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

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

Hungry Ghost Festival: Also known as Vu Lan, Ullambana, Chugen or Obon

Lit stages, several levels, at nighttime in Taiwan

Cities light up for the (Hungry) Ghost Festival; pictured, a building in Taiwan. Photo by Wm Jas, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, AUGUST 10: A fresh season, autumn harvest and hope for rebirth among ancestors—all of these themes culminate in the (Hungry) Ghost Festival. (Alternatively, the Ghost Festival is Vu Lan in Vietnam; Ullambana in Buddhism; Chugen, or Obon in Japan; and in Taiwan it is known, simply, as Ghost Month. Wikipedia has details.)

Scholars cannot identify a single, clear origin of the festival. Some point to Buddhist and Taoist texts; others point to stories in Chinese folklore—many of which are strikingly similar. In some regions, the traditions of these are mixed and the festivals celebrated together. Activities are most auspicious on the 15th day of the lunar month, but in many places, the Ghost Festival lasts an entire month.

Why the 15th day of the seventh lunar month? Following the three-month rains retreat, which had just recently ended, traditional stories say that monks greeted the Buddha. Most often, these stories indicate, this took place on, or around, the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. The monks had newfound understanding, learned from the deep meditation of the past few months. Buddha was extremely pleased with the number of monks that attained enlightenment during this time.

Among Buddhists, and in several other Asian cultures, the seventh lunar month is unique: The gates into the afterlife are opened, and ghosts are free to roam the earth. Buddhist monks and devotees pray for deceased parents of seven generations past. Honor is shown to parents as altars are prepared, extra food is set on the table and symbolic joss paper is shaped into auspicious objects and burned as offering. Participants hope to assist spirits in their journey to the next world. (Read more here.) Also on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month—translated into the Gregorian calendar, that is today, this year—services are held to pray for those who died suddenly or unexpectedly, in the understanding that their souls could not have adequately passed into the afterlife as a result.

ULLAMBANA: A BUDDHIST TALE

Buddhist tradition tells of an accomplished disciple of Buddha who began searching for the spirit of his deceased mother. Seeing that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he desired to help her. The Buddha instructed the monk to make elaborate offerings to the Buddha and Sangha on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, and that by the virtue of the Sangha, his mother’s soul would be spared. The monk followed the Buddha’s instructions, and saw his mother saved. (Read the Ullambana Sutra here.)

The festival comes to a close with a beautiful lantern ceremony, when people float their lanterns on nearby bodies of water, hoping to direct the ghosts back to the realm of the dead.

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Categories: BuddhistInternational 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

Obon: Buddhists, Japanese culture embrace ancestors and Bon dances

Three Asian women dancing with kimonos, fans and traditional dress

The Bon Odori dance is an integral part of Obon celebrations. Photo courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, JULY 15-SUNDAY, AUGUST 18: It’s Obon season! From China to Japan to Hawai’i and in Buddhist communities worldwide, temples are adorned with hundreds of paper lanterns; devotees honor the spirits of deceased ancestors; the Bon-Odori dance invites participants of every age; flavorful chicken teriyaki, steaming bowls of udon and juicy watermelon slices are the common fare.

The festival of Obon lasts just three days, but when the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian at the beginning of the Meiji area, localities reacted differently—and now, different regions mark Obon at widely varying times between mid-July and mid-August. (Wikipedia has details.)

Obon is a shortened version of the term Ullambana, which, in Buddhism, indicates great suffering. By praying for ancestors’ spirits, it’s believed that their suffering can be lessened; the Bon-Odori dance is a joyful recognition of the alleviation of suffering.

IT ALL BEGAN WITH: THE STORY OF BON ODORI

Japanese culture has embraced Obon for more than 500 years, but the story of Bon Odori begins much earlier, with a disciple of Buddha. According to legend, this disciple possessed supernatural powers that he used to look upon his deceased mother. The disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and was suffering there. Deeply bothered, the disciple approached Buddha and asked how he might free his mother’s soul from the realm. Buddha instructed the monk to make offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, and when the monk did this, he saw his mother’s release. In joy, he also began to see his mother’s past unselfishness and the numerous sacrifices she had made for him. Now overjoyed, the monk danced the first “Bon Odori” dance. (The Shingon Buddhist International Institute has more.) Centuries later, adherents continue to recognize the sacrifices and goodness of their ancestors during the festival of Obon.

OBON: COTTON KIMONOS, DANCING, LANTERNS, FIREWORKS

Spherical lanterns hung on a string and lit at night

Lanterns hung at the 2012 Obon festival in Japantown, San Jose, CA. Photo courtesy of Flickr

Legend has it that the monk of Bon Odori called upon Buddha in the seventh lunar month, and as such, Obon has always been a summer festival. (Interested in a short documentary of a Japanese observation of Obon? Check out this one on YouTube.)

Lightweight, cotton kimonos are commonly worn by dancers and festival attendees, with carnivals in some areas and a mix of summer and traditional foods. Bon dances are as different as the regions that perform them, with some using accessories like fans or towels and others imitating the area’s history. (This press story interviews a 77-year-old woman who has been dancing traditionally since age 4.) Modern Bon dance music can be written to the beat of well-known songs or kids’ tunes, and often, steps are intentionally simple so that everyone can participate.

Lanterns are hung on the front of houses throughout Obon to guide ancestors’ spirits home, and on the last day of Obon, the paper lanterns are illuminated with a candle and floated down a river or body of water to symbolize the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the deceased. (Make your own lanterns and teach kids about Obon with help from Circle Time Kids and In Culture Parent.) A grand fireworks display ends the ceremonies.

OBON SEASON: YOU SAY JULY; I SAY AUGUST

Though Obon is not a national holiday, many Japanese citizens take vacations during this time and return home for family reunions. (Get the scoop for 2013 in Japan at Japan-Guide.) Calendar interpretations vary widely, placing Obon in mid-July in Tokyo, in mid-August in China, and varying in other regions of Japan, such as Okinawa.

Outside of Japan, dates also vary in Brazil, which houses the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Hawai’i follows suit, where Japanese-American events are prominent. (In San Jose, Japantown provides food and entertainment in mid-July; the Kauai Museum in Hawai’i is currently running a “Buddhist Temples of Hawaii” exhibit; in Ontario, a press story covers the deep-rooted history of its Buddhist temple.) Street festivals stocked with Japanese culture, art and cuisine are also popular during Obon season.

 

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Categories: BuddhistFaiths of East Asia