What is Obon? Facts about Obon holiday in Japan | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

What is Obon? Facts about Obon holiday in Japan

By Guidable Writers Jul 28, 2017

As the August is coming, the Obon festival is getting closer. As I am already fed up with all the work that I am doing right now, I am now really looking forward to the Obon festival, because it is the day that all my family members will gather at my grandparents’ house. For Japanese people, Obon is a time for all the family to gather together, so it is like Christmas or family gathering. You might have heard about Obon before, but today, I would like to let you know more about what exactly people do, and the origin of Obon festival. To begin with, I am going to briefly introduce what is a Obon festival.


What is Obon?

As I said before, Obon is a day which all the family member meet together, and also to see your dead family and ancestors. Obon starts in the July and August. Obon is a summer event during which people welcome the spirits of their ancestors back home. Often held on and around July 15 of the old lunar calendar, Obon is now generally observed during the four days between August 13 and 16.

Obon is considered Japan’s most significant occasion next to New years, and most companies close down operations during this period. Although Obon is observed nationwide, the customs followed and the manner in which it is celebrated can vary considerably depending on the region.

Some people light a “welcoming fire” at their front doors to greet their ancestors and a “send-off fire” to see them out. Others float lanterns down rivers, and still others insert disposable chopsticks or matchsticks into eggplants or cucumbers to create cow- or horse-shaped figures for the spirits of their ancestors to ride home from the spirit world and back again.

In many regions, young and old, men and women gather at temples and shrines wearing yukata (casual kimono) to perform Obon dances, or Bon Odori.


What is the purpose of Obon festival?

You might hear the Obon festival to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Cufucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household. The festival lasts for three days. Depending on where you are living, the starting dates are different.



What is the origin of Obon?

Obon is a shorterned form of Ullabana. Obon is a shortened form of Ullambana. It is Sanskrit for ‘hanging upside down’, which implies great suffering. The Japanese people believe they should ameliorate the suffering of the ‘Urabanna’. It was originally celebrated around the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar but nowadays the starting date are different depending on where you are living because obon periods are different in various regions of Japan.


What is mukae-bon and okuri-bon


If you have read any Japanese comics or something, you should have seen the characters with yukata going to the countryside and lighting up the lanterns during summer holidays. The lanterns is called chochin lanterns and they are mainly seen during the Obon season. If you want to learn more about the Obon culture, you have to know the concept of mukae-bon and okuri-bon.


On the first day of Obon, people lit chochin lanterns inside houses, and people go to their family’s grave to call their ancestors’ spirit back home. This is called mukae-bon. Mukae means to welcome something or someone, so they are bringing back their ancestor’s spirit back to their home. In the last day of Obon, they will bring the spirit back to the grave. When they do that, they will hang the chochin painted with the family crest to guide the spirits. This is called okuri-bon, and sometimes it is called okuri-bi depending on the region they live. Sometimes people will lit the okuri bi at the entrance of their house.


What is Toro-nagashi?

Toro- nagashi, which means floating lanterns, is one of the traditional and famous events during the Obon period. People send off their ancestor’s spirit with the lanterns. The lanterns will float down the river and go to the ocean.

The story of Obon


The story was told by Sakyamuni Buddha teachings as given by him in the Urabon Sutra.


Mokuren Sonja, one of sakyamuni’s disciples was famous for his supernatural power among the priest. He used his supernatural power to mediate about her dead mother. When he mediates about her mother, he realized that her mother was tormented by a hungry ghoasts. In order to help his mother from the ghosts’ hand, Sonja asked Sakyamuni for advices on what he should do to free his mother from suffering. Sakyumuni advised him to give an offering to his fellow priests who had just finished their summer retreat. After doing this, he saw his mother freed from the torture and danced joyfully after the incidence.


There are wide varieties of traditions


The tradition of Obon festival may vary among different countries, but ieven within Japan, the Obon traditions are seen differently by the westerners and easterners. However, most Japanese follow the similar traditions including the Bon dance, cleaning the ancestor’s grave, laying flowers on grave and meeting family and revisiting hometowns.


So by now, I think you have understood better about the Obon festival. Obon is a day which all the family member meet together, and also to see your dead family and ancestors. Obon starts in the July and August. Obon is a summer event during which people welcome the spirits of their ancestors back home. If your school or work place are having Obon holiday, You will know that where your Japanese friends are all going to. If you want to know more about the Obon festival, check it out in our other pages about Obon, or a leave a comment in this article so that we can answer you just in case if you have any questions or anything that you want to know more about Obon!