Obon Culture: “Welcoming our ancestors” | Guidable Japan
Obon Culture: "Welcoming our ancestors"

Obon Culture: “Welcoming our ancestors”

By Guidable Writers Jul 23, 2016

What is O-bon?

O-bon is one of the most important events for Japanese people which falls on mid-July or mid-August. The duration is 4 days from July 13th to July 16th or from August 13th to August 16th. It is based on the ideas of Buddhism, which we welcome the spirits of our deceased family member and ancestors on the first day, and send them on the last day.  We usually take holidays in mid-August to return to each hometown to take place this religious event at home or visit cemeteries to offer flowers or some food. In fact, adherents of other religions also visit cemeteries in the O-bon season.


What do we do?

Butsu-Dann: Most Buddhists have a Butsu-Dann (a Buddhist altar) at home to offer prayers to their deceased family member/ancestors anytime. Especially for O-Bon, they prepare everything needed as below.    

Bon-Chou-Chinn: It is a Japanese lantern for O-bon that is said to illuminate the feet of the deceased to come straight to us without getting lost. It is placed at or nearby the Butsu-Dann.

Senn-Kou: Buddhists usually offer incense sticks with prayer to the deceased at Butsu-Dann, and for O-bon, the prayers are more special with the streak of the smoke from incense sticks; some families ask monks to come and recite a sutra.

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Butsu-Bana: Buddhists offer flowers at Butsu-Dann; they are usually a pair, right and left side. Chrysanthemums are represented as offered flowers. Chinese lantern plants (Ho-o-zuki) are sometimes offered as well. Now, you can guess the reason; you’ve read the explanation for Bon-Chou-Chinn, Japanese lantern. See the detail about Butsu-Bana (Tributes) by the following URL.




O-Sonae: Some food will also be offered at Butsu-Dann. They are round fruits such as oranges, peaches, grapes, or watermelons. Special confectioneries for O-bon (Bon-Gashi,) vegetables or boiled Japanese noodle (Sou-Menn) will be offered as well. You might see a cucumber and an eggplant with 4 sticks each at Butsu-Dann. A cucumber with 4 sticks is an imitation of a horse which the deceased rides on to come to us as fast as possible.  An eggplant with 4 sticks is an imitation a cow which the deceased rides on to go back as slowly as possible. It will be a kind of Japanese Omotenashi (hospitalities.)


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You might hear Bon-Odori when the O-bon season is coming. It is a dance festival held by each community. Bon-Odori was originally held as  part of the religious event mentioned above, and has gradually become more familiar and relaxing event. People dance in a circle on traditional songs for each district with a Japanese drum played. These kinds of music are cheerful tunes because it was made for expressing our joy to welcome the spirits of the deceased, and for making them happy to return to this world /home.

It is the best time for you to wear Yukata at Bon-Odori. See the detail about Yukata through the following URL.




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What you should do

We generally take mid-August (Aug.13-16) for the O-bon season. If you are planning to travel in Japan in summer, you should avoid the O-bon season (mid-August.) There are homecoming rushes everywhere in Japan like a “Golden week” which falls on  early May. Travel expenses and accommodation fee are the highest during O-bon as well as “Golden week” and New Year’s holidays. In addition, you better not hold any party or make any change in your life such as moving that has nothing to do with O-bon during the season because everyone wants to concentrate on the event for O-Bon, and public institutions such as city or town offices have no business during the days.

Instead of those activities, you can join Bon-Odori in Yukata, or visit cemeteries to offer flowers or incense sticks with prayer.