Obon is an annual cultural event in Japan where people honor and remember their ancestors. For some, this event is a time of rest and visiting family. But for many, Obon is best celebrated by attending a traditional Obon festival, also called Bon Matsuri or Bon Festival.
Brief History of Obon Festival
Festivals celebrating Obon are just as old as Obon itself. Obon originated in Buddhism, and the story goes that Maha Maudgalyayana, a disciple of Buddha, used his powers to connect with the spirit of his deceased mother. However, upon doing so, he realized that her spirit was suffering. On the 15th day of the 7th month, he made an offering to the Buddhist monks in an attempt to free her from her suffering, and when his attempts at saving her were successful, he graciously danced and celebrated.
This is said to be the reason for Obon festivals and the popular Obon dance practiced during Bon Matsuri. This is also the reason for the timing of Obon each year: the Buddhist disciple freed his mother’s spirit in the middle of the 7th month of the old lunar calendar, which now corresponds to mid-August. To align with this schedule, you can often find Obon festivals held between August 13 and 16 each year.
How to Celebrate Obon Festival
Because the history of Obon and its festivals date back hundreds of years, a variety of traditions and customs have developed over time. Across Japan, each region has its own style of Obon Festival, and sometimes even within one city you may come across different dances and festival practices.
However, there are a few themes and ways of celebrating that are commonly found at Obon festivals.
Bon Odori Dance
One of the main features of Obon festivals is the special dance performance, called Bon Odori. Despite the Buddhist legend of Maha Maudgalyayana dancing in celebration of helping his mother, the meaning of the dance is up for debate today. Some say that the dance honors those who have fallen in war, while others say that it is a symbolic way to interact with their ancestors.
The dance is performed around a yagura stage to the sounds of traditional Japanese instruments such as taiko drums, shamisen, and bells.
The Bon Odori dance involves simple movements, though many practice extensively in advance to ensure their timing is correct. The dance is typically done in a circle, with dozens of people all dancing in unison. The exact movements vary based on the region and festival, but the dance generally involves movements that are repeated and easy to remember. In areas with great rice production, the dance movements are said to correspond to the movements of harvesting rice. In other areas, the dance is related to coal mining, and for coastal areas, the movements are equated to the movements of fishermen using fishing nets. Because of this easy imagery, the dance is popular with all ages, including children.
One of the most popular versions of Bon Odori is Tokushima’s Awa Odori. This dance draws over a million tourists each year, who watch and participate in this unique Bon Odori. Streets are blocked off, and groups of both professional and amateur dancers dance the night away in honor of Obon.
If you visit an Obon festival, you’ll quickly notice the paper lanterns draped across the festival grounds, typically strewn from the central stage. However, paper lanterns are used in other ways during these festivals too.
One popular ritual is using paper lanterns to light the way for ancestors who are returning to the human world. Outside of the public festival, some families leave paper lanterns outside their homes to guide their ancestors’ spirits back for a visit. Then, later at Bon Matsuri, everyone collectively participates in lighting paper lanterns that are typically set free to float in a nearby river or waterway. This is to symbolically release the spirits back to heaven. These floating lanterns are called toro nagashi and are a stunning sight at festivals such as Hiroshima’s annual Obon ceremony, where thousands of lanterns are floated near the Memorial Hiroshima Peace Park in honor of those who didn’t survive the tragic atomic bombing.
With the lighting of paper lanterns, it’s no surprise that fire is a key component of Obon festivals. Fire shows up in other ways, some of which are a spectacle worth seeing on their own. One such example is Kyoto’s Daimonji Festival. This festival is known for its massive mountainside fire display. The display shows the kanji character “大” (meaning “big” or “great”) lit up in a fiery, yet controlled, blaze. This festival marks the end of Obon and symbolizes the departure of the spirits who visited during Obon.
Other festivals have similar farewell bonfires, called okuribi. You may even find large fireworks associated with Obon, which have become synonymous with not only Bon Matsuri but summertime in general.
Summer Festival Fun
Each year, towns across Japan celebrate summer with natsu matsuri, or summer festivals. Because Obon is also celebrated during the summer, you will find many similarities between the two, to the point that it can be difficult to distinguish Obon festivals from festivals unrelated to the holiday.
For example, wearing traditional Japanese yukata in bright, punchy colors is standard practice at almost every summer festival in Japan. You will find yukata at Obon festivals, too, though you may notice some special garments worn for the Bon Odori dance that you wouldn’t find at other summer festivals.
Obon festival food is also similar to other standard Japanese festival food. Look for the festival yatai (food stalls) selling delicious yakisoba, takoyaki, kakigori, beer, and more!
And like other natsu matsuri, you can often find festival games perfect for kids and fun-loving adults too. One popular game involves scooping objects (typically balls, toys, or even live fish) in water, which are then taken home as a hard-earned prize.
How to Celebrate During the Pandemic
With or without the pandemic, Obon is a special time for rest, family, and tradition. However, in order to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic, many Obon festivals have been cancelled or scaled down compared to past years. Be sure to check local events’ websites first to ensure your festival of choice hasn’t been cancelled or altered.
Celebrating Obon Festival at Home
A fool-proof way to participate in Obon celebrations this year is to get into the festival spirit from home. Plan your own Obon festival, while staying safe and socially distanced:
- Wear your summer yukata: Look the part and lounge around in your favorite colorful matsuri yukata.
- Practice Bon Odori: You don’t need to dance in the crowd to enjoy Obon’s famous dance! Learn one Tokyo version of the dance online here.
- Eat your favorite festival foods: Thankfully, there are easy DIY versions of festival favorites like takoyaki and shaved ice, so get in the kitchen or take your shaved ice machine out to your balcony, and enjoy these delicious treats from home!
- Make your own paper lantern: Paper lanterns are a staple of Bon Matsuri, and you can make your own paper lantern craft with these instructions.
- Try out other Obon traditions: Obon Festival is the most exciting way to take part in the Obon holiday, but some traditions occur at home or alone with family, away from the crowds. If you can’t attend an Obon festival this year, try taking part in some other common traditions found in our guide to Obon.