanterns and others dancing in background

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

AUGUST 2015: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture that began last month reaches peak numbers in August, as the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of 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.

“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, specifics vary by region and culture.

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada.

Read the full ReadTheSpirit story on Obon here.

NEWS & UPDATES

Though some international Obon celebrations took place as early as July 1, events are spread over the course of two months—and, in Japan, experts estimate peak travel to be between August 8 and August 16.

Bringing 1.3 million to Shikoku Island: Japan’s largest Bon Odori dance festival takes place on Shikoku Island, where more than 1 million attendees gather in the heat of August for the four-day celebrations. (Read more here.) Each year, this festival takes place Aug. 12-15, offering a myriad of dancers, exhibitions, beating Taiko drums and refreshments ranging from sugared shaved ice to grilled octopus.

WWII veterans return war heirlooms to Japanese families: Seven decades after the end of WWII, seven veterans of WWII visited Japan to return silk flags carried by Japanese soldiers to the owners and their families. Carried as a type of talisman by Japanese servicemen in WWII, the flags were covered with personal messages and wishes from family and friends; American soldiers who took the flags from battlefields have been working with Japanese scholars through OBON 15, a nonprofit organization, to identify the owners of the flags.

San Jose Japantown’s 80th Obon: The Obon festival in San Jose celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, in what is one of the few Japantowns left in the United States. (San Jose Mercury News has the story.) The street festival has remained true to its roots despite growth and popularity, and taiko drumming, kimonos and traditional foods add to the air of reverence surrounding the sacred Bon Odori dance.

A sustainable Obon in California: This year, the Obon at Higashi Honganji offered guests no Styrofoam food containers or plastic bags, reusable water bottles and incentives to bring reusable bags and utensils, in part of a mission to produce zero waste. (Get details here.) Organizers say the efforts remind festival-goers of the mottainai concept: to reduce, reuse, recycle and respect the earth. In addition, wood from old Manto-e lanterns will be recycled and made into naruko, Japanese wooden clappers used during Bon dancing.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia

Ullambana and Obon: Buddhists, Japanese celebrate summer festival

Dancing Bon women in kimonos with lanterns

Photo by Jshyun, cortesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JULY 13: A sweeping festival of ancient dances, intricate costumes, and a celebration of Japanese culture commences; and, today, the spirit of Obon circles the globe. Worldwide, this festival spans an entire month: “Shichigatsu Bon,” celebrated in Eastern Japan, begins in mid-July; “Hachigatsu Bon” commences in August; “Kyu Bon,” or “Old Bon,” is observed annually on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Born of Buddhist tradition and the Japanese custom of honoring the spirits of ancestors—Obon is a time for homecomings, visiting family gravesites, dances, storytelling and decorating household altars. (Wikipedia has details.) Light cotton kimonos, carnival rides and games and festival foods are common at during this season. Obon has been a Japanese tradition for more than 500 years.

“Obon,” from Sanskrit’s “Ullambana,” suggests great suffering, as the full term translates into “hanging upside down.” Bon-Odori—and the Buddhist legend it stems from—recall a disciple of Buddha who used supernatural abilities to look upon his deceased mother. When the disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering, he asked Buddha how he could help her. The disciple made offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat and, soon after, saw his mother released from the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. With his new-found insight, the disciple suddenly saw the true nature of his mother—her selflessness, and the sacrifices she had made for him—and with extra joy, he danced what is now the Bon-Odori. (Get a Buddhist perspective here.) A primary purpose of Obon is to ease the suffering of deceased loved ones while expressing joy for the sacrifices loved ones have made.

THE BON ODORI DANCE AND TORO NAGASHI LANTERNS

The official dance of Obon, though it follows a universal pattern, differs in many details by region. Music and steps typically reflect a region’s history, culture and livelihood. In addition, some regions incorporate items such as fans, small towels or wooden clappers into the dance, while others do not. Nonetheless, everyone is welcome to join in the Bon-Odori dance. When the festival draws to a close, paper lanterns are illuminated and then floated down rivers, symbolizing the ancestors’ return to the world of the dead (Toro Nagashi). Fireworks often follow.

Red and yellow lit lanterns on string

Photo by Fabian Reus, courtesy of Flickr

Outside of Japan, the festivities of Obon resonate through Brazil—home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan—as well as in Argentina, Korea, the United States and Canada. In Brazil, street Odori dancing complements the Matsuri dance, and Taiko (drumming) and Shamisen contests are held. Buddhist Churches of America temples host events throughout the United States, and in Hawaii and California, events are abundant.

NEWS: BON DANCES & 2015 TRAVEL

Bon dances worldwide take on the values and culture of their regions, and in Oahu, Hawaii, 2015 will feature a Super Hero Bon Dance; a Buddhist Sangwa ceremony at Hawaii’s Plantation Village; children’s lantern parades; traditional drumming and dancing. (Learn more here.) Though travel is spread out through the month, experts estimate that the peak of Obon travel 2015 will be between August 8 and August 16.

