Obon: Festival of the Dead

The big event is August is Obon, or festival of the dead, a Buddhist-Confucian custom of honoring our dead ancestors. It is a time to visit and clean the grave as well as to place offerings of fruit and sweets or sake.

Offering placed on the grave stone

Obon comes from the Sanskrit word Ullambana, meaning “hanging upside down” (suffering). The tale goes that Mokuren, a Buddhist disciple, wanted to check on his deceased mother. He saw that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering greatly. He asked Buddha how he could rescue her and was told to make offerings to a group of monks. He did so and his mother was released from suffering.

Bon Odori Dancers

Mokuren was so glad to see this that he danced with joy. From this comes the Bon Dance (or Bon Odori ). Depending on the region, this festival varies, but usually there is a wooden scaffold erected for the taiko drummers. Everyone forms a circle around this stage and dances. Each region has its own traditional songs and dances. Many people wear summer yukata kimono.

These days, the Obon holiday is basically an opportunity for the extended family to get together, everyone working in Tokyo will go back to their hometown to pay respects to their ancestors. Originally held on July 15, these days the whole country observes this holdiay from the 14 to the 16th of August.

Paper Lantern

It is believed that the ancestors’ spirit will return briefly to the household altar. When I visited my husband’s mother in Saitama 20 years ago, the family took a paper lantern and walked to the grave and back to “pick up the spirits” and later saw the spirits off again.

Hiroshima-style Lanterns on the Graves

The lanterns you see here are particular to the Hiroshima area only and are called Asagao Toro (“Morning Glory lanterns). They came into existence in the late Edo period (1603-1868) and now brighten up cemeteries all over our state. I saw an older man burning some the other day. It seems they destroy them right after the observance, but what a shame! They are so pretty!

This year I got interested in the custom,observed  in some areas, of placing a eggplant cow and a cucumber horse on the grave to provide the spirits with transportation from one world to the other. They simply stick four pieces of chopstick or 4 toothpicks in as legs. I thought this is a colorful old custom and easy project for k ids to make, too. They don’t do this in the Hiroshima area.

Eggplant-Cow and Kyuri-Horse

Finally, at the end of the Festival, people often float paper lanterns on the river to send the spirits off again. Don’t they look elegant reflected in the water?

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. beckynielsen
    Aug 28, 2012 @ 14:13:04

    I so enjoy learning about other customs! right now I’m painting sugar sculls and skeletons for Day of the Dead, the Mexican observance that occurs next to Halloween. I’m going to be doing a little workshop at one of the shops where I have my work, bringing materials so people can make their own little pieces. stones and bones, or something like that.


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