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Hinamatsuri: Japanese families bring out the dolls in elaborate displays

Hina Matsuri display in Japan

Many Japanese homes display dolls for this special holiday. Some are able to set up a full seven-layer display like this one, photographed by Chris73 and provided for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

TUESDAY, MARCH 3: Intricately detailed dolls are displayed en masse across Japan and in Japanese communities worldwide, as Hinamatsuri commences.

Known alternatively as “Doll’s Day,” or “Girls’ Day,” Hinamatsuri draws from the custom of doll display that began during the Heian period. When people believed that dolls could contain bad spirits, it was also believed that by floating a doll down a river aboard a simple boat, bad spirits would be carried away, too. Today, few Japanese float dolls out to sea—due to environmental concerns and complaints from fishermen who find dolls tangled in their nets.  Alternatively, the dolls are placed onto boats until after ceremonies are complete, at which time the dolls are recollected and burned in a temple.

THE SEVEN PLATFORMS

Elaborate hina dan, or platforms, used to display Hinamatsuri dolls have seven levels. The top tier holds two imperial dolls—the Emperor and Empress—placed in front of a gold folding screen; the second tier holds three court ladies; the third holds five male musicians. On the fourth platform, two ministers stand on either side of bowl tables; on the fifth tier, samurai are displayed, and on the final two platforms, various furniture pieces, tools and more are placed. When Hinamatsuri is over, dolls are taken down almost immediately, for fears of superstition.

Care to read more? Wikipedia has a detailed overview of the traditions behind these platforms.

While praying for the happiness and health of young girls, families often consume hina-arare, bite-sized crackers, and hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake. Sushi rice topped with raw fish and a salt-based soup, ushiojiru, are also commonly eaten on Hinamatsuri. The customary drink is shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. Though Hinamatsuri is primarily celebrated in Japan, festivities are also held in Hawaii and in select other regions of the world.

IN THE NEWS: HELLO KITTY AND THE KYOTO NATIONAL MUSEUM

This year, a Japanese pastry and confectionery company, Mon Cher, is offering a line of Sanrio-inspired cakes for Hinamatsuri, featuring Hello Kitty and My Melody. (Read more here.) Similarly, many bakeries and food services offer specialty items for Doll’s Day.

At the Kyoto National Museum, an exhibition of historical Hinamatsuri dolls will be back for the first time in six years, as the museum’s new wing has reopened to the public after construction. (The Japan Times reported.) This year, the exhibition will feature dolls from different eras, including a new donation of dolls once commissioned for a baby girl in 1844.

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Categories: Faiths of East AsiaInternational Observances

Obon: Japanese communities dance, feast and welcome ancestors’ spirits

Japanese women dancing in traditional kimonos of white and pastel colors

Obon Matsuri in Concord, California, 2009. Photo by Todd Fong, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JULY 13: Halloween in July? Americans may find many similar elements in the Japanese festival of Obon. Summer brings the month-long festival of the dead across Japan and in Japanese communities worldwide, for the beloved season known as Obon.

Obon—also known as Bon—has been observed in Japan for more than 500 years, derived from a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. The Buddhist-Confucian holiday has now become popular for family reunions, visiting and cleaning ancestors’ graves, and inviting ancestors into the home. Most regions vary in their unique Bon-Odori dance, however: the traditional dance of Obon, born from the story of a Buddhist monk, often incorporates movements meant to imitate a region’s customs, traditions and people. (Get a participant’s perspective on Obon dancing in this article, from Huffington Post. Or, view a schedule of Bon dances and practices at Japanese-City.com.)

The festival of Obon lasts just three days—but the starting date for this festival varies widely around the world. Often, this is referred to as The Obon Season to accommodate all of the regional diversity. When Japan began using the Gregorian calendar instead of the lunar calendar, the localities of Japan interpreted the date of Obon differently. Today, eastern Japan—including Tokyo—celebrates Obon in mid-July; other regions of Japan observe Hachigatsu Bon, or Bon in August; still others mark Kyu Bon, or Old Bon, which falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so varies each year.

No matter the locality, light, cotton kimonos—usually in white or pastel palettes—can be spotted at almost every Obon festival. Carnivals, rides and games are popular, as is Japanese food—most commonly, sushi, rice, teriyaki chicken and sweets. (This article, from LA Weekly, reviews Obon festivals from a foodie POV.)

The festival ends with Toro Nagashi, the floating of lanterns. Paper lanterns are floated down rivers and other bodies of water, signaling the ancestors’ spirits to return to the world of the dead. Fireworks ensue. (Make your own lantern with instructions from this photographic tutorial.)

OBON, ULLAMBANA
AND THE BUDDHIST MONK                          

The origins of Obon are with Ullambana (Sanskrit for “hanging upside down”). When a disciple of Buddha used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering greatly. (Wikipedia has details.) The monk approached Buddha, asking how he could free his mother, and was instructed to make offerings to Buddhist monks. The disciple obeyed, saw his mother’s release, and danced for joy. This joyful dance was the first Bon Odori. (Learn more from the Shingon Buddhist International Institute.)

Obon 2014: The peak travel season for Obon 2014 is expected to take place between August 9 and August 17.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: International Observances